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Alex Steffen's Posts


There’s still time if you act now: ‘Carbon Zero,’ conclusion

Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. This is the final installment! Here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.


Even if we perform great feats of innovation, hard times lie ahead and the impacts of climate change are unlikely to be fair.

History and geography matter. There are some places that are dealing with natural attributes and human legacies that will be almost impossible to address. (Bangladesh, for instance, will find it very hard to adapt to sea-level rise under the best circumstances; many auto-dependent American suburbs will likely experience economic distress as resource and energy costs rise; the U.S. desert Southwest will be extremely stressed by both anticipated heat waves and fossil fuel-dependent land uses and economies.) How temperate the local climate is likely to be, how stable the surrounding ecosystem services are likely to remain, how wise (or lucky) the region has been in growing energy-efficient cities, how rich the local people are, and how much strength and integrity their national governments have -- all these factors will matter, undoubtedly.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that readiness to act matters more than any of these. Places that invest boldly in the next decades in ruggedizing their systems, growing civic resilience, and building up the local capacity for innovation, adaptation, and rapid cultural change -- these are the places that will find themselves most prepared for the storms on the horizon.

Being a city-region ready to meet the future (whatever it looks like) is more important than being luckiest in location or wealthiest at the moment. Successful engagement with future turmoil will demand leadership, strong civic cultures, commitment to change, tough choices, and aggressive action on changing big systems. No city out there is moving fast enough yet, but some are beginning to show signs of understanding the scope, scale, and speed of the change demanded of them. Others look great now, but are changing only incrementally and slowly. There comes a point where lack of action means further incremental change can no longer keep up with exponential problems.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Big-city problems, small-farm solutions: ‘Carbon Zero,’ chapter 6

Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day till we're done -- here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.

Sustenance: Bringing cities and nature together

Everything in the human world originates in nature: Everything around us is made of parts that are either mined or grown. Most of our attention, when it comes to climate, is on the mined -- particularly on the effects of burning mined fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and gas. And these fossil-fuel emissions are by far the biggest danger we face, and so focusing on them makes sense.

Yet dirty energy is not the only source of greenhouse gases. Other climate emissions are created when we grow things. Still others arise from our management of ecosystems we more traditionally think of as wild. Unless we treat natural systems wisely, we won’t be able to reduce emissions to the levels we must; and ultimately, cities offer a lever for change that at first might seem counterintuitive. That’s because urban economies dictate how the natural world is turned into the human world, and whether that transformation becomes sustainable, or not.

Food and climate change

To discuss the ways cities and nature are linked -- and why changing urbanites' relationships with natural places could help lower a city’s carbon footprint -- the best place to start is with food.

Feeding our cities is a less important source of greenhouse gases than transportation, building, and consumption; paradoxically, though, changing our food systems could offer profound reductions in emissions. That's because, done right, agriculture, fishing, and forestry could change from being destructive practices to being vehicles for atmospheric restoration.


Drawbacks of the digital city: ‘Carbon Zero,’ sidebar 3

When contemplating cities suffused with technology, the dangers are immediately apparent. All these data and systems could easily become tools for more repressive political control or (far more likely in my view) means for corporate influence to penetrate deeper and deeper, extracting profit from parts of our lives that once were private and noncommercial. Indeed, without strong human- and consumer-rights advocacy, our newly digital cities could easily become one step forward and three steps back from a societal perspective. On the other hand, because we are so early in the curve -- and because of the excellent work of groups like the ACLU and EFF -- we still have the ability to set the political and economic agenda for these systems. If they turn into exploitative nightmares, it will be because we let them. It is completely within our power to choose the opposite.

Addressing another danger -- network security breaches -- will demand not only more willpower, but also a shift in approach. With the increasing digitization of everything comes a corresponding increased risk in cyber-crime, complex system failures, and simple vandalism. That risk cannot, unfortunately, be met by not changing -- our current systems present terrifying vulnerabilities -- or by handing responsibility for the problem off to central authorities. The risk can only be met by three strong responses.

The first is open approaches to systems design that allow numerous users to understand those systems and find their weak spots and flaws; software evolved by these approaches has consistently proven more resilient than proprietary, purely commercial competitors, and Jamais Cascio and other leading technology futurists believe these open approaches can be applied across a vast range of systems with similar results.

The second is strong international laws and collaborating legal forces capable of finding and stopping lawbreakers like terrorists and organized criminal syndicates on an ongoing and successful basis. This, we should note, is much more about promoting the stability of fragile states and international rule of law than it is about high-tech espionage.

Third, we should understand when the controls and security systems we need demand people and human relationships, not more algorithms. We've for too long believed that every relationship can be commoditized and outsourced, and forgotten how critical community cohesion and learning actually are.

We tend to forget, too, how unsustainable our current technologies are. Right now, the entire technology sector is pretty much toxic, climate polluting, and materially unsustainable. Yet this is one area where I am actually fairly confident we can see major progress in the next decade, with breakthroughs in engineering, industrial processes, and product design. Some of the world's smartest people are already at work on this challenge. They just need to work faster.

So, a city of networked systems is no panacea. Built carefully and democratically, however, the digitized city offers powerful new opportunities for emissions reductions.

Back to Carbon Zero, chapter 5
Back to Carbon Zero, full contents

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Share and share alike: ‘Carbon Zero,’ chapter 5

Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day till we're done -- here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.

Consumption: Sharing capacities to cut carbon

Very few individual consumer choices we make have much impact on our carbon footprints. A handful -- the kind of home we live in, whether or not to own a car -- have huge implications. Most, though, are almost meaningless ... until we add them together.

Start adding those small consumer choices together and their impact grows. Indeed, those small choices we don’t think of, and the bigger choices we rarely think about, sum up to a lifetime of consumption and waste that produces a massive amount of pollution. That’s why consumer goods make up our third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot build carbon zero cities while overconsuming as we do.

When we do grasp the magnitude of our consumption emissions, our reaction is usually to decide we need to use less. If we use less, the thinking goes, we'll waste less. This is a noble response, almost certainly true in our own lives, and generally true in our cities as a whole. The problem is, how to do it? How do we design our cities so we actually use less?

What we know does not work is to ask people to make different choices. Studies show that almost all of us simply lack the attention and willpower it takes to evaluate the options and choose the climate-friendliest product or service every time we want to buy something. To make matters worse, many times we buy things not because we actually want to own those things in particular, but because the systems we use are set up in such a way that buying or going without are the only options. Other things we buy because we’re told we need them and don’t have the right information to figure out on our own if that’s really true. Still others we consume because keeping them out of our lives is harder than getting them and throwing them out (this is true, for instance, with phone books in most cities). If we’re going to tackle our consumption-related climate emissions, we need to rethink this whole system, not just ask people to shop differently.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


If we build it right, they (emissions) will come (down): ‘Carbon Zero,’ chapter 4

Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day till we're done -- here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.

Shelter: working with nature to drop emissions

Once we’re thinking differently about our streets, we need to start thinking differently about our buildings as well. How we build has a major impact on our climate emissions. To see why, we need to look at buildings themselves.

Buildings offer us many things: a place we can feel at home, a status display, a means of expressing our personalities, a productive workspace, an investment tool. But above all else, our buildings offer us shelter.

Shelter from what? The power of nature. Every day, vast quantities of energy flow through our surroundings. The seasons, the daily rotation of the Earth, the tides, the forces of sun and wind and rain: These are energies far vaster than anything human beings create by burning things. Most of us have only known exposure to the real power of nature -- frost-nipped fingers, sunstroke, the misery of trying to sleep in wet clothes in unrelenting rain -- through the occasional recreational misadventure. But for most of humanity, through most of history, the elements were a constant and threatening force. Vulnerability to the flows of nature was the most fundamental fact of our ancestors’ lives.

Traditional builders knew and made use of these flows. They had to.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Move a little closer, please: ‘Carbon Zero,’ chapter 3

Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day till we're done -- here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.

Urbanism: Why good walksheds mean lower emissions

How we build our cities determines how we live in them.

If we are going to imagine a carbon zero city, in most cases we need to start with a fresh understanding of how we get around in them. Transportation, after all, generates the largest share of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions. Cars account for most of that, but it's not just driving cars that's causing those emissions. Though the oil we burn driving is a catastrophic problem in its own right, those emissions are only part of the climate impacts of a huge set of systems that enables our driving. Factories and dealerships, roads and highways, parking lots and gas stations, road repairs and wrecking yards -- put them all together, and these "automotive systems" represent the single biggest contributor to global climate change worldwide.

So, getting a 90 percent reduction in transportation emissions is a serious job no matter where we live. But it’s a giant task in many North American and Australian cities, where car ownership and use (and thus emissions) are far higher than in cities elsewhere, and where most planning decisions were made with car traffic foremost in mind.

One thing is clear: We can’t get to new possibilities with old thinking. Turning the ignition key and starting our car -- no single act more defines the 20th century’s idea of prosperity, or offers a sharper contrast to the realities of the 21st century. Business-as-usual forecasts predict the world’s car fleets will double or even triple by mid-century. Car companies, with their old assumptions, see nothing but growth ahead. If their assumptions were right, there would be no way we could drop transportation emissions by the roughly 90 percent we seek.

Electric vehicles

What about electric cars, though? Can’t we just make all our cars electric and be done?

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


People-focused places and fairer cities: ‘Carbon Zero,’ sidebar 2

People-focused density provides a disproportionate benefit for low-income people. In fact, good city design can be part of what gets people out of poverty.

Compact development means increasing the supply of housing. Even if the new homes are being built in an area not affordable to those with low incomes, the increased housing supply helps make other housing more affordable than it would otherwise be. Part of what we need to do to bring housing costs down is build a lot more of it (and refurbish more of what's there).

Many people worry about gentrification. But the reality is that gentrification proceeds inexorably in walkable neighborhoods when cities have a very limited supply of people-focused areas. Lots of new development doesn't make things worse: It means the gentrification that occurs is the kind that's more likely to be beneficial to the people already living there. A recent Columbia University study found that "poor residents and those without a college education were actually less likely to move if they resided in gentrifying neighborhoods" in part because the increase in services improved their lives more than the rising cost of living disrupted them.

Good development can benefit low-income people, too, because compact neighborhoods are cheaper to live in; and the more compact they get, on average, the more the cost of living drops, measured against suburban areas with comparable income levels. We’re used to thinking of the suburbs as more affordable, because homes on larger lots cost less there. Think of the saying, “Drive until you qualify,” which acknowledges that real estate prices drop the farther into the 'burbs you go.

Suburban affordability, however, is an illusion -- when you consider the whole cost of living (and not just home prices) the suburbs are often actually more expensive. The average American family in an auto-dependent neighborhood spends more than one-quarter of its income on cars (not counting secondary costs, such as the health costs of so much inactivity and the financial risks of a major car crash). The average family in a walkable community, on the other hand, spends only 9 percent of its income on transportation -- and their choices tend to leave them healthier and better off. The costs of car ownership, especially multiple car ownership, are so great that even when housing is much cheaper in the outer suburbs, the cost of living is greater.

And cars are arguably the one product most responsible for impoverishing the poor in the first place -- an "investment" that destroys much of the value paid into them, and moves money out of the local economy. Cars funnel money from poor drivers to auto companies, lending companies, oil companies, and insurance companies. As Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez write:

The car system redistributes wealth upward, playing a significant role in the creation of inequality in America ... Cars are an expensive and depreciating asset for which there remains pervasive discrimination in new and used vehicle pricing, financing, and insurance. In other words, someone with low income or living in a poor or minority neighborhood will likely pay more to own and operate the same car than someone holding a higher-paying job or living in the next town over ... In a lifetime of car ownership, an American family will likely “invest” almost $1 million in its vehicles. And these numbers don’t even count yet more hidden costs like the mortgage on our garages or the property taxes levied on them.

There is a huge cultural challenge here: In an auto-dependent world, the working poor are understandably reluctant to give up their cars, even though they’re much more likely to achieve middle-class status with less auto dependence.

Being priced out of scarce homes in walkable neighborhoods and valuing the status and sense of "spatial freedom" that can come with a car, lower-income Americans are migrating to inner-ring suburbs and outer-ring exurbs.

One of the innovations most needed is a strategy that makes it possible for auto-dependent, middle- and lower-income families to live in and benefit from walkable communities, especially where the upfront costs of moving there are greater. I don't know of such a program anywhere, but it could offer real traction on a growing problem. Even such a smart strategy for helping the working poor live more affordably will fail, though, if cities don’t build many more walkable neighborhoods, with a much greater supply of housing.

Back to Carbon Zero, chapter 3
Full table of contents for Carbon Zero

Read more: Cities


Why clean energy isn’t enough: ‘Carbon Zero,’ chapter 2

Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day this week -- here's the full table of contents. Read this post for a little more about the project. And if you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.

Before we get on with the business of reimagination, though, we have to pause for some clarification on the matter of energy.

The first response many of us have to the climate crisis is simple: We need cleaner energy. This is not illogical. Most of the emissions warming the Earth come from burning dirty fossil fuels. So, we think, replacing those dirty power sources with clean energy sources should solve the problem. When we first ponder the challenge of making carbon zero cities, most of us fly immediately to the idea of cities covered in solar panels and powered by fields of wind turbines.

But seeing climate change mainly as an energy-generation problem -- rather than an energy-use problem -- will mean failure. To meet the climate crisis and win, we need to not only change the kind of energy we use, but also (and even more importantly, to my mind) completely rethink our relationship with energy.


The clean energy supply challenge

My support for clean energy is unequivocal. Obviously, we need to be moving quickly towards a world where all the energy we use comes from clean sources. Wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro all have very, very low emissions. (Nuclear is less climate-friendly, once the costs of mining uranium and storing the waste for the necessary 25-100,000 years are factored in, but some smart people like to include nuclear in the clean energy mix.) A world that ran only on these energy sources would be profoundly more sustainable.

Here’s the problem: If we continue using energy as we have, we won’t become a world run on clean energy. Business as usual, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), would see global energy demand jump 44 percent by 2030. The International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that with current policies we may see more than a doubling of world energy use by 2050.

In other words, to “zero out” our emissions solely by using clean energy, we’d have to replace all the dirty energy used on the planet today -- the coal, oil, and gas which provide transportation, heating and cooling, electricity, food, and manufactured goods to 7 billion people -- with solar, wind, and other clean energy. Essentially we’d need to replace all of the energy used everywhere on the planet. And then -- because energy demand is expected to double by 2050 unless we change direction -- we’d need do it again, within the next 40 years.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Consumption-based footprinting: ‘Carbon Zero,’ sidebar 1

"Consumption-based footprinting" is a mouthful, but while it may not flow smoothly off the tongue, it’s an elegant concept -- and an important way of looking at our problems.

A footprint, of course, is the measurement of the total impacts of a thing, be it a building, business, or ballgame. Consumption, of course, describes the things we use. So consumption-based footprinting is an attempt to measure the total impacts of everything we use. Boiled down: If we use it, its emissions are ours, no matter where the thing originated.

Now, footprinting is a bit of an arcane art. Because cities themselves are brain-boggling in their complexity, modeling the kinds and amounts of greenhouse gases their economies create represents a considerable task. It is not an impossible task, however, especially if what we’re seeking is a model good enough to guide decision-making, not a perfect reflection of reality.

In order to get our “good-enough” model, we need to know what it is we’re trying to measure -- and this is where the disagreements really begin. Essentially, there are three camps, which we might think of as city-map footprinting, mailbox footprinting, and shopping-basket footprinting (though their technical descriptions are often geographic, production, and consumption footprinting, respectively).

The city-map footprinters generally say we should measure those emissions created within a city, or created to directly power activities within a city: the oil burned in the cars we drive, the gas burned in our hot-water heaters, the coal burned in a nearby power plant to electrify the garage door, that sort of thing. This is the most common approach to footprinting, but its virtue is simplicity rather than accuracy.

The mailbox footprinters say we should measure all the emissions we ourselves produce. In other words, yes, we should include our cars, water heaters, and garage doors, but also the emissions our factories and workplaces create in the process of making the goods and services we export. This is a less common approach.

The shopping-basket footprinters say we should count all the emissions created by the things we use and consume, or created by the systems that support those things. So, yes, we should count our cars, water heaters, and garage doors, but also the roads on which those cars drive, the manufacturing plants that made those water heaters, and the mining and shipping operations that produced the coal burned to raise and lower those garage doors. Basically, this consumption-based approach says that if we use something and benefit from its use, we are responsible for all of the greenhouse gases it took to make that thing.

Even this can seem a bit complex, though, so I like to imagine that carbon emissions are cakes, and emissions-reductions are a diet. If we think of cakes and diets, we see that the three approaches like to count very different calories:

  • Geographic footprinters say, “I will count only those cakes I both bake and eat at home.”
  • Production footprinters say, “I will count all the cakes I bake, whether I eat them or not.”
  • Consumption footprinters say, “I will count all the cakes I eat, no matter who bakes them.”

If what we care about is modifying our caloric intake (read: greenhouse gases), consumption-based footprinting is clearly the best approach. (For ethical reasons, we may also want to take a hard look at the kind and number of cakes we’re baking and sending elsewhere, but if we’re looking to lose weight ... well, baker, heal thyself.)

Consumption-based footprinting helps us imagine carbon zero cities, because it gives us a truer sense of our climate impacts. In addition, it draws our attention to big systems. Looking at our lives, we begin to realize that large percentages of the greenhouse gases created in the process of housing ourselves, feeding ourselves, shopping, working, and getting around are emitted out of our sight or within systems not immediately amenable to change by individuals. We have a lot of work to do, and we cannot reach our emissions goals simply by tweaking the end product in a system -- because most of our emissions come from the inner workings of the systems themselves.

This kind of understanding can be overwhelming, but also empowering: If we can see the systems that underpin our various ways of living, we can see, too, how changing those systems can produce large reductions in emissions patterns. Every city will be different, of course, having differently shaped carbon footprints and thus different systems-change priorities. But every city can use consumption-based footprinting to see its climate impacts more clearly and completely.

Back to Carbon Zero, chapter 1
Back to Carbon Zero, full contents

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Cities in the age of climate consequences: ‘Carbon Zero,’ chapter 1

Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day for a week -- here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.


On Monday the 29th of October, 2012, a tidal surge 13.9 feet high (the highest ever recorded) washed up and over the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, pushed forward by the superstorm Sandy. That same week, the storm destroyed large swathes of coastline from the New Jersey shore to Fire Island, while driving torrential rains, heavy snows, and powerful winds inland across the eastern U.S. and Canada. By the time the storm blew out, it had killed more than 100 Americans, made thousands homeless, left millions without power, and caused at least $50 billion in damage. Sandy was, by any reckoning, one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Maybe, though, the word “natural” belongs in quotes. Because what was surprising about Sandy wasn’t that it happened (indeed, many had predicted that rising sea levels and storms intensified by warmer oceans would make something like Sandy inevitable), but that it was seen so clearly, and so immediately, for what it was: a forewarning of what a planet in climate chaos has in store for us.

Buy Carbon Zero on Amazon.

Sandy was far from the first sign that climate change is here -- scientists have been warning for decades of the dangers of a heating planet, and in the last 10 years we’ve seen a flurry of unprecedented storms, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, and wildfires, as well as record-breaking heat waves following one after another. Sandy, though, knocked down walls of denial and inattention that have kept us from admitting what’s happening to our world.

What’s happening is that we’re losing the climate fight. Climate change is here, it’s worsening quickly, its effects are more dire than many thought they would be, and -- if we continue with business as usual -- we’re on a track to unleash an almost unimaginable catastrophe on ourselves, our children, and our descendants.

"Part of learning from [Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the time. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.” He added later, ”Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

Our choice: “extremely dangerous” or “catastrophic”

To not warm the planet at all no longer remains an option. The Earth is already dangerously hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy