Washburn

The Carbon Neutral City

The seven key innovations of resilient cities are set as city models (being detailed over the next several weeks here at “Eco-Compass”). While no one city has shown innovation in all seven areas, some are quite advanced in one or two. The challenge for urban planners will be to apply all of these city characteristics together, to generate a sense of hope through a combination of new technology, city design and community-based innovation, which together will create the Resilient City. The second city model is the Carbon Neutral City (click here to read about the first city model, the Renewable Energy City). 2. Carbon Neutral in the City. Every home, neighborhood and business is carbon neutral. Carbon neutral cities are able to reduce their ecological footprint through energy efficiency and replacing fossil fuels, but in creating offsets in the bioregion it can be the basis of ecological regeneration. In 2007 the head of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of one of the biggest media empires in the world, announced that his company would be going carbon neutral. This has led to some remarkable innovation in the company as they confronted the totally new territory of becoming a global leader in energy efficiency, renewable energy and carbon offsets. Many businesses, universities and households are now committing to minimizing their carbon footprint and even becoming carbon neutral.  But can it become a feature of whole neighborhoods and even complete cities? There are those who suggest it is essential if we are to move to Post Carbon cities. Carbon neutral can become the goal for all urban development just as it has for businesses and households. This will require a three step process:
  • reducing energy use wherever possible-especially in the building and transportation sectors;
  • adding as much renewable energy as possible, while being careful that the production of the renewable energy sources is not contributing significantly to greenhouse gases; and
  • offsetting any CO2 emitted through purchasing carbon credits particularly through tree planting.
There are private initiatives focused on helping cities to reach these goals, including ICLEI's Cities for Climate Change, Architecture 2030, and The Clinton Foundation's C-40 Climate Change Initiative. And as mentioned in the above section, many municipalities have started to offer incentives and/or require that new buildings must meet certain green-building standards. Minimizing carbon at the building level has momentum as it is easier to integrate the technology into new building, and the cost benefits have been proven (not just in energy savings, but in increased productivity and fewer sick days in green office buildings). In Sydney, Australia the State of New South Wales, through its BASIX program, has mandated that new homes must now be designed to produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, compared with an existing house (after initially requiring 20 percent and finding it was relatively easy to achieve), as well as 40 percent less water. BASIX is calculated to save 8 million Tonnes of CO2 and 287 billion liters of water in ten years. This is an important role for urban planning through the assessment process which can help to set up carbon neutral suburbs. Zero energy buildings and homes go well beyond what is required by any green building rating system. These have been built in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany for at least ten years, and now there are increasingly positive examples in every region of the world. The United Kingdom government has mandated that all urban development will be carbon neutral by 2016 with a phasing in from 2009. BedZED-or Beddington Zero Energy Development-is the first carbon-neutral community in the UK.  It has extended the concept to include the building materials and as it is a social housing development it has shown how to integrate the green and brown agendas. Malmo, Sweden has stated that it has already become a carbon neutral city; Växjä, Sweden, has declared its intention to become a fossil-fuel free city, and Newcastle, in the UK, and Adelaide in Australia aspire to be "carbon neutral". Each has taken important steps in the direction of renewable energy consistent with the vision articulated here. The link to the green agenda is very direct with the carbon neutral approach through bioregional tree planting schemes. By cities committing to carbon neutral they can focus their offsets into bioregional tree planting that is part of the biodiversity agenda as well as climate change. In all Australian cities, the carbon and GHG emissions associated with many municipal motor pools are being offset through innovative tree-planting initiatives and organizations like GreenFleet, which has recently planted its 2-millionth tree. Firms like airlines all offer a carbon neutral service, schools like South Fremantle High School and many businesses like News Corporation are committed to being carbon neutral.  The carbon offsetting is accredited through a Federal Government scheme called Greenhouse Friendly and provides a strong legal backing to ensure that plantations are real, related to the money committed and are guaranteed for at least 70 years as required by the Kyoto Convention. Many of the carbon offsetting programs are going towards biodiversity plantations that are regenerating the bioregional ecology around the cities. One plan in particular is the Gondwana Links project which is regenerating an ecological link over 3000 kms between the coastal ecosystems of the Karri forest to the inland woodlands by joining up various reserves. The project is driven by many big firms using their offsets to build in these biodiversity-based plantings - see Newman and Jennings, Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, Island Press, 2008). Preserving and planting trees helps to sequester carbon that is emitted. Tree cover also helps to naturally cool buildings and homes and can reduce the need to use energy necessary for artificial cooling. Tree planting as part of a carbon neutral program can be built into the normal functions of the city as in Cairo (see indented section, below). Initiatives to provide greater tree coverage include the tree planting program at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). SMUD has been actively promoting tree planting as a way of reducing energy consumption, and effectively addressing the urban heat island problem. Since 1990, this program of providing residents with free shade trees, has resulted in the planting of some 350,000 trees there. This program could be expanded to provide residents and businesses with carbon neutral options.

In Cairo their Plan includes a greenbelt which will be part of a carbon neutral goal. The greenbelt has been in their Plan for over 30 years but now has received a boost from this new initiative. The greenbelt plantation, outside the Greater Cairo Region ring road and its major junctions, is being developed along with greenbelts for all the surrounding new satellite cities. As of 2005, a greenbelt of about 500 000 trees using a highly efficient drip irrigation system was completed along the ring road. These stretches of green-space will use only treated waste water with predominantly drip irrigation systems in order to efficiently disperse waste water while providing the plants a needed fertilizer. Some of the afforestation projects also include the production of crops of high-economic yield (mainly Jatropha and Jojoba plants). To off-set the current carbon emission in Cairo, the government estimated 10.5 million medium-sized trees would be necessary. The successful completion of this goal will depend on the establishment of new treatment plants and irrigations systems to meet the rising waste water production. Besides reducing the carbon impact of Cairo, these forests provide a means to control urban expansion and generate many job opportunities and more importantly, they improve biodiversity and other natural environment outcomes. Thus this program provides a clear example of how the green and brown agenda can be linked.

As part of Atlanta's ambitious beltline project to connect trails, transit, greenspace and development along 22-miles of an old rail corridor, over 1,200 acres of new greenspace will be added to the urban landscape. And in Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa has committed to planting one million trees through the urban area, made possible by public-private partnerships. All these are good programs but none are committed yet to a comprehensive city-wide carbon neutral approach that can link their tree planting to a broader biodiversity cause. In doing so, they can raise urban and bioregional re-forestation to a new level and provide hope for their citizens that are looking for ways to contribute to reducing the impact of climate change and simultaneously solving local and regional green agenda issues. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Peter NewmanPeter Newman is Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. He is the co-author of Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems, Green Urbanism Down Under, and Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change.