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Cool Cities Hold Promise to Reduce Climate Change
Research shows light-colored roofs and pavements are cost-effective ways to save energy and reduce atmospheric pollution.
By MICHAEL TOTTEN
or a quarter century, working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the inimitable Dr. Art Rosenfeld (“Art of Efficiency”), and his research partner Dr. Hashem Akbari (“Mr. Cool”), have been accumulating evidence on the immense value cities can accrue by increasing the albedo — that is, the reflectivity — of road and rooftop surfaces. Incredibly, transforming a city into a solar-reflecting mirror saves money, while achieving significant CO2 mitigation at a negative cost. In the recent issue of the journal Climatic Change, Akbari, Rosenfeld and their colleague Surabi Menon estimate cumulative worldwide economic savings could exceed $1 trillion while effectively displacing the equivalent of 44 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Sound too good to be true? That’s what Los Angeles officials thought back in the 1980s. Rosenfeld and Akbari estimated that if the city could reduce its heat island effect with higher albedo surfaces, it might save half a billion dollars a year in energy and pollution-abatement costs. This would include a 12 percent reduction in lung-searing ozone pollutants. Their research paid off: Cool roof requirements were integrated into South Coast Air Quality Management District plans, EPA State Implementation Plans, California Title 24 Building Standards and several other state standards, as well as in ASHRAE building standards. Akbari and Rosenfeld offer a refreshing dose of fiscal frugality while leveraging global-scale benefits. The following Q&A captures the pioneering spirit of innovative research that moved their insights from the lab to the marketplace. MT: Art, what prompted the idea of cooler cities? AR: Back in 1985 my LBNL colleagues Hashem Akbari, Haider Taha and I realized that hot, dark roofs and pavements were half of the cause of summer urban heat islands, which in turn increased the smog (ozone, O3) in Los Angeles and many other large cities. We already disliked hot roofs because they raise air-conditioning demand by 20 percent, and we had long been trying to get building energy codes to give credit for cool roofs. Throughout the world, cities are summer heat islands. They are 3º to 10º F hotter than their surroundings, and as cities grow, they typically add 1º F each decade. A few percent of this heating is manmade (from cars and air conditioners, for instance), but overwhelmingly it comes from two roughly comparable sources: air blows over dark-colored roofs and pavements and warms by conduction, and trees, which cool the air by evapotranspiration, are disappearing.

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Michael Totten is chief adviser on climate, water and ecosystem services at Conservation International. Contact him at m.totten@ conservation.org.

Installing cool roofs and cool pavements in cities worldwide does not require delicate international negotiations about capping CO2 emission rates. And it can save 44 billion metric tons of CO2 annually.
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MT: As you further analyzed these scientific observations, what emerged in terms of economic opportunities for changing this urban heat island effect? AR: The saving of electricity and avoidance of smog costs little. At the time of roof replacement, a new light-reflecting roof costs little more than a dark one, but will last longer. Pavements can be cooled two different ways: retain asphalt as the binder, but use white aggregate that will show as the dark asphalt wears down to the light aggregate color, or “white top” with concrete, which is stronger and actually cheaper in the long run. In Los Angeles, trees shading a lawn actually save water because the trees, after a few years of watering, survive on natural ground water, whereas the cooler lawn requires less municipal water. MT: That was nearly a quarter century ago. Hashem, what is your current assessment given the extensive research, testing and cumulative evidence? HA: These two simple technologies, cool roofs and cool pavements, which have been around for thousands of years, should be the first geoengineering techniques used to combat global warming. This is due to a combination of the direct and indirect effects of light-colored surfaces. Directly, light-colored roofs reflect solar radiation, reducing air-conditioning use. For highly absorptive roofs, the difference between the surface and ambient air temperatures may be as high as 90° F, while for highly reflective roofs with similar insulative properties, the difference is only about 10° F. For this reason, “cool” roofs are effective in reducing cooling energy use. Indirectly, the light-colored surfaces in a neighborhood alter the surface radiative energy balance, resulting in lower ambient temperature. The higher albedo (heat-reflecting) surfaces directly cool the world by 0.01° K, quite independent of avoided CO2. MT: Can you further explain the benefit of altering the surface radiative energy balance? HA: Albedo is defined as a number between 1 and 0 indicating the fraction of incident radiation that is reflected, including the invisible ultraviolet and near-infrared parts of the spectrum. Planet Earth now has an average albedo of 0.3 — that is, it reflects about 30 percent of the sunlight that lands on it. There is great potential in the United States and worldwide for cool roofs. Currently more than 90 percent of the roofs in the United States are dark colored, with an average albedo of approximately 0.15. The higher albedo of a cool roof instantly reduces the amount of heat that can be trapped by the Earth’s greenhouse gases.

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MT: What do you estimate in savings by shifting to a higher albedo cool roof? HA: Most existing flat roofs are dark and reflect only 10 to 20 percent of sunlight. We estimate that retrofitting 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) of roof offsets 10 metric tons of CO2 emissions. [A metric ton equals about 2,205 pounds.] That would be worth $250 at the current European Trading System price. The solar reflectance of pavement can be raised on average by about 0.15, offsetting about four metric tons of CO2 per 100 m2. Over 50 percent of the world population now lives in urban areas, and by 2040 that fraction is expected to reach 70 percent. Pavements and roofs comprise over 60 percent of urban surfaces (roofs 20 to 25 percent, pavements about 40 percent). The global roof area is about 380,000 square kilometers, and paved surface area about 530,000 km2. So, the global atmospheric CO2 equivalency potentials for cool roofs and cool pavements are 12 gigatonnes and 10 Gt of CO2, respectively. Given that only 52 percent of the emitted CO2 stays in the atmosphere, the total global emitted CO2 equivalent potential for cool roofs and pavements is actually 44 Gt of CO2 annually. Permanently retrofitting urban roofs and pavements in the tropical and temperate regions of the world with solar-reflective materials, and offsetting 44 billion metric tons of emitted CO2, is worth $1.1 trillion at $25 per metric ton. ST

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