From the perspectives of real human needs and capacities, and present forms of technology, it is perfectly possible for all the world’s peoples and societies to follow a low energy and low emissions economic path from now onwards.
The obstacles to that come from the forces of capitalist growth, and the powerful interests invested in a more destructive future.
|The Kibera shanty town in Nairobi, Kenya.
Source: Wikimedia / Creative Commons
The obvious rational route to decarbonisation and a more liveable environment is “contraction and convergence”, a concept pioneered by the Global Commons Institute.
It means that the world’s high consumers of materials and energy need to contract their material and energy footprints dramatically; in turn, that creates consumption space for the world’s poor to consume more per capita use-values than they do now – to converge upwards on the per capita living standards of the global north.
All of that needs to happen across all sectors of the economy. It also needs to happen within a shrinking material consumption budget globally – and in the context of steep rises in forecast population.
There is plainly a tension between the extent of “permissible” material consumption, and the enormous needs for social development internationally. At least half the world’s population lives in material poverty.
But it would also be a mistake to embrace “development” goals that take the expanded reproduction of capital as the necessary lever for achieving them. Convergence is not possible on that basis.
From this, some principles follow:
🔥 Worldwide, people’s direct and collective needs – decent housing, sanitation, food security, wellbeing – must be prioritised, by provisioning from nature along sustainable and environmentally reparative lines.
🔥 “Development” needs must be autonomised from the needs of capital, and from the expectation of export-led growth, and pocketable profits for the global 1%.
🔥 In terms of the built environment, contraction and convergence means prioritising socially necessary construction. Large volumes of new or improved infrastructure and housing are desperately needed.
🔥 Yet whatever construction is necessary needs to proceed on the most abstemious material and emissions basis possible. All unnecessary construction needs to be prevented from happening in the first place. And the material composition of all new construction needs to change dramatically.
🔥 In addition to that, all infrastructure and all buildings—new and old—need to be made much more operationally efficient in the delivery of services.
🔥Some of the most crucial construction is of renewable energy, energy transfer and storage infrastructure. While around 68% of all current greenhouse gas emissions are energy-related, access to reliable, sustainable electricity is one of the most useful instruments for improving lives globally.
🔥 But all new construction should also be resourced, as far as is possible and useful, out of the capacities of the rich states and from capital resources already accumulated – especially those states and fractions of capital who owe their inherited wealth to emissions-intense pathways of development, and to the historical horrors, and economic inequalities, of slavery and colonisation.
In this Part, I will consider, first, a path the built environment could follow in a world where energy consumption is kept low (section 6.1); then I focus on people’s homes (section 6.2), and how forecast population growth might translate into increased constructed floor area (section 6.3). Finally I set out my view of a meaningful “contract and converge” strategy (section 6.4) and what that could mean for urban planning (section 6.5).
6.1 A low energy demand scenario
Contraction and convergence implies very many changes to the status quo – from land-use and agriculture, to manufacturing production and habits of consumption. Here, though, I want to focus on energy, and the role of the built environment in energy consumption.
According to a 2018 study by Arnulf Grubler and colleagues, a low-energy consumption global development path is essential for limiting global warming to 1.5°C. They term this a Low Energy Demand (LED) scenario.
They do not even think the LED requires a wholly different form of society to emerge – a point I disagree with. What it does require, they argue, is for the present form of society to be forced to adopt very significant global reductions in overall energy consumption compared to the present.
Moreover, within that overall reduced scale of energy consumption, final energy consumption needs to be targeted according to an equitable delivery of use-values, globally.
In this way, the authors set out an energy-based scenario of “contraction and convergence”, unfolding, “despite rises in population, income and activity”.
Note that the LED pathway looks at energy consumption holistically. It includes all the embodied energy that goes into manufacturing and construction, on the way to a Low Energy Demand society – here termed “upstream energy use”.
I showed in part 5 that, just looking at buildings, embodied emissions comprise about 25% of all buildings-related emissions globally, and operational emissions about 75%. The LED model assumes that many construction and manufacturing projects will be necessary globally, in order to meet global needs and to implement energy transition.
To that end, the LED pathway depends primarily on energy efficiency measures. There are broadly three types. First, efficiency of the technological systems through which energy is consumed (in power stations and electricity networks, for example). Second, providing useful energy to end users more efficiently (by replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, for example). Third, reducing the amount of energy end-use needed in the first place (by insulating homes to reduce the amount of supplemental heat that’s required to stay comfortable, for example).
With energy consumption suitably constrained globally, the model shows that the vast majority of the energy consumed can be decarbonised.
The authors of the 2018 study orient their LED development pathway on quality-of-life indices, outlining some core use-values and services they deem necessary for human wellbeing in general. (I will mention some of those in what follows, in relation to the built environment, such as adequately-serviced living space, and thermal comfort.) For each of those indices, they describe in broad brushstrokes the state of energy services now, and how they are skewed between the global north and south.
Crucially, they model how those imbalances can and should be de-skewed, from a social and technological standpoint.
In my view it is doubtful that energy consumption in the global north can be reduced voluntarily on the necessary scale, without in the process radically changing the dominant form of the society we live in.
In any case, the paper argues that a low-energy path of development could constrain global final energy consumption to 245 Exajoules (EJ) by 2050. This is around 40% lower than global final energy consumption today.
In constraining world energy consumption to 245 EJ, with the energy coming from a decarbonised energy system, the world would meet the 1.5 °C Paris climate target, and also satisfy many of the UN’s sustainable development goals – “significantly expanding human welfare and reducing global development inequalities”.
This is all using currently available and well-established technologies, and without depending on highly spurious negative emissions technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
Grubler et al certainly are not alone in proposing a more use-values-based approach. However, they clearly sketch what is physically possible, in distinction from what is cynically “realistic”.
Their modelling assessments aggregate data into worldwide “global north” and “global south” averages. Within those very large north-south divisions, a properly eco-socialist politics wants to ensure a massive redistribution of use-values according to need – away from the rich, and towards the global working class, peasantry and indigenous peoples.
That needs to happen for the world economy as a whole, and for the built environment.
Plainly, however, world economic redistribution can rarely include the physical redistribution of buildings and infrastructure.
The issue, instead, is to steer existing use, and future material and energy flows, in the direction of an equitable distribution of use-values and wellbeing.
I noted already in part 5 that most built “stocks” of materials worldwide exist in the countries most “developed” on the model of the fossil economy. By weight, those stocks are mostly buildings and infrastructure, but also include the uneven distribution of consumer durables and capital investments.
By contrast, poorer regions are most in need of new infrastructure and housing, while also being the main “sinks” for waste and pollution.
It is poor countries that need now to build large volumes of new infrastructure and housing. They therefore have the largest opportunities for “mitigation potential”, i.e. reducing the materials that go into buildings and infrastructure, and the associated emissions (embodied emissions).
Poor countries also have the highest potential for curtailing long-term operational emissions: for example, in home heating and cooling, electricity, and transport. On the other hand, the highest immediate mitigation potential for operational emissions is with the rich countries, with their vast accumulated stocks of buildings and infrastructure delivering use-values daily. Those need to be retrofitted accordingly.
Note, however, that existing stocks of buildings and infrastructure are sometimes very poorly specified, and themselves need to be substantially repaired or replaced for the sake of safety. In the UK, the example of Grenfell Tower’s deadly cladding jumps to mind. So too does the ongoing crisis from historical uses of aerated concrete in many schools, hospitals, and other public buildings.
Poor country infrastructures and buildings obviously need to be adequately specified – and, from the get-go, built to last.
We need to think of decent housing as a universal human right. Decent housing means sufficient interior living space for everyone, with homes adequately and safely serviced in terms of essential amenities – such as safe energy for cooking, and clean electricity for appliances.
Homes the world over should effectively protect people from the elements outside: from the cold and the heat – and do so with a minimal outlay of supplemental energy (see part 9).
All of those essential facets of housing, except for the last bit about energy, are recognised in international law as essential human rights: part of a Right to Adequate Housing, enshrined in Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Article 11.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).
Arguably, this right is relevant to all states vis-à-vis all people around the world – not simply relevant to a state with regard to the people living within its own borders.
The associated guidance for those agreements also contains a provision on habitability, which includes that everyone have adequate living space, though how much that means is not specified.
The 2018 Grubler et al study reports that, worldwide, average residential floorspace per capita is 23m2 – though plainly many live with much less, and many live with much more. In the global south, the mean average is 22m2 of residential floorspace per person. In the global north, it has plateaued to 30m2, but single-family suburban homes can approach 70m2 per person in some areas – it is a question of geographical averages.
The world’s population is projected to rise from ~7.7 billion in 2020 to ~9.2 billion in 2050. Grubler and his co-authors follow the prevailing wisdom on rates of urbanisation in the global south, to suggest that per capita floor areas in the global south are also likely to plateau, at ~29m2 by 2050.
They think that densification of housing in the global north will likely mean that the present extent of floorspace in the suburbs will trend downwards to a similar amount.
In other words, they think that prevailing economic tendencies are already in place, such that more people globally will have a greater share of residential floor area. However, they think this tendency should be further encouraged, in order to engineer contraction and convergence, towards a 30m2 per person global average.
They do not go so far as to benchmark a necessary minimum floor area per person. By contrast, a 2017 paper by Narasimha Rao and Jihoon Min considered that the “material prerequisites” for a decent standard of living include a minimum of 30m2 of total interior floor area per household of up to three people, with an additional 10m2 for each additional person. So, a three-person home cannot be smaller than 30m2, and a five-person home would need to be at least 50m2.
Note that this recommendation is universal. The idea is that the minimum necessary residential floor area for a person is not something that varies from culture to culture.
There is an economic issue: access to decent housing should not be tied to people’s ability to pay. By extension, the growth of global housing floor areas should also not be tied to people’s ability to pay to occupy it.
As for the Right to Adequate Housing, in my view, safe and decent living space is a human right, and the economy needs to be shaped to provide that. It is the obligation of the world, and in particular the rich, to make space for everyone to live well.
6.3. Floor area forecasts
One practical way to comprehend the post-2000 China-led construction boom is through measurements of the total buildings floor area worldwide. According to the IEA, between 2000 and 2020 the total buildings floor area leapt by a startling 90 billion m2, from around 156 billion m2 in 2000 to around 246 billion m2 in 2020 – an increase of nearly 60%, or about 2.3% per year.
But these figures underestimate total buildings construction. They appear to exclude industrial premises. And they do not include the replacement floor areas for those buildings that have been demolished.
More dramatically still, in its Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction (Global ABC report, 2021) with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the IEA projected that the total global floor area (excluding industrial premises) could be more than 476 billion m2 in 2060 – almost twice the 2020 level, and three times more than in 2000.
When building demolition and replacement is factored in, this apparently means that an average of 6.5 billion m2 of floor area will be constructed every year over the next 40 years – “the equivalent of adding the total floor area of all the buildings in Japan to the planet every year to 2060”, according to the IEA, or the total floor area of Paris every week.
In these forecasts, Chinese expansion slows down around 2040 – and in that respect the forecast is already out of date (see part 4). New buildings construction is seen skewing away from rich states, and heavily towards large cities in Africa. Beyond 2040, the new floor area is seen mostly in Africa, albeit with continued centres of construction in China, India, Indonesia and Brazil.
The UN International Resource Panel (IRP) estimated in 2018 that urban growth alone would cause cities’ share in total domestic material consumption to rise from around 40 billion tonnes per year in 2010, to 90 billion tonnes per year in 2050. For the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III, the task is then about “[m]inimising and avoiding raw material demands […] while accommodating the [inevitable shifts in] urban population.”
The Covid-19 pandemic did not initially blunt those projections much: floor area continued to grow robustly through 2020, even as economies stalled and emissions from the use of buildings plummeted. However, Chinese construction growth has slowed since the pandemic.
Much existing floor area has also remained unused. China is notorious for this, with the collapse in real estate speculation leaving an extraordinary home vacancy rate of ~12% in 2022.
The IEA has forecast that, for the world as a whole, almost two-thirds of the building stock to 2060 would be standing by 2035 – while the IPCC in 2022 gave the world an eight-year window to reduce emissions to 55% of 2010 levels, in order to limit global warming to a liveable 1.5°C.
If most of forecast construction demand to 2060 materialises before 2035, it first needs to be put in the right place – not in ghost towns. But secondly, it will also need to be realised within a rapidly shrinking carbon budget if severe climate change is to be avoided.
The IEA’s 2017 floor area projections are shown in the charts below.
|Source: IEA (2017)
|Source: UNEP/IEA (2017), based on IEA (2017)
However, there is a big discrepancy between the way the two graphics forecast floor area additions in Africa – by 2060, the forecast is of 45 billion m2 of additions in the first graph, and of 88 billion m2 in the second graph – and I do not know why.
No doubt, the floor area additions in Africa will be considerable, and need to be. The main influencing factor will be population growth, expected to be faster there than elsewhere. (See also section 6.5 below.)
The IEA’s 2017 report also forecasts the total floor area in OECD countries (that is, broadly speaking, the richest countries) to roughly double between 2017 and 2060, although the growth in developing economies is expected to be even faster. (See the first graph.)
The IEA frames this as “roughly 65% of the total expected buildings stock in 2060 is already standing today” – hence a large existing stock of buildings will need to be renovated to improve their operational energy performance.
Anyway, it is disturbing to consider that, even in the world’s richest countries, normative expectations are for the building stock to roughly double in size.
Before leaving the subject of floor area, I offer a comment on the assumptions underpinning the forecasts made by the IEA and other agencies.
First, it is wrong to assume, as they often do, that greater urban population will automatically lead to economic growth, let alone a growth in household income. The way that urban populations are expanding in the global south is not following this pattern.
Second, it cannot be assumed that the way to fix this is to apply high levels of capitalist investment. (These issues are discussed in more detail in Appendix 4: What drives floor area increases?, in the PDF version.)
6.4. Steps towards “contraction and convergence”
As far as rich countries are concerned, the only building with a carbon footprint that should be happening at all is that which is (a) actively redistributing material wealth to those in need; and (b) essential infrastructure – that is, necessary for provisioning and maintaining essential use-values.
No infrastructure should be built that is simply pump-priming an economy for excessive material consumption and emissions. No housing should be built that is meant only to offer its private developers high margins of profit.
All construction should also be done in ways that reduce absolute material use, and bring climate-forcing emissions rapidly towards absolute zero (not “net zero”). Anything less is a repudiation of rich countries’ historical and ethical obligations to climb down off the fossil economy.
In the UK, for example, more or less any new road or runway construction would be in breach of what is needed. So is the excess of luxury housebuilding in large cities, much of which lies idle. Of course, in provisioning terms, such housing is also enormously detrimental, in that it pushes up all house prices (including rents), and effects a transfer of wealth up the wealth ladder.
In London, councils regularly, wastefully demolish council housing to build entirely new housing in its place – and do so to turf out existing residents and established communities, in order to build homes for sale at incredibly high market prices. Examples are legion, but these are as often as not Labour-led councils – such as Southwark and Lambeth.
The logic here seems to be twofold. The first is fiscal: acute housing need and inadequate state-led spending on social housing encourage, and often force, local authorities and housing associations to fund social rent homes via the construction of high-priced private developments, on a “cross-subsidy” basis.
But this dynamic dovetails with another classic: political corruption. London’s local authorities and housing associations – like local governments all over the world – are now theatres for the ransacking of public housing and land for private gain.
Instead of this, maintenance and refurbishment of existing structures, for the good of their residents, is needed. They should be retrofitted to meet improved operational standards such as thermal efficiency (see part 9) – not junked, with their historical embodied emissions wasted. Most important, existing communities should themselves be maintained, instead of being demolished, and they should be afforded secure and generous dwellings to live in.
Let us return to the question: how much more floor space might be needed in Africa, in the coming decades? This can help us to visualise what “convergence” means.
Estimates published by the UN and IEA suggest that: Africa’s population is now about 1.4 billion. More than 600 million of these people live in urban areas – and about half of these, i.e. 300 million, are in slums and informal settlements. The same agencies project that, by 2060, Africa’s population is likely to more than double to 2.86 billion. (See the graphic.)
|Source: UN DESA Population Division
From those forecasts, then, it seems that dwellings for at least 1.47 billion more people will be needed in Africa between now and 2060.
The 2018 study I cited previously, by Arnulf Grubler and his colleagues, suggested a global average residential floor area of 30m2 per person. I contrasted that with a 2017 paper by Narasimha Rao and Jihoon Min that proposed a minimal acceptable standard of 50m2 for a five-person home.
The Grubler et al study, applied to those 1.47 billion people, implies 44.1 billion m2 of new residential floor area in Africa. The more basic Rao and Min proposal would suggest just an extra 14.7 billion m2 of housing.
However, we need to consider three more factors on top of that: the current under-provision of residential floorspace; the prevalence of poor quality slum housing; and the ongoing movement of people into cities.
I estimate that, once these factors are taken into account, the total extra residential floor space needed – based on Grubler et al’s 30m2 per person – could be closer to ~53 billion m2 by 2050 and ~65 billion m2 by 2060, rather than ~44 billion m2.
Clearly, across Africa alone, an approximate doubling of the population over the next 40 years will necessitate a huge increase in the number of homes that need to be built and serviced, while the supply of materials and energy needs to shrink rapidly. In my view, it is very unlikely indeed that those needs can be met by capitalist business-as-usual.
The IPCC notes that “about half of the increase in urban population through 2050 is forecasted to concentrate in eight countries” – in ranking order: India, China, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Indonesia, USA, Bangladesh. Of these eight, says the IPCC, all but the USA will need significant levels of funding assistance to build adequate homes, roads, and other urban infrastructure to cope with the levels of urbanisation.
The UN-Habitat agency states plainly:
The rate at which adequate/affordable housing is supplied and provided on the global market is way lower than the rate of urban population growth.
The message is clear: capitalist development on its own cannot hope to address the real needs of people for decent homes – let alone their needs for public buildings, and infrastructure. Those essential needs must be met instead directly, without boosterish claims about capital investment, and without the lever of capital accumulation.
All new construction should also be resourced, as far as is possible and useful, out of the capacities of the rich states and from capital resources already accumulated.
As far as I can tell, one possible way to accomplish that – and much else – would be a policy akin to a Green Lend-Lease.
Governments – those in the rich world, and those with suitable productive capacities, such as China – should make outlays of their own currencies. Overt monetary financing (see here and here) could fund transfers to the global south – providing whichever moneys are required to procure goods not available for purchase in poor countries’ own currencies. This would have the added benefit for rich countries of feeding economic demand into the “value-added” sectors of their own domestic economies.
The aim would be technological transfer, and to ventilate growth in the real capacities of poor economies – in order to meet real needs, alongside green energy transition. A flow of productive capacity from existing centres of capital to the economic “periphery”.
|Above: an Indian Ocean beachfront mansion in Kenya: cost, about $3.25 million.
Top: aerial view of the Kibera shanty town in Nairobi.
Sources: the Mansion Global web site, and Wikimedia/ Creative Commons
As things stand, “development assistance” and “climate finance” from rich to poor states are a disgrace. They are meant to pay just for climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, and not for existing and future needs beyond that.
Even mainstream economists estimate the necessary scale of funding for the transition at $5-6000 billion per year. Meanwhile, rich countries have fallen short of their comparatively tiny 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion per year of climate finance by 2020 – in 2020, just $83.3 billion was “mobilised”.
Moreover, current investment planning internationally still points towards ~US$ 1,000 billion of annual investments in fossil fuel-based technologies, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Those will need to be “redirected towards energy transition technologies and infrastructure”.
This is in the context of a world economy where total GDP (money value of all goods and services transacted) in 2022 was US$ 101,000 billion; where the authorised budget for the US Department of Defence was about $750 billion; where the world’s largest company by revenue, Walmart, earned $611 billion; and where the profits alone of the six largest energy companies in 2022 totalled $279 billion, of which more than half went to one company, Saudi Aramco.
Worse still than the inadequate scale of “climate finance” is that, according to the OECD, in the period 2016-2020, 72% ($269 billion) of it was given in the form of loans. Direct grants comprised just 25% ($93 billion), with the remaining 3% comprising equity.
In the face of climate change there should be no talk of loans – only of reconstruction and social need; of cancelling debts, transferring resources and technology, and redirecting productive output.
The same also applies for meeting all forms of social need, such as essential housing and infrastructure, which are crucial for the wellbeing and “resiliency” of low-income populations – those most exposed to climate change and other forms of environmental degradation.
Indeed, considering the extent of world inequality and deprivation, and global warming, it is really scandalous that any construction takes place at all in the rich countries, beyond the strictly necessary. I say this from a social and an emissions perspective.
The productive capacities and resources of the rich states need to be redeployed entirely towards socially useful ends, at home and abroad.
6.5. Reducing the carbon load of urbanism
There are also many ways in which the built environment at the scale of whole settlements can be spatially planned to permit less carbon intensive, more environmentally friendly, and healthier ways of life.
For example, urban life holds out the promise of material and carbon efficiencies – through integrated spatial planning, transit-oriented development, and environments that support and encourage walking and cycling wherever possible. In these ways, the built environment can potentially help reduce other lifestyle emissions, such as those associated with private car ownership and use.
There are also ways that the needs of climate, and the environment more broadly, dovetail with improving people’s quality of life, particularly in cities. Clean air should be a priority, and can be aided by the widespread presence of trees and other plants; urban space should integrate habitats for biodiverse wildlife; and mental health improved by access to green space, clean air, flowering plants and other forms of wildlife.
Communities’ resilience to climate change should additionally be helped, through the widespread use of shade and water to protect against high temperatures, and effective natural drainage to protect against flash flooding.
However, once urban environments have already been built, root-and-branch changes can be difficult to implement. The form of the built environment can become locked in, as discussed previously with respect to car-centred suburban sprawl. Once dense forms of habitation, economies, utilities, lifestyles and cultural values become layered on top of the built environment, it can become a self-reinforcing mess.
On the other hand, while urban environments can never lock in low-emissions lifestyles, they can make them possible. It is important that the construction of new urban spaces is meaningfully designed to help with that.
And it is important that whatever can be done is done to renovate existing patterns of settlement, so that the carbon benefits of construction significantly outweigh the carbon costs of implementing them, over a reasonable lifecycle of use, upkeep and maintenance. Depending on the degree of lock in, that can be technically challenging, often expensive, and predictably piecemeal – which itself can be a high political barrier to success.
There’s a big “but”.
While urban life can be designed in such ways as to make low carbon lifestyles possible, in practice the over-riding predictor of per-capita material and carbon footprints still remains per-capita income (see part 2) – not urban form, and not urban, rural or even suburban location. Here again, though, the picture is often mixed.
In Beijing, for example, urban geographical and population expansion has been associated with higher incomes. Economic growth in China after the 1990s pulled people into the city, and expulsions often also pushed them there (see part 4).
The resulting higher incomes induced higher indirect per-capita consumption, compared to locations in rural Beijing. However, rural locations have tended to be, and remain, more polluting overall on a per-capita basis, despite being poorer – due to high operational emissions from burning coal for home heating and for cooking.
On the other hand, a recent study of per-capita material footprints in Sydney, Australia, found that total (direct + indirect) carbon footprints in urban neighbourhoods are higher on average than those in the suburbs. This is largely because of a tendency for generally wealthier urban dwellers to own a car (with substantial embodied emissions) in addition to living in areas well-served by good public transit.
Other consumption indices, such as food, between city and suburb are roughly on a par, when comparing households with the same income. So measures specifically designed to impede car ownership, as well as making it unnecessary, would seem to be called for in cities.
In any case, urban life in itself is not automatically a route to lowered material and carbon intensity. Incomes and consumption patterns combine with urban form; and household income – in the absence of low-carbon consumption options or preferences – is the main determinant of individual and household emissions.
Moreover, even though a large slice of the world’s GDP is associated with cities, that does not mean either that cities in and of themselves drive GDP growth, or that urban population growth or rural-urban migration are synonymous with job creation, and with increased material consumption. Both urban and rural populations can and do often grow without a sufficient supply of paid work, formal or informal. It is the dominant story of many local economies in India and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In those countries, urban life is often associated not with generating higher wealth, income and emissions, but with increased burdens of collective impoverishment.
Both of these trends, the enrichment and the impoverishment, are the products of chronic maldistributions in the world’s material and economic resources, towards centres of economic wealth.
Of course, enrichment and impoverishment often overlap and coincide spatially. It is even commonplace that the capitalist city contains within itself both wealth and poverty, as equally constituent parts. Individual neighbourhoods see “growth” alongside deprivation and dispossession, with the former accentuating the latter through rising prices, and the poor economically displaced as the rich arrive. If the market rules, high urban land values also tend to make poorer dwellings more dense and crowded, and leave them lacking in amenities like public green space.
And wherever the rise of urban populations is associated with improved private incomes, new urban construction is more likely to follow, financed on the same basis.
In China, with its “classical” mode of urban-based accumulation, this new urban construction has been the means and one of the drivers of economic development – and also one of the main engines for the economic redistribution of people. Furthermore, construction still seems to be the Chinese Communist Party’s favoured lever of growth.
In such cases, new buildings and infrastructure will tend to be associated with greater lifestyle emissions amongst a given population, alongside the large embodied carbon footprints of new construction – just another expression of increased consumption.
But where urban populations lack the economic means or prospects to justify private investments in construction on a capitalist basis; where they either stay in place or migrate in the absence of gains in income – those people will often be those most in need of new housing and infrastructure.
So it is also, sadly, a mistake to assume, in a capitalist society, that construction will respond to the needs of the population, without the economic lever of lifted incomes.
The world’s poor, urban and rural, urgently need new buildings and infrastructure, on a non-capitalist basis, while the capitalist over-accumulation of the built environment needs to be curtailed, dramatically.
Furthermore, urban and rural homes for everyone need to be designed in all the ways that maximise wellbeing, encourage low-carbon lifestyles, and build environmental resiliency.
In the case of slum housing, slum clearance should also be anathema. What is needed again is retrofit, and a “participatory slum upgrading approach”, as UN-Habitat argues: to move people out of slum-like conditions, while dramatically improving the quality of their homes and their access to amenities.
The aim should be to maintain communities intact and where they are, while expanding and redistributing the economic availability of use-values.
All of that, moreover, needs to happen in the context of reducing the overall risk exposure of poor populations – for which safe and secure housing is essential, but insufficient on its own.
🔥 Go to part 7
🔥 Go to Contents and Introduction
Download the whole series as a PDF here
 Researchers distinguish between primary energy (e.g. the available chemical energy stored in coal or gas, or the energy in wind that pushes a wind turbine), final (or “secondary”) energy (that has undergone some processing, e.g. electricity generated in a power station or refined fuel), and useful energy (the energy as it is put to use by a final consumer, e.g. as light in a room in the evening, the movement of a car driven by the fuel). For a fuller explanation see here
 The IEA appears to use the same projections up to 2050 in the most recent (2022) Global ABC report
 I asked the IEA about this discrepancy, but received no response. According to the first graph, for Africa as a whole, ~41 billion m2 of residential floor area additions are deemed likely from 2017 to 2060, versus ~4 billion m2 in non-residential additions. That is, about 91% of floor area additions are forecast to be for residential use.
This first graph is in line with the projection I mentioned previously – of around 230 billion m2 worldwide additions to 2060, taking the floor area total to ~476 billion m2 in 2060. The second graph forecasts add up to something like 325 billion m2 of worldwide floor area additions from 2017 to 2060.
According to the second graph, ~24 billion m2 of current floor area (residential + non-residential) was in use in Africa in 2017. At that point, the population of the whole of Africa, according to the UN, was ~1.26 billion. Applying the previous residential/non-residential forecast breakdown to the existing building stock suggests that in 2017 there were ~21.9 billion m2 of residential building space – that is, an average of about 17.4 m2 per person.
 According to the UN, the mid-year population of the whole of Africa in 2021 was 1.39 billion people, with 43.9% (610 million people) living in urban areas. According to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), just in Sub-Saharan Africa, 230 million people (50.3% of the urban population) live in slums and informal settlements. That’s the very minimum estimate for the number of people who lack decent housing at the present time, just in cities. Projecting the Sub-Saharan figures onto Africa as a whole would suggest a figure of ~300 million.
The UN’s medium-fertility pathway meanwhile forecasts that the population for the whole of Africa will reach 2.49 billion in 2050, and 2.86 billion in 2060, as shown in the graph. (The annual rate of population increase is forecast to remain positive beyond 2100.) That is, the mid-estimate is that there will be ~1.47 billion more people living in Africa by 2060 – more than double the population now.
The UN’s forecasts for the scale of urbanisation don’t extend beyond 2050. However, in 2050, the UN forecasts that 58.9% of Africa’s population will be living in urban areas – that is, 1.47 billion people: an increase of 860 million between 2021 and 2050.
 The so-called Independent High-Level Expert Group (IHLEG) on Climate Finance, chaired by Vera Songwe and Nicholas Stern, recently estimated the scale of necessary funding. Theirs is a “growth-oriented, resource-intensive vision”, notes Adam Tooze. It is specifically not about contracting and converging demand and consumption. That said, the proposal is to: meet all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); green the international energy system within a 1.5°C temperature warming goal; address growing climate vulnerability through investments in adaptation and resilience; and invest in sustainable agriculture.
The authors estimate that a total of about US$5,900 billion of annual finance is needed for “emerging markets and developing countries” (EMDCs), excluding China, every year by 2030. That’s US$5900 billion per year – US$ 2250 billion of it for “climate related investments”.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) give a larger estimate. They suggest that energy transition alone, from 2023 to 2050 requires $US 150,000 billion – averaging over US$ 5,000 billion a year. They note that, “energy investment remains concentrated in a limited number of countries and focused on only a few technologies”.
 See also here for the IEA and IRENA’s recent collaborative “Breakthrough Agenda” report.
 The proportion of loans offered on a “concessional” basis varies by source. Oxfam estimates that in 2017-18, around 40% of overall climate finance was “non-concessional” – that is, loans with a market-based interest rate, or otherwise lacking in suitable concessions. These climate loans, Oxfam says, “force poorer nations to fall further into debt as they struggle with the impacts of climate change”. Market-rate loans have also been the basis of China’s enormous investments in infrastructure across Africa.
 As I mentioned in part 3, more than 80% of the world’s GDP is associated with cities, according to the World Bank. And with a rising majority of the world’s population (about 56%) living in cities, it is hardly surprising that most of the world’s material consumption is also concentrated in cities. According to the UN International Resource Panel (IRP), total urban material consumption calculated only on a domestic-basis (i.e., excluding imported goods) comprised around 58% of the world’s total material consumption in 2015 (~52 billion out of ~90 billion tonnes)