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Spread Reckoning: U.S. Suburbs Face Twin Perils of Climate Change and Peak Oil

Maggie Koerth-Baker, Scientific American
SA Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), by Maggie Koerth-Baker.

Most people reading this would probably find Merriam, Kansas, very familiar. Not because they’ve been there, but because it’s a lot like home.

Merriam is usually described as a suburb of Kansas City, Kans.—a small town that grew into a residential center for people who worked in the much larger city nearby…

Kansas is full of places that aren’t like Merriam. There are also tiny towns such as Quinter—a Western Kansas community with a population of fewer than a thousand—and mid-size cities such as Salina, which is home to more than forty-five thousand people. If you want to know what’s at risk in the future of energy, however, Merriam is the place to focus. It’s the place that can teach the majority of us something important about the places where we live and about the risks we’re taking when it comes to energy.

There are lots of reasons to care about energy, and lots of reasons to want to change the way we make and use energy in this country. For me, though, it boils down to a concern about climate change and about energy diversity. Those are the big reasons I think we need to seriously alter the way we make and use energy. Why do I think that? In a nutshell: that’s what the majority of scientific studies tell me. When many different, unconnected scientists come to the same conclusions, after decades’ worth of research, I listen. You should, too…

Peak oil means all of that will likely change. We’ll have to start considering whether we can afford certain aspects of our lifestyles that we currently take for granted.

For instance, right now, living in Merriam means owning a car. The whole town is designed around the idea that cheap gasoline will always be available. The main shopping center is a strip mall off the Interstate. Sidewalks—and easily walkable grid street plans—come and go throughout the neighborhoods, following the whims of past developers. Merriam has two bike routes, but one is mostly aimed at recreation. It doesn’t follow any path that people travel daily for business, school, or shopping. The other bike route begins and ends suddenly, covering only a small portion of busy Shawnee Mission Parkway. There are bus lines that pass through town, but the service isn’t particularly robust. Most of the buses are strictly for commuters, offering a handful of morning trips to downtown Kansas City and evening trips back. The system isn’t really meant for general mobility. A trip from Merriam’s main shopping center to my favorite Chinese restaurant in nearby Overland Park is a nine-minute drive. By bus, it’s forty-four minutes, and you can’t go for lunch or a late dinner. The buses don’t run between nine a.m. and four p.m., and they shut down for the night after six p.m. You see the problem here…
(23 March 2012)

Sprawling cities pressure environment, planning

Nina Chestney, Reuters
Expanding cities threaten to eat up a swath of land the size of France, Germany and Spain combined in less than 20 years, putting the world under even more environmental pressure, experts said at a climate conference on Tuesday.

Cities are growing to accommodate a rising global population and as countries like China, India and Brazil pursue fast economic growth.

The world’s cities are currently on track to occupy an extra 1.5 million square kilometres by 2030 – equivalent to France, Germany and Spain combined – spelling growing greenhouse gas emissions and resource demand, experts said at the “Planet Under Pressure” conference in London…
(27 March 2012)

Climate Change Threatens the Poor in Cities

Manipadma Jena-IPS, Alternet
India, like other Asian countries, has focused its climate change adaptation strategies on rural and urban areas while neglecting the urban fringes, say experts.Peri-urban areas are characterised by haphazard, accelerated expansion and are farthest from basic urban services and infrastructure, according to United Nations-Habitat’s ‘The State of Asian Cities 2010-11′. By 2020, of the projected 4.2 billion urban population of the world, 2.2 billion will be living in Asia, many in peri-urban areas, the U.N. report says.

“These are places where nobody is in charge,” said Stephen Tyler of the United States-based Institute of Social and Environmental Transition (ISET), while in the Thai capital to attend the Mar. 12-13 Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum.

“Populations residing in peri-urban areas are most vulnerable to climate change because they have neither the modern infrastructure, clean water, and sanitation available in urban areas nor the ecosystems that rural folks fall back on,” Tyler told IPS…

Cities that are not socially sustainable can never be environmentally sustainable, said Marcus Moench, who heads ISET. “The vulnerability of any city is directly proportional to the quantum of marginalised populations and to the exposure.”…

In a report launched at the Bangkok forum, the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) said that by 2050 some 1.4 billion Indians will be living in areas experiencing negative climate change impacts…
(27 March 2012)

Rampant water “pillage” is sucking Yemen dry

Joseph Logan, Reuters
With a belch of acrid, greasy smoke and a jolt that shakes its moorings, the pump on Yemeni water farmer Jad al-Adhrani’s plot of land roars to life, and the race to squeeze the last drop of water out of Yemen’s parched earth resumes…

“When it runs out,” he says, “I’ll dig again.”

The water he sells for drinking and washing to residents of the affluent neighboring Sanaa district of Hadda comes from an aquifer that thousands of wells studding the city and surrounding hills have sucked nearly dry.

They raise the prospect that the city, with its medieval centre of slender brick towers rising above narrow, angular lanes, may conclude two millennia of urban history by becoming the first capital in the world to use up all its water…
(28 March 2012)

Air pollution ‘will become bigger global killer than dirty water’

Fiona Harvey, The Guardian
Urban air pollution is set to become the biggest environmental cause of premature death in the coming decades, overtaking even such mass killers as poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water, according to a new report.

Both developed and developing countries will be hit, and by 2050, there could be 3.6 million premature deaths a year from exposure to particulate matter, most of them in China and India. But rich countries will suffer worse effects from exposure to ground-level ozone, because of their ageing populations – older people are more susceptible.

The warning comes in a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is a study of the global environmental outlook until 2050. The report found four key areas that are of most concern – climate change, loss of biodiversity, water and the health impacts of pollution…
(15 March 2012)