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World Environmental Policy and the Performance of Mega Cities

Sep 11, 2008
After the detailed media coverage that surrounded the Beijing Olympics highlighted the dubious effect that a highly populated nation can have on the world's environment, some of the earth's major cities are expected to come under the microscope with regards to their CO2 emissions policies. As population hubs, they represent more extreme examples of the human effect on the earth's environment.

Indeed Beijing alone was registered with an estimated population of 12.8m in 2007, and some of the world's other mega cities register more highly still; Tokyo, with its agglomerations Yokohama, Kawasaki and Saitama included, marked a total population of 33.6m, and Seoul, Mexico City and New York all have respective agglomerate populations of 23.4m, 22.4m and 21.9m respectively.

Beijing, then, has more than half the population as a city in its own right as New York has with its agglomerations Newark and Paterson, which is why its environmental and CO2 emissions policy was so heavily reported during the Olympics as a perfect case in point for the effect of mega cities on climate change, CO2 emissions and global warming.

Why, though, are mega cities so important to the problem of climate change? First, they are useful and practical when we are analysing the debate; with large populations, the more extreme results that they produce can be seen as a microcosm of effects in the world at large, making investigation of them fruitful and pertinent. Second, their investigation is warranted based on the fact that - as mega cities with large populations - they are some of the highest contributors to world CO2 emission levels, meaning that climate change and CO2 emissions cannot be separated from the growth of mega cities; the two concepts are interdependent.

A third, perhaps less pivotal but still important factor, is the prevalence of mega cities as cultural leaders. Cities like New York, Tokyo or Beijing are in many ways the 'crowning glory' of human society; population in such cities grow because they have the benefit of government spending and private investment, so that they are often the cities with the most impressive technological or social advances, and are often indeed the places where new concepts and initiatives are piloted. That status makes them some of the places on which new environmental policy might wish to be tested. As they contribute to CO2 emissions, it seems, they are looking to limit them.

Mega cities, then, have a paradoxical relationship with the environment;as centres of excellence, populations have flocked to them, and as cities they have flourished. But as culture and economy has grown, and as populations have grown with them, mega cities have naturally become some of the world's biggest polluters; with CO2 emissions being performed almost solely by humans, and populations in mega cities growing as these mega cities improve, they cannot fail to contribute to growing concerns of over climate change.

So the mega city is very much the keeper of a double edged sword. They at once represent the brilliance of human endeavour, in architecture, arts and technology - including, for example, the most recent Olympic games - but they also show how destructive the genius of the collective human mind can be; as mega cities grow, for that relationship to be overturned, we will perhaps have to think of a new set of terms for the achievement of brilliance.
About the Author
Chris Woolfrey is the expert on the environment and city growth at http://www.ecoswitch.com, the social networking site.
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