Placeholder canvas
My Green Pod Logo

Megacity metabolism

Is your city consuming a balanced diet?
Building Picture from MyGreenPod Sustainable News

New York is an energy hog, London and Paris use relatively fewer resources and Tokyo conserves water like a pro.

These are just a few of the findings from a new study on ‘megacity metabolism’, the world’s first comprehensive survey of resources used and removed in each of the world’s 27 largest metropolitan areas.

Top 10 sustainable cities – new index ranks cities on social, environmental and economic performance

Making cities less greedy

Led by engineers at the University of Toronto, an international team of researchers examined data on how resources pass through the planet’s largest cities, such as burning natural gas for heating, using electricity for public transit or disposing of solid waste and wastewater.

Published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings could point the way toward strategies to make cities cleaner, greener and more sustainable – or at least less greedy.

The growth of megacities

Megacities – metropolitan areas with populations greater than 10 million – continue to grow in size and economic prominence.

In 1970 there were only eight megacities across the world. This number grew to 27 in 2010, and it’s expected to reach 37 by 2020. These urban areas currently generate 14.6% of the globe’s total GDP, but they also consume resources disproportionately.

The study found that today’s megacities are home to only 6.7% of the world’s population, yet they consume 9.3% of global electricity and produce 12.6% of global waste.

‘The New York metropolis has 12 million fewer people than Tokyo, yet it uses more energy in total: the equivalent of one oil supertanker every 1.5 days. When I saw that, I thought it was just incredible.’

Chris Kennedy, University of Toronto civil engineering professor and industrial ecologist

Wealth and geography

Chris Kennedy, University of Toronto civil engineering professor and a senior fellow at the Global Cities Institute, explained that some of the differences are down to geography: colder megacities like Moscow and New York use more fuel for heating.

Another factor is economic activity; ‘Wealthy people consume more stuff and ultimately discard more stuff’, Kennedy explained.

The average New Yorker uses 24 times as much energy as a citizen of Kolkata, and produces over 15 times as much solid waste.

Yet as can be seen by comparing New York and Tokyo – both relatively rich megacities in temperate regions – wealth and geography aren’t everything.

Smart urban policies

Tokyo’s efficient design and vast network of public transit reduces its environmental impact and demonstrates that, in some cases, smart urban policies can reduce resource use – even in the face of rising GDP and exploding populations.

Tokyo has also aggressively addressed leaky pipes, a strategy that has reduced water losses to 3%. This compares with over 50% leakage in cities like Rio de Janiero and Sao Paolo. ‘These are places that are really short of water, and yet they’re leaking it away’, said Kennedy.

Other successful policies

Moscow has built the largest district heating system in the world, providing combined heat and power to buildings housing 12 million people. This is more efficient that using separate systems for each building.

Seoul has developed a system for reclaiming used wastewater for secondary uses like flushing toilets, increasing the overall efficiency of water use.

London has been subject to rising electricity costs and taxes on the disposal of solid waste. It is the only megacity for which per capita electricity use is going down even as GDP goes up.

Understanding cities

While Kennedy and other researchers have studied resource use in big cities before, they have often been limited either by a small sample size or by a definition which did not include the entire metropolitan region.

This new study is the first to capture detailed information from these 27 megacities, and the research contributes to an increased understanding of the growing complexity of cities.

‘A megacity is not a politically defined region, it’s a commuter-shed. The people who live there have a common labour and housing market, and they travel throughout the region for daily work or leisure.’

Chris Kennedy, University of Toronto civil engineering professor and industrial ecologist

A strain on resources

Across the world, megacities are seeing massive increases in population, but the findings show that they are growing even faster in terms of energy use and GDP.

‘What we’re talking about are not short-term, one-election issues, but long-term policies on infrastructure that shape cities over years or decades.

‘The evidence is that megacities can make some progress in reducing overall resource use, and I think that’s encouraging.’

Chris Kennedy, University of Toronto civil engineering professor and industrial ecologist

In the developing world – especially China, home to more megacities than any other country – the combination of more people and more consumption per capita is putting an enormous strain on the planet’s resources.

Yet the study suggests that as megacities proliferate, smart policy decisions can make a difference.

The full study, Energy and Material Flows of Megacities, can be found here.

Here's more related content

Sorry we don't have any suggested related content at the moment. Please check back later.

Join The Conversation

Leave a Reply

Here's More Ethical News News & Features

  • All
  • Antarctic
  • EU
  • Earth Day
  • Europe
  • IT
  • MPAs
  • P.E.A. Awards
  • Paris Agreement
  • UK rivers
  • Valentines
  • activism
  • activists
  • animal welfare
  • animals
  • awards
  • biodiversity
  • birds
  • business
  • circular economy
  • cities
  • climate
  • climate action
  • climate crisis
  • climate emergency
  • community
  • conservation
  • e-waste
  • ecocide
  • electronics
  • environment
  • extinction
  • extreme weather
  • farming
  • fertiliser
  • fish
  • fishing
  • forests
  • fossil fuels
  • funding
  • homes
  • housing
  • human rights
  • law
  • leadership
  • legal
  • litter
  • nature
  • oceans
  • oil
  • peace
  • plastic
  • plastic pollution
  • policy
  • politics
  • pollution
  • recycle
  • recycling
  • restoration
  • rivers
  • science
  • species
  • sports
  • sustainability
  • tech
  • tree planting
  • trees
  • waste
  • water
  • wildlife