Life After Carbon
6 x 9
The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future.
In Life After Carbon, urban sustainability consultants Pete Plastrik and John Cleveland assemble this global pattern of urban reinvention from the stories of 25 "innovation lab" cities across the globe—from Copenhagen to Melbourne. A city innovation lab is the entire city—the complex, messy, real urban world where innovations must work. It is a city in which government, business, and community leaders take to heart the challenge of climate change and converge on the radical changes that are necessary. They free downtowns from cars, turn buildings into renewable-energy power plants, re-nature entire neighborhoods, incubate growing numbers of clean-energy and smart-tech companies, convert waste to energy, and much more. Plastrik and Cleveland show that four transformational ideas are driving urban climate innovation around the world, in practice, not just in theory: carbon-free advantage, efficient abundance, nature's benefits, and adaptive futures. And these ideas are thriving in markets, professions, consumer trends, community movements, and "higher" levels of government that enable cities.
Life After Carbon presents the new ideas that are replacing the pillars of the modern-city model, converting climate disaster into urban opportunity, and shaping the next transformation of cities worldwide. It will inspire anyone who cares about the future of our cities, and help them to map a sustainable path forward.
Seattle Book Review
"Life After Carbon is a highly engaging, forward-looking study of how modern cities are innovating to survive...This superb book looks at the evolution of the world's cities and their challenging future...Life After Carbon is essential reading for anyone with a stake in the development of tomorrow's cities."
"Life After Carbon presents an inspiring account of actual urban change that could not have been written just 10 years ago; there simply wasn’t enough going on then.... [it is] compelling reading for local government leaders everywhere...If your council is considering declaring a climate emergency and getting in on this action, I urge you to pick up a copy of this book to see what other cities are doing and how they’re doing it."
Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Public Management
"Life After Carbon is a vivid and multifaceted look at the cities leading the global transition to a post-carbon world. Drawing insight from and connections among the communities at the forefront of urban climate innovation, Plastrik and Cleveland chart much-needed and promising pathways into the future."
Edward Mazria, Architecture 2030
"In Life After Carbon, Plastrik and Cleveland lay out a hidden upside of climate action, detailing how innovative cities leading the fight against climate change are developing a new model for urban development that promises better cities in a carbon-free economy. This is an important and inspiring book for business leaders and other professionals in their efforts to create more livable cities while strengthening climate resilience."
Mindy Lubber, CEO of Ceres
"Plastrik and Cleveland give readers nothing less than a new and compelling vision for what cities could be: carbon-free, climate adaptive, biophilic and nature-rich, with restorative closed-loop metabolisms, and, of course, wonderful places in which to live. Together these stories, ideas, and emerging practices chart an optimistic urban future. Life After Carbon is an essential resource for planners, mayors, and citizens (all of us) with a vested interest in accelerating this future."
Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia
"Plastrik and Cleveland have written a timely, affirmative account of urban innovation and transformation in the face of climate change. Their vision of the post-carbon city is captivating and compelling, with ideas that are tangible, transferable, and scalable. This is a much-needed contribution at a pivotal moment."
Bruce Katz, coauthor, "The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism"
Prologue: Creation Stories
Part I: On the Innovation Pathway
Urban Climate Innovation Laboratories
Goals, Systems, Clusters, and Waves
Making a Better City
The Rebel Alliance
Part II: Toward Global Urban Transformation
The Power of Transformational Ideas
Part III: Challenges of Urban Evolution
The Edge of City Climate Innovation
The Next Urban Operating System
Epilogue: Life After Carbon
About the Authors
With climate change already impacting us, what policies should we prioritize now to achieve a low carbon future? And what are the models for urban development that will put cities on the low carbon path while helping them thrive in a changing climate?
Join SSF and Island Press in a 90-minute webinar to explore these questions. Peter Fox-Penner, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University, will moderate. He’ll be joined by panelists Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation and co-author of Designing Climate Solutions, and John Cleveland, Executive Director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission and co-author of Life After Carbon.
Vanguard municipalities are finding replicable ways to pay for climate resilience investments.
Cities that have begun implementing climate resilience projects have used distinct strategies to to obtain public and private financial resources that pay for large-scale climate-resilience. These strategies amount to an initial approach—"Playbook 1.0"—for deciding who will pay what and how city governments will generate the needed revenue.
Join city leaders, authors of the recent report "How Cities Are Paying for Climate Resilience: Playbook 1.0," and professionals supporting resilience in hundreds of cities around the globe to explore the strategies that reflect the leading-edge of urban climate-resilience financing practices discuss what they foreshadow for other cities and the continuing evolution of the urban leadership for climate-resilience finance.
A new model for urban development is emerging as cities worldwide are responding to climate change.
Join the Maryland Department of Planning and the Smart Growth Network at 1 p.m., Tuesday April 28, as Peter Plastrik, author of Life After Carbon, outlines a model that is transforming how cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future.
This model is already being built out in cities large and small dubbed “climate innovation labs.” -- places like Copenhagen and Melbourne, Austin and Vancouver, where city government, business and community leaders are working together to transform core systems. Plastrik will explain how climate disasters can become urban opportunities and shape the next transformation of cities worldwide.
Participants of the live webinar are eligible for 1.5 AICP CM credits.
New York, New York
San Francisco, California
Vancouver, British Columbia
Washington, District of Columbia
Cape Town, South Africa
London, United Kingdom
Mexico City, Mexico
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In the latest episode in our series of Urban Resilience Project (URP) podcasts in partnership with Infinite Earth Radio, host Mike Hancox speaks with Peter Plastrik about Life After Carbon, his new book on the next global transformation of cities in the era of climate change.
Check out our entire series of podcasts on urban resilience topics HERE.
Kyler Geoffroy is the Online Marketing Manager for Island Press
Recent climate marches have captured our collective attention. Students and young people around the world have taken to the streets to demand action on climate change now, in order to protect the environment for a better future. The impacts that we can already see are not the only climate impacts that will affect quality of life for future generations. Some climate dangers have yet to materialize. We turned to some of our authors to find out—What do they think will be the most pressing climate change issue in the next 50 years? Why?
The most pressing climate change issue will be our capacity to provide adequate nutrition and water to every person on Earth. This is a challenge we already struggle with and climate change will increasingly cause droughts and extreme weather events. Both our water sources and agricultural production are sensitive to these climatic shifts. Potential future food and water shortages will lead to increased global unrest and political tensions. However, we can take steps today to prevent these future shortages by developing sustainable adaptation strategies. Our greatest strength as humans is our capacity to innovate, and if we do so carefully and responsibly we'll be able to prevent many of these future crises.
-Jessica Eise, author of How to Feed the World
Clearly, the most pressing climate issue is figuring out how to get the global economy to carbon neutrality, and then developing the technologies for economically taking large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. But another critical issue that is not yet really being addressed is how we get in place national and international regimes to manage massive human migrations that will be driven by climate change. Regardless of the success that the global community has in implementing deep greenhouse gas reductions over the coming decades, we already know that anticipated future climate impacts will eventually cause large-scale migration of populations away from areas that are threatened by climate risks such as sea level rise, extreme heat, extreme storms, drought and wildfires, and towards areas of lower risk. The timing and geographic distribution of these movements is highly uncertain. They will, however, have a large impact on both the areas that lose population and the areas that gain population. And they will cause substantial economic, social, and political turbulence. As one commentator noted: "You can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000 and one million people, but not 10 million." How will we manage this climate migration? What legal status will the migrants have? How do we prepare the areas that are losing population, as well as those that are likely to find themselves with large unplanned in-migrations? It is time to start digging into these questions.
-John Cleveland, author of Life After Carbon
In my view, the largest threat to Earth in the decades to come will be unsustainable human population growth. This will trigger all kinds of irreversible environmental change. A smaller human footprint means first of all fewer feet.
-Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup
Most scientists agree that climate change will increase the occurrence, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events, including flooding, hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires. If we don’t do anything about this, most cities will become less comfortable—some by a lot. Depending on their location, cities and their inhabitants could suffer from the following possible scenarios: too wet, too dry, or too warm. Homes could be flooded on a regular basis, water faucets could stop flowing, or people’s lives could be confined to air-conditioned interiors because outside will be too hot. Fortunately, architects and city planners can help increase urban resilience—the ability of urban communities to bounce back from shock. If we do it right, we can even think of this as an opportunity to improve our cities and buildings. Dikes could double as flood protection and functional buildings, native species and drought tolerant plants can save water used for landscaping, and trees and plants can help cool down urban spaces. The future has always been uncertain, but our future may be even more uncertain. With climate change impacting our cities in unpredictable ways, the big question is: how do we design with these new risks?
-Stefan Al, author of Adapting Cities to Sea Level Rise
Climate change, as western U.S. water scholar Brad Udall frequently points out, is water change. What Udall means is that, even as we work toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need to focus on reducing our vulnerability to changes even now being felt in the planet's hydrologic cycles. That can mean more water where we don't want it—think for example the flooding felt in the central United States from a freak storm in March 2019, or the creeping rise of sea level confronting our coastal cities. It often means less water where we've come to depend on it, like the shrinking reservoirs of the Colorado River Basin. Preparing for a future of water change is essential regardless of how successful we are in reducing our greenhouse gas footprint.
-John Fleck, author of Water is for Fighting Over
The transportation sector remains one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and thus represents the lowest-hanging fruit for governments looking to meet difficult carbon-reduction targets. Through our research, we've found that the Netherlands provides the best example of a clear path forward. A 2014 World Bank report ranked it in the bottom 25 nations for transport-related carbon dioxide emissions (as a percentage of total national production). In fact, Dutch transportation contributes just a fifth of their overall emissions, compared to a third in the United States, which—with 1.9 billion tons of CO2 emissions in 2016—overtook power generation as the most-polluting sector in the country for the first time in 40 years. Rather than wait for the electric car to save us, we should be looking to the humble bicycle, which—with the right infrastructure and policies in place—could immediately replace a significant number of trips we take by car, and begin moving us in a more sustainable direction for the future of our planet and our children.
-Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, co-authors of Building the Cycling City
The most pressing issue in relation to climate change is almost certainly the preservation and, if possible, extension of forest cover. Obviously, we must work toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing the adoption of renewable energy, but even the most optimistic scenarios around that would not solve the problem. Forests, and the oceans, provide the greatest sinks for CO2; we can fight to maintain oceanic biosphere and health, but we could—at least conceptually—increase the area of forests. And we MUST try to halt forest destruction.
-Joe Landsberg, co-author of Forests in Our Changing World
Society will not only need to prepare for current and impending changes due to climate change, we will need to do this while taking drastic action to avoid catastrophic consequences in the future. Many cities are vulnerable and dealing with the effects of climate change already. Forty percent of the United States’ population lives on 10% of its land mass—along coastlines. While cities have the power to make a greater impact on how we prepare for climate change, future planning and growth needs to be coordinated, thoughtful, and innovative. To start, policymakers should embrace and champion policies that encourage walkable, urban places and associated density—particularly in suburbs. Walkable, urban places create the opportunity for a lower carbon footprint, while contributing to a better quality of life for residents.
-Jason Beske, co-author of Suburban Remix
While the costs of adapting to climate change will be historic—in the US exceeding in real dollar terms the costs of fighting World War II and building the interstate highway system combined—the costs of inaction will be catastrophic. The UK’s National Oceanographic Centre (NOC) estimates annual global costs of climate-driven flooding, only one of multiple climate change impacts, at more than US$14 trillion. The NOC also projects that more than six hundred million people could be displaced by rising seas alone by 2100. In the US, seven of the ten most economically productive metros—representing roughly one-quarter of the entire economy and growing 50% faster than the US as a whole—face serious risks from rising sea levels.
Yet a blinders-on, single-issue focus on resiliency can mean falling into an all-too-familiar priority trap that pulls resources away from other compelling challenges. For example, the developed world is rapidly aging. People over the age of 65 will represent more than half of America’s (and the developed world’s) net growth for at least the next two decades—placing extraordinary stresses on healthcare costs that are projected to eat up all discretionary US federal spending by 2050. Growing income disparities in the US and across the developed world, accelerated by the shift to a knowledge economy that delivers most of its economic benefits to the better-educated top 20% of the workforce, are generating growing social as well as economic strains. Rapidly evolving technology means that within two decades the US and rest of the developed world will need to retool trillions of dollars in transportation infrastructure to adapt to autonomous mobility while at the same time responding to automation’s projected evisceration of the jobs of tens of millions of workers in the US alone. Nor can government stop funding transit, parks, and education—without facing grave social unrest and economic decline. And already today the developed world faces an enormous bill for fixing existing infrastructure—a figure that in the US will reach US$2 trillion, or almost 10% of the entire US economy, by the late 2020s.
Despite doubts expressed by US political leaders, the real question is not should we react to climate change, but how? The sheer enormity of the threat compels action. But how do we avoid the priority trap? My own experience planning for New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina suggests three strategies: public private partnerships that unleash the innovation potential of the private sector, institutions and government working together; adopting the principles the Dutch originated following World War II—any resources spent on protection from rising seas or other climate forces need to also address livability, economic competitiveness, and wellness; and the time
-David Dixon, co-author of Suburban Remix
I just returned from Sweden where it’s all about climate change. The government is planting trees around the world, as well as working hard to reduce Sweden’s carbon footprint. Recycling options are everywhere. At the university where I spoke there are only washable dishes, cups, silverware in the cafeteria and break rooms. Everyone over four years old rides a bike, and those under four are in contraptions attached to an adult’s bike. Greta, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, is inspiring us all with her courage and passion. For me the key question in tackling climate change is: Will we be willing and able to follow and support the youthful leadership taking on the challenge? It’s easy to write off the younger generation as inexperienced, whimsical, lost in their devices. That is old-fashioned and destructive thinking. These young activists are on the frontline of climate change, and we need to put our faith—as well as our money, influence and energy—in their leadership.
-Lucy Moore, author of Common Ground on Hostile Turf
Creating extensive ecological networks consisting of well-connected, large protected areas is most pressing priority because it is our best option to limit the extent of the sixth mass extinction. Climate change is adding to and exacerbating other threats to biodiversity, such as habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, and environmental degradation. Ecological networks can reduce the impact of all stressors, promote population persistence, and allow species to adapt to climate change by moving to climatically suitable areas.
-Dr. Annika Keeley, co-author of Corridor Ecology, Second Edition
A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Article Was Originally Published October 28, 2019 in Meeting of the Minds.
Earlier in 2019, Vancouver’s city council declared a climate emergency and adopted a new set of climate-action targets that pushed its already aggressive goals to a new level. In response to the urgent need to hold global warming to below 1.5°C, the city set a new goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.
There’s much more going on here than radical climate action, as vital as that is. As Vancouver and other cities invent and implement ways to decarbonize their systems and strengthen resilience to climate change, we are reinventing the basic model for urban development that has prevailed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. In fact, we are transforming urban design and life in cities, and Vancouver’s new City Plan will fully embrace climate and equity as core principles.
As Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland explain in Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities, the many urban climate innovations underway carry big new ideas about what cities are and how they should work. And these ideas are replacing ideas that propelled the development of the modern city model we all know.
Vancouver is one of 25 global cities covered in Life After Carbon. The authors detail how these “climate innovation laboratories”— from Austin, Copenhagen, and Cape Town to Melbourne, Mexico City, New York, and Shanghai — have initiated wave after wave of locally grown climate innovations that leave no urban system untouched. These cities, they report, “have come to understand themselves, their place in the world, in a new way and act boldly on their changed awareness.” Their efforts have required remarkable creativity, political courage, and resources. Their work has also spurred collaboration among government departments, and between government and the private and civic sectors.
Plastrik and Cleveland have worked in and alongside many of these leading-edge cities, have written insightful reports about cities’ climate innovations, and were instrumental in the formation of two important city networks: the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. But Life After Carbon provides more than a survey of urban climate innovations. The authors illuminate a compelling thesis of change that is happening on the ground, not just in theories and elusive visions. They identify four transformative ideas that are embedded in urban climate innovations and show how these ideas are being applied worldwide:
The framework in Life After Carbon rings true for Vancouver. Ours is a relatively young city, established in the 1860s with sawmills cutting some of the world’s largest trees into lumber. When a fire in the 1880s swept away what had been built, a modern city rose from the ashes. It had electricity and water systems, and streetcars. It was the western terminus of the new national railroad system, and a port for shipping wood across the ocean. In other words, Vancouver started out as a modern city exploiting local natural resources in a globalizing economy. It has since grown into a city with 640,000 inhabitants in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million, heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels to power vehicles and heat buildings.
By the end of the 20th century, city leaders and residents realized that the city’s future well-being did not lie in doing more of the same. In a radical change in the city’s thinking, we committed to becoming a green city, a renewable-energy city, an economically competitive city, and an equitable city. It’s a clear vision built on different ideas about what a city can and should be.
These commitments to action have helped drive Vancouver’s economic growth. We have partnered with entrepreneurs to develop a fast-growing, job-creating “green economy” business sector, and we are home to 23 percent of Canada’s clean-tech companies. Jobs and population in our community have each grown by more than a third since 1990, while our carbon emissions have decreased in that same time by about 12 percent. Vancouver has successfully branded itself as a highly desirable place for young, innovative talent to find work and build companies. A 2015 study by Brand Finance found that Vancouver is uniquely associated with being clean, green, and environmentally sustainable, resulting in a $31 billion USD brand evaluation.
Vancouver is also working toward a goal of 100 percent renewable energy before 2050. To that end, the city is reducing energy usage and switching from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and hydropower. The largest source of carbon pollution is the burning of natural gas for space and water heating in buildings, so with strong support of council, the public and the building design community, we have put in place a world-pioneering Zero Emission Building Plan for all new construction. The new building code will ensure that new buildings are energy efficient and use no fossil fuel by 2030. We built Canada’s first sewer heat recovery system, which harvests heat from a significant sewer line, enabling residents and businesses to reduce their carbon emissions by up to 70 percent. To produce our own renewable energy, we are harvesting methane from the landfill and partnering with FortisBC, our gas utility, to clean the gas and put it into the fossil gas distribution system.
Our new climate-emergency targets include ecosystem reforestation in the region: by 2030, restoration work will be completed on enough forest and coastal ecosystems to remove 1 million tonnes of carbon pollution annually by 2060. Meanwhile, the city is developing its next environmental plan, which calls for accelerating and expanding its nearer term decarbonization targets. By 2030:
All of this work to create a new kind of 21st century city must be done with a strong lens on equity to ensure that everyone, especially low-income people and neighborhoods, benefits from these changes.
My involvement in shifting Vancouver’s thinking about its future as a city has taught me that, as Life After Carbon puts it, “transformational ideas are becoming a new standard for cities—not just a toolbox of innovations but a radically different way of thinking about, a model for, city development and urban achievement around the world.”
The framework of ideas that Plastrik and Cleveland found in urban climate innovations reveals a common ground among cities; a simplified understanding of what they share. It’s useful in several ways. Most importantly, the framework’s key ideas allow us to recognize that the real and urgent work of city leaders in the age of climate change is to fashion better cities. Better cities are economic innovation motors, ultra-efficient in all regards, fully reconnected to nature, and having the social capacity to turn climate disaster into opportunity for the entire community. Few cities have put all of these pieces together.
The framework also helps city leaders recognize that other players: businesses, professionals, community organizations, and other levels of government, are not only critical to success but are embracing these new ideas and implementing them in their own spheres. Life After Carbon emphasizes this point in its final chapters, describing the substantial range of related activities undertaken globally by non-governmental entities.
Life After Carbon presents an inspiring account of actual urban change that could not have been written just 10 years ago; there simply wasn’t enough going on then. But today, the story of cities’ transformative journeys makes compelling reading for local government leaders everywhere. As we know in Vancouver, and as other cities are showing, Life After Carbon is prescient in declaring that “the successor to the modern city is busy being born.”
Sadhu Aufochs Johnston currently serves as Deputy City Manager for the City of Vancouver, Canada. He co-founded the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) with Julia Parzen and led Chicago’s green initiatives under Mayor Daley as Commissioner of the Department of Environment and in the Mayor’s office as the Chief Environmental Officer.