Building height and density are not one and the same. You can have tall buildings configured in a low-density way (think post-war towers in the park). And you can have low/mid-rise buildings configured in a high-density way (think Paris and Barcelona). This is one of the reasons why it is important to decouple density and tallness when thinking about our cities.
This line of thinking is the approach that a recent study took when trying to determine the optimal built form for minimizing climate impact. In the study they define four building typologies: 1) high density, high-rise, 2) low density, high-rise, 3) high density, low-rise, and 4) low density, low-rise.
What they found was that taller environments tend to have higher life cycle GHG emissions, but that lower-density environments are (obviously) far more land consumptive. To determine life cycle GHG emissions they looked at both embodied and operating emissions, which is why the taller stuff didn’t score as well under their methodology. There’s typically a lot of concrete and steel in tall buildings.
This lead the team to conclude that if you want to optimize around climate impact, you should probably aim for that perfect middle ground: dense, but not super tall.
But as Joe Cortright (City Observatory) rightly pointed out in his email newsletter, one of the big limitations of this analysis is that it does not consider transportation-related impacts. And since we know that transportation is one of if not the largest source of GHG emissions and that how we get around is heavily dependent on land use patterns, it is probably an important piece to consider.