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The Climate-Neutral City: An Idea Whose Time has Come
Alex Steffen, 16 Jul 07
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Here's the reality: we in the U.S., Canada, Australia and (to a lesser extent) Europe need to move very quickly to make deep cuts in our climate emissions if we hope for any chance of making big enough global cuts to avoid generating catastrophic global warming. In other words, we need radical change if we want to avoid cooking the planet.

Here's the political reality: those who benefit from, or depend upon, the status quo are going to fight dirty against any meaningful change. They will see radical change as a mortal threat. In practice, this means that the carbon industries (especially coal), wealthy suburbanites (whose lifestyles, jobs and investments are most likely to generate extremely large carbon footprints) and conservative extremists (whose market fundamentalism finds itself at odds with the reality-based community) will be in the future, as now, the sworn enemies of intelligent change (or, as they would have it, "skeptics"). We aren't going to change that, for reasons that are deeply entrenched in our societies, and these are extremely powerful interests, with the ability to at least slow real national progress.

Thus we have a need (radical change) which is blocked by a political reality. In such a conflict, even the most fundamental of steps -- a real international price on carbon -- will be an extremely hard-fought victory at the national level in all our countries.

We need national action, but maybe it's time to rethink the rest of the approach. After all, legislation and markets, while absolutely essential, represent only one instrument in the tool chest we need to fight climate catastrophe. We also need technical invention, widespread innovation diffusion, new models and new approaches. And these things are much more difficult for the carbon lobby to stymie, if done at the proper combination of local and regional levels.

Urbanites already represent the natural constituency for a climate change revolution. Not only is environmental commitment highest among urban populations, the distance from present reality to future necessity is shortest. Tight-knit, compact communities emit less carbon; traveling through them on transit, bikes and foot is easier; sharing goods and participating in closed-loop product systems is dramatically easier in dense environments -- even smart grids make a lot more sense in a city than a sprawling suburb. In fact, if we end up with an electric car/ smart grid/ renewables combination (the dream of some of the smartest folks I know, where distributed home energy systems and a smart grid hooked to renewable power electric vehicles designed for urban environments), dense urban neighborhoods is where it will first take hold.

And the fact is, we're just getting started. The Vancouver model, of massive land redevelopment, shows extraordinary promise, but we're also learning how to use infill development, retrofits, urban planning and new technologies to reweave existing neighborhoods into a far more sustainable pattern.

What if our strategy was to take a single city and make it truly climate neutral? Existence, as they say, is the best proof of possibility, and we desperately need to prove that living a climate neutral, prosperous life is possible.

Cities committing to Kyoto is not enough. We need skies unsullied by CO2, not minor reductions, and that will take big changes in all the activities the citizens of a city undertake, including those which are not visibly obvious (which demands knowing the backstory of an entire city's footprint).

Creating a carbon-neutral city is no small challenge. It will take tens of thousands of people deciding to rework the environmental contexts of the organizations and communities of which they are a part. To give a sense of scale, I think it will require at least as big a revolution in thinking to get from here to there as it took to get from Silent Spring to the current day... and it needs to happen fast.

Climate denialists will tell us that committing ourselves to climate neutrality will destroy our economy, leaving us with the standard of living of the more remote parts of Albania and contributing to the widespread sinful cohabitation of dogs and cats. They're full of it.

Anyone who looks at the situation with clear eyes realizes that climate neutrality is our future, and cities which embrace the future thrive.

Normally, I'd find the gulf we face and the timeline we're racing a depressing combination, but not here. For a city need not launch itself at climate neutrality out of moral kindness: a much stronger reason for taking action might be found in pure self-interest. In a world where proprietary control over needed innovations is wealth, and where prominence in collaborative efforts is influence, and competition for everything from investment to tourism to workforces is global, the first city to commit in a genuine way to climate neutrality is going to leap to the front of the pack.

An urban political and economic coalition bent on transforming its city into a climate neutral one could undertake a huge variety of actions. It could lobby for radical energy policy, government procurement, land use and transportation planning changes. It could creating financing instruments for new development, retrofitting and industrial modernizations. It could mandate fundamental consumer changes and educate citizens to slash their personal carbon footprints. It could train a whole generation of working citizens who get green building, green manufacturing and clean energy. It could launch recruitment programs for sustainable designers, architects, engineers and technologists. It could make itself a hotbed for not only new thinking, but a new culture.

All of these steps are easily within the power of a well-coordinated citizen's coalition, and I'm sure even more innovative answers are possible if you add to that citizen's coalition social entrepreneurship, new technologies and distributed collaboration. The fact that many of these enterprises and initiatives could thrive in the right regional setting even without national regulation just adds to their momentum should carbon taxation or trading actually take.

Here's the biggest problem: no one yet has any idea what a climate-neutral city would look like or how it would operate. We can't build what we can't imagine, so one of the first orders of business is vision: visions of various ways in which cities could slash their emissions while increasing their prosperity and quality of life.

For generations, city dwellers have led social revolutions, going to the barricades to fight injustice and force change on the unwilling powerful. Cities are ungovernable from the barricades -- one can't live in a permanent revolution -- but that does not mean the barricades have no use. And, today, we urbanites find ourselves in a situation where business as usual is unacceptable. Perhaps the time has come to raise over the barricades of sustainable design, innovation, policy and business a new black flag: urban climate neutrality.

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Creative Commons Photo Credit

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Is a climate neutral high-density upmarket development really possible at this stage, and what would it require? excluding the buying of carbon credits... although services like climate control and transport within the city could be regulated, after all a city does not grow its own food or produce the things consumed within the city, wouldnt the consumerist lifestyle of its citizens anyway exert an enormous eco-footprint?

Posted by: Khoo SN on 17 Jul 07

Thanks, Alex. Great idea whose time has come.
Just one suggestion: you're creating an unnecessary dichotomy of urbanites v. suburbanites. I live in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, with my two boys and my wife and it's dense enough to bring about change. We also have a green belt (a creek that's been designated as a wildlife reserve) that runs right through the neighborhood and awareness of climate change and what each of us needs to do is spreading. The great challenge is for each household, whether in the dense urban centers or the suburbs to take steps to ease their carbon impact until we're neutral. Most children live in the suburbs, Alex, so much of the work to influence the new generations will be done here. The suburbs need to be a part of the solution!
Is there anyone at WorldChanging working with public schools? Anyone in Austin? I have volunteered to speak in the local schools and the reception from the children has been phenomenal. They eat this up!
Let's feed this idea, nurture it, and see it reach critical mass...
Thanks again!

Posted by: Einar A. Elsner on 17 Jul 07

I live in Calgary, AB - Canadian agriculture and oil booming capital and one of the wealthiest cities in Americas.

Most of the population is driving trucks for reason and without, and these things are massive. Transit is the least developed among all cities I've ever been to (you wait for buses to come for 20-40 minutes, they shut down at like midnight etc.) City is growing enormously fast and gaining in area a lot. There's no recycling garbage bins on streets.

The worst is though nothing seems to get intention to change. They introducing 6 new buses and it's a big event while spending millions of $ on roads. If you don't own a car you feel discriminated. There are recycling propaganda ads but virtually no way to recycle effectively.

You get the point. Now what would be the best way to lobby some real change in this situation? Mayor seems to follow what people want - canceling transit lines, investing in more roads for trucks etc. Seems like a closed circle.

Posted by: Mark Sergienko on 17 Jul 07

no one yet has any idea what a climate-neutral city would look like or how it would operate

That's not true.

Posted by: Lex on 17 Jul 07

Actually, even being carbon neutral might not be radical enough, since if you want to reduce global airborne carbon you actually need to be carbon negative. And not every city or region or country will be carbon neutral, let alone carbon negative, so those that do try will need to compensate for those that don't.

But if you want a model for how to do it, just watch Dongtan Eco-city rising on the outskirts of Shanghai. Or on a smaller scale, Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The technology is all there. It's not lack of technology that's causing slow adoption, it's outdated policies and regulatory controls that prevent individuals and businesses from reaping the potential benefits of using sustainable technologies. As Alex points out, the right setting will unleash the power of green.

Posted by: Rory Williams on 17 Jul 07

When you say Climate Neutral, does that refer mostly to carbon emissions or resources as a whole?

My opinion is that the battle should not be against climate/ carbon alone. 2 people are born into this world every second. 2008 will be the first year where the urban population outweighs the rural population in the world (State of the World Population 2007, UN Populations Fund - Considering that the urban population will continue to grow and continue to consume at a greater rate compared to a similar rural population, should we not be focusing on a resource neutral culture instead of climate neutral cities?

If we urbanites actually took responsibility to evaluate our lifestyles and be critically honest about our personal footprints and the excess we deem necessary, I believe we would already be seeing a difference. But we hardly pay attention to our excess... maybe we are not even aware by how much we are living beyond our capacity?

So perhaps we need to be trained to view the world differently first. As a first step, perhaps instead of filling in an income-tax return at the end of the year we would each be required to complete a resource audit of our lifestyle? Once we know what we consume, perhaps the concept of carbon caps/ credits/ trading could filter down to individual resource caps?

So your question was "How do we even begin to imagine this new city?". My suggestion: Necessity breeds creation. Give every person his share of the planet. Then if we expect to live in similar comfort to today given such a resource cap, we will simply have to use our creative minds to find a way to live within our planet's (and each individual's) limits.

Posted by: Colette van Heerden on 17 Jul 07

How would it work? Who knows?

The first problem is that a 'city' isn't usually an entity in its own right. eg what is usually referred to as 'Melbourne' is, in fact, a conglomeration of a dozen or so boroughs, with much of the connecting infrastructure maintained at the state level.

OK then, how about getting the local council carbon neutral? I think this is feasible if there is sufficient community support, and I think that support would be forthcoming if people first concentrate on making their household carbon neutral.

Now, I know light green local action on its own isn't going to cut it: Alex has frequently commented on the need for systemic changes to our consumption habits to have any chance of slowing or reversing climate change.

An average household can do a fair bit to reduce its emissions but, on its own, cannot hope to become carbon neutral.

What it *can* do is identify what is left over, distribute what it has achieved throughout the community, and determine what the council can do about it. Similarly, after the council has identified what it can do about things, the remaining 'black spot' is passed on to the state level.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 17 Jul 07

For those interested in Dongtan (the new Chinese Carbon-Neutral city) the designers are flying in from London to do an event at the Hollywood Hill in Los Angeles:

Posted by: Ori Neidich on 18 Jul 07

I am all about doing what ever it takes to minimize ecological damage to the planet. I am (though)becoming disgusted with the terms: neutral, zero emission, energy independent, and on and on. The problem is that MOST of the people who use these terms do not approach the problem from the full "Cradle to Cradle" approach. No one seems to ask where it begins and ends. For instance: one peice of my mind it begins from the seed of the tree and ends when the paper can not be recycled any further and becomes a compost. This includes the whole growth of the tree (energy,water,nutrients,CO2 absorbtion(good)) and moves to the energy used to not only cut and transport it but also the energy to get to the tree (most leave this conviently out)all the way through the machinery, the factory floor (energy usage (where does the energy come from?),water consumption,heat applied, gasses generated....more transportation.....) you get the point. I believe if a full encompassing analysis was done there is no way that a city could be "Neutral" in any reguard. Stop using this journalistic propaganda terminology and just say it how it is: minimize the damage to the planet as much as possible. Because you are alive you will never reach exhale CO2 and consume must to survive. There is nothing wrong with that, just simplify your lifestyle.

Posted by: Paul on 18 Jul 07

I believe if a full encompassing analysis was done there is no way that a city could be "Neutral" in any reguard [sic].

Your opinion, not fact. I certainly doubt you've ever really pursued that question in depth over a long period of time. Perhaps you should give Alex the benefit of the doubt.

Stop using this journalistic propaganda terminology and just say it how it is: minimize the damage to the planet as much as possible. Because you are alive you will never reach exhale CO2 and consume must to survive.

It's a bit harsh to be calling this writing "journalistic propaganda" without substantiating your counter-hypothesis or establishing your credentials. As for exhaling CO2, that's part of the natural carbon cycle, not a net increase to the atmosphere's CO2 concentration. Not knowing that indicates that perhaps your authority in these matters is lacking.

Posted by: Lex on 18 Jul 07


You may be right, I did not give as detailed of an explanation, and the end really was poorly worded. I have done a bit of research in the field and my credentials are as follows:

BS Mechanical Engineering
BA Industrial Design
Leed AP
Currently working in the renewable energy field on biomass conversion technologies.

When you are talking about a city...even with energy efficiency increases of 100% + the energy consumption alone with the highest efficient HVAC systems combined with Passive ie Natural ventilation, include all necessary electricity, hot water, pumps, fans, lighting.... according to LEED v2.2 and you may achieve as low as 5-8 kWh electricity/sqft/year total. I would say that to survive you may only (at bare minimum) need 100 sq ft/person. Now this is small! You would use (at bare min) 500-600kWh/person meaning your whole electric and heating bill might be around $50.00-$200.00/year depending on family size(I am being really generous). How about a city not considering offices, grocery stores, banks, museums, sport facilities......just houses (small)at 200,000 people or about 100,000 Megawatt-hrs of electricity/heating. Let's power it with Wind, maybe solar, or geothermal. I'll use wind: needed capacity about 15Mw not much just around 25 600-800 kw turbines and around 1/3 of a square mile (which I feel in order to be a "climate neutral" city must lie) in the city limits. In order to use wind though, testing needs to be done to ensure that about a constant 15-20 mi/hr wind speed (to fully utilize the turbines). The city would not be "climate neutral" until the procurement, manufacturing, transportation, and material offsets of the turbines reaches zero (which may take a 8 months-1yr (estimating)) Any way that is possible, but the breaker of the whole ordeal is not power, but food and water. A lot of people would not put water in with "climate neutrality" but it is major...without the replacement of aquifers, surface waters, etc. it will not matter how much we offset our carbon emissions (only approx. 1% of the earth’s water is available to meet the drinking water needs of people, most land animals, and land plants (desalination plants take alot of energy, technology is advancing though)). Each person needs about 1/2 gallon of water/liquid to replenish themselves (not including showers/cleaning) probably need around 150,000 gallons of potable water at minimum/day to sustain the population.....but you need to treat it. Food needs even more water, and if the population wants to consume animal products....even more and more land then would need to be considered ......if organic food even more and according to the "climate neutral" city approach this could be accomplished within the city, NO. These are all very rounded numbers and do not cover aspects like: flooding, surface permeability, heat island effects, construction pollution, air quality, location specifics, sunlight analysis, materials procurement, transportation…… , but I hope everyone gets the point. I just want people to be more realistic and encompass more then just the simple measurements and fall prey to this “green” jargon. I do sound like a doomsayer, but I am not, I want this movement to be about education and understanding not hollow words. I could go on, but I would like to read Paul Hawken's new book before I go to bed, you should too.

Posted by: Paul Quick on 18 Jul 07

The "full 'Cradle to Cradle' approach" goes much further beyond a simple lifecycle analysis. In the book "Cradle to Cradle," McDonough and Braungart talk excellently about how their approach is not about a change in technologies or even in processes, but about a change in worldview... a change in ethics. It's about, as they say, being good instead of simply "less bad."

Because you are alive you will never reach exhale CO2 and consume must to survive.

Exactly, and life is to be celebrated. I have grown tired of all the talk of "living lightly on the earth." That idea has its place, yes, but in my mind it comes from asking the wrong question. The question I want to answer is not, "how do we reduce our impact?" but "what impact do we want?" The first question encourages us merely to slow down on the path to destruction; the second compels us to take a different path.

I -do- believe that climate-neutral and even "climate-negative" cities are possible; I also agree that a mindset focused on reduction as a goal will never get us there. Reduction is just a tool to be used toward the real goal, which is transformation. Let's talk about cities that purify their own water instead of simply using less of it. Let's talk about cities that sequester CO2 in places like the food we eat, the soil its grown in, and the materials we build with. None of these ideas are new (and they've all been mentioned on the WorldChanging site at various times), but I think that only the proper framing can lead one to ask the right questions about how to bring them together. This does depend on where one draws the system boundaries, I agree, but isn't sustainability about the full-scale earth system, anyway? So what if we produce CO2 in Manhattan and sequester it in, say, San Diego?

There is nothing wrong with that, just simplify your lifestyle.

I suspect that a simplified lifestyle of living lightly on the earth is a much harder social sell than an abundant lifestyle of living in harmony with it. But yes, that's just my opinion. It's easy to make the case that most first-world "consumers" consume much more than they need (I most certainly agree), but "needs" themselves are in constant change and are often socially constructed.

Posted by: c! on 18 Jul 07

To add to the folks who posted regarding the Cradle to Cradle design protocol. McDonough Partners has signed an agreement to design six cities using this protocol for the Chinese govt. Here is their approach which might be considered a significant move toward a neutral city.

Posted by: Peter Turner on 19 Jul 07

Thanks for the link on Huangbaiyu. Unfortunately, it looks like McDonough got himself spanked for the time being: (and other places)

I do feel that he had the best of intentions, but it seems like there was a communication breakdown somewhere. I hope that the project continues in a better direction.

Posted by: c! on 19 Jul 07



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