Will tomorrow's cities have clean air?

Boulder institute kicks off two years of emissions-related research around the globe

Mitali Das Gupta, a doctoral candidate in energy economics at India’s Jadavpur University, worries about the air that residents of New Dehli and Calcutta breathe. “People in those cities breathe really dirty air and also pay a heavy economic price for the cities’ emissions,” she explains. “So I’m looking at the health impact of emissions on the cities and the socioeconomic factors that contribute to these emissions.”

Das Gupta is one of 19 scientists now embarking on two years of emissions-related research following the Advanced Institute on Urbanization, Emissions, and the Global Carbon Cycle, held last August at NCAR. Das Gupta’s peers are a diverse mix of young engineers, urban planners, and social and natural scientists. Chosen from a large pool of international applicants, most of them come from developing nations where they are either pursuing doctoral degrees or are in the early and middle stages of their careers.

They shared an eagerness to spend three intense weeks at NCAR, and months of follow-up afterward, scrutinizing the sources of urban emissions and their possible impacts on the crowded, warmer world of the 21st century. “I’m here because I want to gain knowledge and keep up to date so I can transfer what I know to students,” says Dewi Kirono, a lecturer on climate and urban air pollution at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. “I also want to build a network to know what others are doing and strengthen my research capability.”

The institute’s sponsors were NCAR, the SysTem for Analysis, Research and Training (START), the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI). One of its primary goals was to build capacity for research into the links between cities, emissions, and global change in developing countries. To this end, it incorporated a grant program that will allow participants to apply new concepts and methods learned at the institute to research projects in their home countries.
Each participant received a new laptop computer and state-of-the-art software for inventory analysis and mitigation planning related to greenhouse gas emissions. Participants from developing countries also received grants averaging $12,000 each.

During the institute, the group heard from more than twenty experts
on everything from world population growth to urban transportation. Participants examined case studies from the Front Range and abroad, visited Rocky Mountain National Park, rode bikes around Boulder to look at ecology and design, and drafted proposals for further research.

Some of the topics the group addressed are

  • urban emissions of both long- and short-lived ­polluting gases

  • the effect of a city’s form and infrastructure on emissions

  • reasons why cities differ in the volume and contents of their emissions, even at the same standards of living

  • institutions that shape production and consumption in cities

  • methods for reducing emissions in cities with particular climates, economies, and political systems

  • ideas for more sustainable cities

Bob Harriss of NCAR’s Environ­mental and Societal Impacts Group (ESIG) ­codirected the institute with Richard Rockwell, executive director of the University of Connecticut’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and Institute of Social Science. Harris says the institute helped build understanding of links between local actions and global environmental change. “The participants will form an international network dedicated to finding sustainable improvements in urban environments.”

Along with Harriss and Rockwell, more than a dozen scientists, researchers, and administrators from UCAR institutions and public agencies helped instruct and organize the institute.
Ernesto Arias, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado–Denver, led one section of the institute. He pointed out that by the year 2015, nearly half of the world’s population will live in urban centers in developing nations. “It’s very important that we translate knowledge into policy,” he stressed to the participants.

Rosendo Pujol, director of the Research Program on Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Costa Rica, had high expectations for the participants. “The problems ahead are very complicated,” warned Pujol, an instructor at the institute. “You are the generation that needs to find solutions.”

Institute leaders reviewed draft proposals from each participant during the institute. The participants continue to consult with START mentors as they carry out their projects until the summer of 2005, at which point the group will reconvene to review everyone’s results.

“The concept is to give participants sufficient funds to test an idea of how urbanization relates to emissions and global change,” Harriss says. “They would use preliminary results to write a larger proposal to an appropriate funding source.” In the meantime, the participants are back in their home countries carrying out their START-funded work with new information and confidence.

“It is always instructive to work with colleagues from other disciplines and from other parts of the world,” says Patricia Romero Lankao, professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Xochimilco, Mexico. “Not only did the speakers offer us insightful information, but they also showed us the importance of solidarity, cooperation, and the ability to manage conflict for the transition
to sustainability.”

by Nicole Gordon

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