"Scientists have been proposing novel ideas – mostly untested – for geoengineering of global climate," Hashem Akbari of Concordia University told environmentalresearchweb. "Humans have had experience with white buildings and reflective pavements for thousands of years without any unknown negative side-effects. Hence cool urban surfaces should be our geoengineering 101."

Akbari and colleagues from Concordia used the University of Victoria Earth System Climate Model (UVic ESCM) to investigate the effect of albedo increases of 0.1 until 2300 over all land between latitudes of + and –20° (i.e. roughly from Mexico City and Hanoi in the north to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in the south), and between + and –45° (approximately from Lyon, France and Portland, US to Dunedin in New Zealand). The team used both a business-as-usual emissions scenario and an aggressive mitigation scenario.

The albedo increase on all land between + and –20 ° latitude would decrease temperature by roughly one degree over 20 years, while the 45° latitude case would double this decrease. After 200 years, the decreases would be 1.3 K and 3 K.

The scientists estimated that urban areas make up roughly 1% of the total land area in these regions; increasing albedo by 0.1 only in urban areas would be equivalent to a global change in land-surface albedo of 0.001.

"Increasing albedo of urban areas by about 0.1 – increasing flat roof albedo by 0.4, increasing sloped roof albedo by 0.25, and pavement albedo by 0.15 – cools the globe equivalent to offsetting over 100 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions," said Akbari. "This is equivalent to offsetting the emissions for all the cars in the world for the next 20–30 years."

To firm up their calculations, the researchers employed two estimates of urban area – from the Global Rural and Urban Mapping Project (GRUMP) and an analysis based on MODIS satellite data. The GRUMP results suggest that global urban areas are more than five times larger than the MODIS data set indicates.

The climate model revealed that increasing albedo by 0.1 only in GRUMP-designated urban areas would produce long-term cooling of 0.07 K, equivalent to 130–150 Gigatonnes of carbon. Using the MODIS data for urban areas, in contrast, would cool the Earth by 0.01 K, equivalent to 25–30 Gigatonnes of carbon.

According to Akbari, albedo increases could lead to air-conditioning savings of about 20% for space under the roof. "This is about $50 bn savings per year and carbon dioxide savings of about 0.4 Gigatonnes per year; over the next 100 years that is an emission reduction of 40 Gigatonnes," he said. "The direct cooling of the Earth by reflecting radiation back to space is an added bonus that actually counters global warming while putting dollars in our pocket."

The researchers found that the effect of albedo change did not depend to a large extent on the carbon-dioxide emissions scenario. That said, aggressive mitigation appeared to produce a roughly 10% larger temperature decrease, which the team ascribed to stronger snow-albedo feedback.

"We should develop policies for no-regret no-cost global cooling measures," said Akbari. "Cool cities will save all the people in the world equally and the value of the dollar saved is significantly higher in developing countries than the developed country (e.g. $1 saved in the US pays for 10 minutes of a labourer in the US; in the developing countries that pays for a day of labourer)."

The scientists reported their work in Environmental Research Letters.