The ACF’s central finding is that environmental conditions relate to
levels of general human consumption. The higher the consumption, the
worse it is for the planet. This is standard green stuff. The problem
came when it was given a spatial twist. Here's the quote in full:
Yet despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car
use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other
category of consumption. Even in the area of housing, the opportunities
for relatively efficient, compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the
energy and water demands of modern urban living, such as air
conditioning, spa baths, down lighting and luxury electronics and
appliances, as well as by a higher proportion of individuals living
alone or in small households.
In each state and territory, the centre of the capital city is the area
the highest environmental impacts, followed by the inner suburban
areas. Rural and regional areas tend to have noticeably lower levels of
These trends in are closely correlated with wealth. Higher incomes in
inner cities are associated with higher levels of consumption across the
These words would return to haunt the ACF. As far
as the report goes, no attempt is made to qualify the comments in
deference to green dogma about the evils of low-density suburbia. This
is surprising and, in a sense, brave. By pointing the finger toward
inner city professionals, the ACF risked offending people it relies on
for support. The taint of green guilt is usually applied to other
Hanging like a juicy fig, the comments were ripe for the picking.
American consultant Wendell Cox, perhaps the world’s most vocal advocate
of suburban development, wasted no time in putting them to use. Cox has
cited them in various articles and blog posts. Particular ire, though,
has been directed at a report his firm prepared for the Australian
Property Council’s residential arm in September 2007. Called Housing
Form in Australiaand its Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the
describes itself as an “analysis of data” from the ACF atlas.
Put simply, Cox classified the atlas’s environmental data according to
distance from city centres. He did a similar thing with 2006 census data
relating to housing type, automobile use and population density. Then he
matched them up. This method confirmed the ACF’s finding. Lower GHG
emissions were associated with longer distance from the (urban) core,
detached housing, more automobile use and lower population density. Cox
drew the logical conclusion that squeezing suburban growth is no way to
combat climate change.
Naturally, the ACF wasn't so happy to see its perfunctory comments
lit with neon lights.
But the ultimate swipe at Cox came from a different quarter,
Queensland’s Griffith University Urban Research Program. Under the
directorship of Brendan Gleeson, Griffith is emerging as a prominent
link in the chain of progressive, deep-green urban studies programs
winding through the Australian university system. Last November,
Gleeson, along with colleagues Rowan Gray and Matthew Burke, weighed in
paper of their own, Urban Consolidation and Household Greenhouse
Emissions: Towards a Full Consumption Impacts Approach.
The trio start off with a general tour around the state of research into
the effects of urban consolidation on GHG emissions. Surprisingly, there
isn’t much out there. “ … consolidation has been partially justified by
alleged environmental benefits”, they say, “including the claim that it
promotes household energy and greenhouse efficiency … Our review finds
that evidence supporting this claim is lacking.” This is news to anyone
sick of being lectured about the urgent need to rein in our cities.
Eventually, they get around to tackling Cox, who, they say, “uses a
flawed methodology, and so draws conclusions that are highly
questionable.” The gist of their argument is that correlation does not
establish causality. Correspondence between distance from the core,
detached housing, more automobile use, lower population density and
lower GHG emissions doesn’t establish a causal relationship between
these factors. Yet in a
response to the Griffith paper, Cox agrees and
points out that there are no references to causation in his report. The
term he uses is “association”.
Cox goes on to hint at the most critical point, one that the Griffith
trio conveniently dodge. The argument that correlation isn’t causality
cuts both ways. If it isn’t valid to argue for causality in the
direction of distance from the core, detached housing, more car use and
lower population density to lower emissions, it’s just as invalid to do
so in the opposite direction of proximity to the core, multi-unit
housing, less car use and higher population density to lower emissions.
Green activists and planning dons are waging a campaign to impose their
compact city vision on the rest of us, despite homebuyer preferences and
the interests of a vital economic sector. Surely they’re obliged to
prove their case. After the ACF atlas, Cox’s analysis and the failure to
turn up usable evidence, that’s a challenge. The Griffith trio
acknowledge this problem, but add “we read it differently”. The
difference, though, is just a resort to obfuscation: “[i]n our opinion,
current empirical evidence suggests influences on household greenhouse
emissions and energy demands are complex and context dependent …”
Moving on, the Griffith boys fire a secondary shot at Cox’s method.
While he treats household GHG emissions as a single factor (or
variable), the “built environment” affects emissions from each set of
household activities (travel, housing, recreation, food, clothing and so
on) in different ways. Without specific research, however, they can’t
show how Cox’s findings should have been otherwise. Their discussion
amounts to little more than supposition.
Let’s finish where we started. Why was the ACF so blasé about the
spatial dimension of its findings? Because GHG emissions are a
function of overall consumption. Consumption shaped by low-density
housing, whether it concerns transport, energy or infrastructure,
doesn’t figure prominently in the composition of aggregate consumption.
According to the atlas, it’s swamped by the profusion of consumption
patterns across the urban landscape. This leads to a conclusion the ACF
won’t like: if the object is to cut GHG emissions, singling out
low-density suburbia represents a poor ordering of priorities.
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