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.