Carbon Zero: A short tour of your city’s future

Help Alex Steffen create a short guide to carbon-neutral cities

The climate crisis demands that we start rebuilding our cities to become carbon neutral. But what does carbon neutrality mean? What does it look like? How do we measure it? My first goal here is to explain carbon neutrality in a short, amusing book that can be read in an afternoon; my second goal is to try an experiment in community-funded solutions-based journalism.

It’s time to demystify bold climate action, fast. By being the first to show support, you’ll help make this book a reality by Earth Day this April. (You’ll also get cool stuff.)

MefuturecityGuest blogger Alex Steffen wants you to help him create a book on climate solutions for cities (click here to help kick-start this effort).  Steffen co-founded and lead the nonprofit Worldchanging from 2003-2010; he also edited the two Worldchanging books.


With captivating design from Open (the creative geniuses behind Good magazine’s design, Planet Green’s logo, and the new Google for Nonprofits campaign) and text drawn from my popular “climate neutral cities” talks, Carbon Zero: A Short Tour of Your City’s Future will take the reader on an adventure into his or her city’s future.

I’ll start by explaining the typical sources of greenhouse gas emissions in a North American city, using actual numbers from Seattle to illustrate the proportions and the controversies inherent in assigning responsibility for complex actions (should emissions from products made in China but purchased in the U.S., for instance, count as American or Chinese?).

I’ll then move step by step through the various greenhouse gas sources, exploring solutions which can slash those emissions while providing more prosperity, better quality of life, or both. Drawing on real-world examples of successful projects and places, I’ll show how these changes feel on the ground, painting a concrete picture of life in the near future. Using a few key charts and clear illustrations (Open are masterful information designers), we’ll help readers visualize complex realities quickly.

The goal is not to dictate how any city ought to evolve; the goal is to show that a panoply of good climate solutions already exist, and more are in development, making for a variety of pathways into a climate-friendly future. It’s a guide to thinking about an important set of issues, not a single-answer prescription.

Bucky Fuller once said that people never leave a sinking ship until they see the lights of another ship approaching. One of the reasons it is so hard to act on climate change is that most of us are afraid of what we’ll lose, but uncertain at best about what we’ll gain.

Yet, I’m convinced that the gains far outweigh the losses here. I think the gains are so great, we’d want to proceed with many of the boldest climate plans even if climate wasn’t the biggest threat facing humanity. In fact bold action on climate may be what separates the world’s most successful cities from ones that fail; in short, we’re going to love our carbon-neutral, zero-waste, leafy green, car-free, unrecognizably ecological, economically booming urban futures… or envy someone else’s.


Earth Day is typically full of messages about do-it-yourself, small acts and ways to “go green.” But this year, with a sense of malaise in the progressive community, a climate-hostile Congress and the oil, coal and chemical companies lobbying, spinning and greenwashing as never before, we need something more than a few simple steps.

But we can’t build what we can’t imagine, and we usually have a hard time imagining what we don’t understand. Carbon neutrality is complex, but it’s not rocket science: there’s no reason why everybody can’t understand its basics. But most people have never heard carbon neutrality explained, much less explained clearly in a book they actually have time to read.

This is a chance for us to not only create a resource for those people, but to push forward the larger debate as well, shining a light on the kind of change it will take to build a planet with a future.


Your early support will pay for my time to write it, a copy editor’s time to check it and Open’s time to design the book and the poster.


The book will be short (no more than 100 pages – something you can read in one rainy afternoon), nicely illustrated and designed to be accessible and compelling. It’ll be available in PDF and possibly for Kindle; if there’s enough demand, we’ll pursue a print edition as well.

My intention is also to make the whole thing available in a slightly shorter Creative Commons licensed version, so that it can be freely shared by community groups, in classrooms and with civic leaders.

Alex Steffen

Click here to help kick-start this effort

11 Responses to Carbon Zero: A short tour of your city’s future

  1. Chris Bachmann says:

    A mention of the waterways and how cities can help keep the water clean would also be good. I’d recommend Ned Tillman as a resource. Clean air and clean water are bot important to a healthy city. While it’s not really within the scope of the book, a page or two as an appendix pointing to other resources could be a good thing.

  2. Susan Anderson says:

    Typical of the kind of hope and despair I have about this issue is an attempt to persuade my neighbors to turn unused lights off. This is a very liberal artists cooperative in the very liberal city of Boston (we didn’t elect a single important Republican in November after the Brown cataclysm) but the city is a Christmas tree at night, and even where I live the idea of cutting back on lights is a non-starter.

    Therefore, I think the educational component of a shared future must come first, middle, and last, constantly focusing on what is obvious to us but seems unnecessary even to our liberal friends.

    Another no-brainer is lawns in dry areas, including getting rid of neighborhood ordinances that make planting area-appropriate yards a steep climb. One suggestion for the intransigeant was to have a two-foot border of grass so the “garden” looks more intentional.

  3. Mark says:

    Multifamily housing with high efficiency central HVAC can replace one man / one lawn suburban living.

    Houses might be combined with greenhouses

    Cities that haven’t yet done sewer separation can build a unified geothermal HVAC system under their roads at the same time they re-vamp the storm and septic sewage systems.

    They can be connected to renewable energy far away through high efficient interstate electric trunk lines running DC power.

    They’ll have abundant small scale electric generation systems (mostly wind and solar) at end of the electric grids local runs, to help combat loss from voltage drop on AC lines.

    Junk mail postage will be raised a lot so that it is slashed in volume and postal delivery (thats a huge fleet of vehicles) will happen only 3x per week.

    Such extensive HVAC renovations will be needed in a 10F world that many existing homes will simply be replaced instead of renovated.

    Gas stations will be outfitted with battery swapping services for electric cars

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    Alex, I think it’s a great idea, I wish you luck, and I look forward to seeing the book. I’d only suggest one thing …

    (I’d imagine that you already realize this, of course, but it isn’t mentioned explicitly in the brief explanation in the post. So, I just wanted to highlight the following thought. It may or may not fit in the book, or perhaps only as one page of context, but it’s something that should be kept in mind as context as the book develops, I think. Here goes … )

    The question is not, “What is carbon neutrality, and what would a carbon-neutral city be like?” — in a vacuum. In other words, not all carbon-neutral scenarios are equal from other important standpoints (including some of the most important), nor should carbon neutrality be achieved in ways that are (in essence) “aimless” from other standpoints.

    Instead, the question is more like this, of course: How can human well-being and happiness, and sustainability, (including a healthy environment, biodiversity, and etc.), be achieved in ways that are carbon neutral (which is of course necessary for some of those things TO be achieved, but there are many carbon-neutral scenarios that wouldn’t achieve these other aims, as well as some that would)?

    That’s what I mean by saying that we can’t ask the “carbon neutral” question, or solve that problem, in a vacuum. We have to ask and address it in relation to human aims and values — and goodness knows, our present apparent aims and values themselves are out-of-synch, presently, not only with sustainability but also even with how we think we should go about achieving them. (In other words, we don’t understand ourselves very well, including how to achieve our own well-being and happiness. See, for example, Daniel Gilbert’s great book, ‘Stumbling on Happiness’.)

    So the real question is not simply how to have a carbon-neutral city. That’s “merely” a technical question and has a very, very large number of solutions. Instead, the question is how to achieve carbon-neutrality in a way, or actually ways, that facilitate genuine well-being, meaning, “happiness”, sustainability, and etc. The book doesn’t need to go into all that, of course, but it probably should make that type of point (even if only in an introductory sentence) and should certainly be implemented with this sort of context in mind. I’m sure you must understand this already, so my main point is to make it explicit, at least briefly, wherever it seems to fit in the project.

    Cheers and Good Luck, and Be Well!


  5. adelady says:

    One thing that came up in a discussion yesterday. That very prosaic subject, sewage.

    A sensibly designed, carbon neutral city will have at least 2 parallel sewage disposal systems. One for human wastes only, the other for wastes from industrial areas. A very little poisonous, heavy metal or other chemical contamination can make it impossible to recycle processed sewage at all, either as fertiliser for food production or as soil amendment or carbon sequestration in parklands and other garden uses. (Or massive resources have to be devoted to sophisticated processing and separation after the event.) A little human waste is much less of an issue when processing common chemical industrial wastes.

    The same thing goes for all other waste disposal. The system must be designed so that waste either doesn’t exist in the first place (eg packaging) or requires no personal decision or exertion on the part of the residents to make the flow from one use of a material to the next use absolutely seamless. The design should work so that residents have to make an effort to violate good practice, rather than devote expense or time or effort to comply with it.

  6. Prokaryotes says:

    And why not mention biochar and the under reported potential to create jobs world wide and help lower emission? One infrastructure sector within the zero carbon city should be to collect bio waste to create biochar for soil enhancement products and biomass to generate biogas to heat households.

    The zero carbon city charging spot, “Welcome to the future” No more cancerous combustion “plumes”. Much more silent traffic and things like this will change the city life profoundly, in a beneficial way.

  7. Gord says:

    Would our project be helpful to you?


    We are gathering data on how much efficiency can be squeezed from a 1920s era house using Heating Degree Days to track the changes each winter. We see upgraded older housing stock being key to a city wide efficiency upgrade.

    We wish you the best in your project!

  8. ryan says:

    perhaps you should be aiming for “Carbon Negative” communities/networks. even if a handful of rich people are actually able to develop “Carbon Neutral Cities” before catastrophic systems disruption to the industrial economy they would still be forced to contend with massive refugee crises and ecological collapse. what would be the carbon footprint of an attempt to develop these cities? what would be the EROEI? going “carbon neutral” at a time when the earth system is at 430ppm COe is absurd.

    its very disappointing to see that this sort of naive babble is still being discussed on legitimate climate science blogs. millions of people can be gardening with biochar and introducing it into the areas that YOUR lifestyles have driven into ruin.

  9. adelady says:

    Could be some useful pointers here – see the online tour.

    I realise that there’s a huge emphasis on water in Australian projects of this kind, but there’s still a lot of good material.

  10. Adrian says:

    Green infrastructure: for water management, biodiversity, carbon storage.

    Chicago Wilderness, CMAP, and other organizations such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology are working hard on this in the Chicago area, as are design firms such as Conservation Design Forum.

    It’s something every individual can do (make a rain garden!) but also governments and civic organizations can do planning and provide funding for large scale projects.