Urbanization and the carbon cycle: Contributions from social science

Peter J. Marcotullio
Sara Hughes
Andrea Sarzynski
Daniel Runfola, College of William and Mary


This paper outlines the contributions of social science to the study of interactions between urbanization patterns and processes and the carbon cycle, and identifies gaps in knowledge and priority areas for future social scientific research contributions. While previously studied as a unidimensional process, we conceptualize urbanization as a multidimensional, social and biophysical process driven by continuous changes across space and time in various subsystems including biophysical, built environment, and socio-institutional (e.g., economic, political, demographic, behavioral, and sociological). We review research trends and findings focused on the socio-institutional subsystem of the urbanization process, and particularly the dynamics, relationships, and predictions relevant to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Our findings suggest that a multidimensional perspective of urbanization facilitates a wider spectrum of research relevant to carbon cycle dynamics, even within the socio-institutional subsystem. However, there is little consensus around the details and mechanisms underlying the relationship between urban socio-institutional subsystems and the carbon cycle. We argue that progress in understanding the relationship between urbanization and the carbon cycle may be achieved if social scientists work collaboratively with each other as well as with scientists from other disciplines. From this review, we identify research priorities where collaborative social scientific efforts are necessary in conjunction with other disciplinary approaches to generate a more complete understanding of urbanization as a process and its relationship to the carbon cycle.