Urban Centers as Vehicles for Societal Development

By Holly Krutka
Executive Editor, Cornerstone

Around the world, people are moving to urban centers in unprecedented numbers. As pointed out in this issue’s cover story, over the next 15 years the global population is expected to increase by 1.1 billion with nearly all of this growth concentrated in cities. The United Nations (UN) projects that over 6.3 billion people will live in urban centers by 2050. While the challenges experienced by many fast-growing cities should not be understated, people are moving to cities in droves because of the chance to improve their quality of life—economically, socially, and environmentally. Urbanites have much better access to basic services such as electricity, clean water, hospitals, and waste disposal. These benefits, as well as increased employment opportunities and access to better schools, make it abundantly clear why the world is on the move to cities.

Krutka Headshot

There are several pillars under which coal supports urbanization. The most important is providing baseload electricity, which explains increasing coal use in rapidly urbanizing areas such as India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Population concentration offers an opportunity to deploy large-scale, low-cost power plants that can support not only urbanization and modernization, but also job-driving industrialization.

Electricity is not the only link between coal utilization and urbanization. Steel and cement are two vital building blocks for urban centers, and the production of both at scale requires large coal inputs. In fact, the steel industry consumed about 1.2 billion tonnes of coal in 2013. Coal is also the fuel of choice for cement production, which currently uses 350–400 million tonnes each year.

Providing improved quality of life for those choosing to move to cities is a key objective for most governments, but there is also strong case to balance this goal with environmental protection. Urban centers, in fact, can offer major environmental benefits. For example, the unsustainable harvesting of biomass for cooking fuel and heating largely observed in rural areas, and associated with dangerous indoor air pollution, is much less prevalent in urban centers.

Although energy use in cities is higher, it can also be much more efficient with proper urban planning. One of the best opportunities for getting the most out of energy sources is combined heat and power generation. As profiled by an article in this issue, Germany has been applying this technology in large and small cities for decades. In addition, other high-efficiency, low-emissions technologies can be applied to the large coal-fired plants powering cities. While there are certainly challenges associated with widespread urbanization, they are vastly outnumbered by the opportunities.

This issue of Cornerstone offers several articles that explore the many areas in which coal is linked to urbanization. On behalf of the editorial team, I hope you enjoy it.

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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