Yale team to explore needs of low-carbon cities of the future

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A team of Yale scholars will spend the next several years studying water, waste, energy, and industry in developing Asian cities as part of a $4.5 million multi-institutional project to aid sustainable urban growth in China, India, and the United States.

Marian Chertow, associate professor at Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), will lead a team analyzing water-energy systems and waste-energy systems, paying close attention to the ways they intersect. The team also will assess opportunities for companies to exchange resources, both as a way to conserve materials and energy, and engage the local business community.

“Just knowing measurements of energy or water or waste is insufficient,” said Chertow, an expert in industrial environmental management. “The data must be linked so that we understand systems’ relationships.”

A broader team will develop tools to help cities quantify the public health benefits of low-carbon initiatives and to identify citizens most vulnerable to infrastructure and climate hazards. Low-carbon initiatives might include those that increase mass transit, for example, or that focus on reducing indoor air pollution in Asia.

The full project is called “Developing Low-Carbon Cities in the USA, China & India through Interdisciplinary Integration Across Engineering, Environmental Sciences, Social Sciences & Public Health.” It is led by Anu Ramaswami, a professor at the University of Minnesota who spent the fall of 2012 at F&ES as a visiting fellow.

The project is supported financially by the National Science Foundation, primarily through its Partnerships for International Research and Education program. USAID and the National Academy of Sciences are also supporters.

The research teams are focusing on “Asian cities in transition” — small, rapidly industrializing cities with populations under one million — and also on some smaller U.S. cities. The Asian cities are expected to account for the majority of urban expansion worldwide. The goal, researchers said, is to “develop a transformative international research, education, and outreach program to assist in the development of low-carbon and sustainable cities in the U.S., China and India.”

Chertow’s portion of the grant will support a postdoctoral researcher for most of the grant period and about four graduate students per year, she said. The postdoctoral researcher will primarily work abroad. All will attend a special multi-week summer training school in one of the three subject nations.

“The grant enables us to link what we have done previously in industrial zones to increase resource productivity at the city level,” Chertow said. “It is exciting to bring different parts of my research together and to link our focus at Yale on industrial ecology with urban sustainability.”

Current water-energy systems and waste-energy systems typically involve significant carbon emissions and water consumption, noted Chertow. Fossil fuel plants, which provide most of urban society’s electricity, for example, require a lot of water for cooling and other uses. Low water levels put the energy supply at risk while also generating competition among the biggest water users — in most parts of the world, farmers.

Research teams from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Colorado–Denver, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the National Academy of Engineering all have major roles in the project.

Read a summary of the project.

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