Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Review: Carbon Zero (Imagining Cities That Can Save The Planet)

 Carbon Zero should be read by anyone involved in 
building, maintaining, and living in their community.



Long time readers of Worldchanging will be familiar with most of the themes Alex Steffen brings together in his latest essay. The 21st century will bring immense challenges as a result of the profligate burning of fossil fuels. These challenges are no longer vague future threats. They are real, and pressing, and can be adequately met by nothing less than a commitment to complete carbon neutrality.

In Carbon Zero, Steffen argues that even a wholesale movement to renewable energy sources (however desirable) isn’t going to be enough. Not only must we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, but we must reduce our dependence on energy use itself. The best way to achieve this is to redesign civilisation’s most energy intensive artefact: our cities.


"The best-possible scenario would be one in which 
many cities hurl themselves into fierce competition
to lead in a bright green urban boom. 
That competition is probably not only the key to creating cities
that offer the best, most sustainably prosperous lives possible, 

but also the best answer we have to the planetary crisis we face.
 We need a race to carbon zero."

A city uses energy in a variety of ways; the most immediately familiar being the heating, cooling and lighting of buildings. Petrol for vehicles is another, and one which hints at a much more pervasive energy drain: that of maintaining the huge infrastructures supporting relatively low density car-centric suburbs. This is the crux of Steffen’s thesis: that people who live in higher density ‘walkable’ neighbourhoods consume much less energy for transportation. Furthermore, they stand ready to make use of a number of cascade effects which not only improve their quality of life, but make their neighbourhood more resilient to adversity.

Carbon Zero offers a bold, positive-sum vision for how we can organise ourselves to face the challenges of the near future. The execution, however, will present challenges of its own. I think we have become too used to seeing our cities grow outward as inner neighbourhoods become unaffordable to many. How might the inertia of this trend be reversed? How might we counter the enticement of cheap (up front) housing in the increasingly remote outer suburbs by packaging local living competitively?

In the afterword, Steffen admits the task of writing Carbon Zero took a lot more effort than he had first intended. Cities represent a multi-layered network of interlocking systems well beyond the casual understanding of individuals. He has a respect for the various planners, and engineers who would be required to actually implement stuff. Nevertheless, I think that if Carbon Zero offers one thing above all else to the various stakeholders in city-scaping, it is a cohesive vision of what they, with their community’s support, can make possible.