A new study by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that is the first to use a global model to study the question has found that implementing cool roofs and cool pavements in cities around the world can not only help cities stay cooler, they can also cool the world, with the potential of canceling the heating effect of up to two years of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.
Because white roofs reflect far more of the sun’s heat than black ones, buildings with white roofs will stay cooler. If the building is air conditioned, less air conditioning will be required, thus saving energy. Even if there is no air conditioning, the heat absorbed by a black roof both heats the space below, making the space less comfortable, and is also carried into the city air by wind—raising the ambient temperature in what is known as the urban heat island effect. Additionally, there’s a third, less familiar way in which a black roof heats the world: it radiates energy directly into the atmosphere, which is then absorbed by the nearest clouds and ends up trapped by the greenhouse effect, contributing to global warming.
For the northern hemisphere summer, they found that increasing the reflectivity of roof and pavement materials in cities with a population greater than 1 million would achieve a one-time offset of 57 gigatons (1gigaton equals 1 billion metric tons) of CO2 emissions (31 Gt from roofs and 26 Gt from pavements). That’s double the worldwide CO2 emissions in 2006 of 28 gigatons. The 57 gigatons is equal to roughly 300 million cars (about the cars in the world) for 20 years.
Roofs and pavements cover 50 to 65 percent of urban areas. Because they absorb so much heat, dark-colored roofs and roadways create what is called the urban heat island effect, where a city is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas. This additional heat also eventually contributes to global warming. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities; by 2040 the proportion of urbanites is expected to reach 70 percent, adding urgency to the urban heat island problem