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Creating Carbon-Neutral Cities

This article was written by Alex Steffen in July 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Cities.jpg 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.

Creative Commons Photo Credit

Creative Commons Photo Credit


The Climate-Neutral City: An Idea Whose Time has Come is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Comments

This was a great little piece, and I really agree with it, but I'd be very interested what your views about future/current sustainability of small towns and villages are? I mean, not EVERYBODY can live in cities; in fact there are lot of parts of increasingly urbanization, especially in the developing world, that are reaching a critical tipping point of dangerous environmental destruction. And if you want healthy, regional-based economies, then that means you'll have to have people living in small towns and rural areas outside of cities, growing food, growing sustainable crops for fuels, doing sustainable forestry- in short, making all of the things that these future supposedly eco-conscious city residents would use. It would be great if you guys could write a piece, or better yet, a series of pieces on developments in sustainability projects in small-towns and rural areas, both in the U.S. and in other places around the world.


Posted by: Geoff Trowbridge on 20 Sep 08



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