Where is the best place to focus on climate change mitigation? Decorated futurist and author Herbert Girardet boils it down to this: We need to start living in sustainable cities where 60% of us will be in 2030.
Three things define a sustainable city, in Girardet’s estimation. They are:
- Powered by 100% renewable energy
- Treating waste in a cyclical not linear fashion (meaning, waste is not dumped in a landfill without first extracting all of the carbon and other nutrient forms of energy. This may involve redesigning products/packages to break apart organically or inventing new systems of extraction. The side benefit will be creating jobs of a local nature).
- Connecting people in a carbon-neutral transport system
Girardet worked with the former Premier of Australia to set goals like 30% of energy from solar and wind, planting 3 million trees, and extracting resources from waste in the City of Adelaide. Projects involved curbside composting and building a pipeline that diverts the effluent, or the sanitized solids, from wastewater treatment plants, to fertilize a large urban farm. Like the waste-to-energy efforts underway in Northeast Ohio, its an example of how systems thinking can serve multiple needs (Adelaide will use 20,000 hectares of urban land at the periphery for farming instead of landfills) in cities, which occupy 6% of the world’s land but consume 80% of its resource supply.
“The fact is that in 300 years we will have burned 300 million years worth of fossil fuel deposits,” Girardet explains at the beginning of the book Surviving the Century. “Part of humanity may be having a jolly good time as a result, but in the process it is undoing much of the natural evolution of life on Earth: life over many millions of years has played a key role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and tucking it away out of harm’s way deep inside the Earth’s crust.
“In the last 300 years we have been reversing this process. By putting carbon, from coal, oil and gas, back in the atmosphere in vast quantities, we are changing the very conditions that made life on Earth possible in the first place.”
This time is being called the Anthropocene, an epoch when mankind knocked planetary systems out of balance. An international response called the World Futures Council was formed by Girardet and a corps of hundreds of “representatives” who meet to figure out what the world needs to forestall the worst impact of climate change; often times it’s not what is politically expedient.
What’s needed is the acceptance that climate change is real; the debate being over, U.S. cities need more solutions-based thinking. The results can be dramatic. Take Adelaide or Copenhagen, which has invested in pedestrianization in the last 25 years leading to a dramatic shift away from reliance on carbon fueled transport.
To bring in some local context, the City of Cleveland’s nearest analogue is its Climate Action Plan which outlines 33 steps to reducing its carbon emissions 80% by 2050. The city notes similar reasons for taking action to mitigate or adapt to climate change (foremost on its mind is the inequity to populations without resources and what a loss of basic necessities can do to people without a social and economic safety net. Consider, for example, the reported slow loss of water in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a city of 20 million with a large population living in poverty. The New York Times reports that the depletion of the rainforest has led to water shortages in the city. It has produced tension and violence, where a catastrophic loss tends to band people together).
On a smaller scale, Kent and Oberlin are pursuing an ambitious effort to be more sustainable. Both are working on building up their sleepy small towns and preserving a green belt of land around them to grow food, handle waste and produce energy.
The goal of the Oberlin Project is nothing short of “creating one of the first climate positive cities in America by shifting the city and college to renewable energy sources, radically improving efficiency, sharply reducing our carbon emissions, and improving our economy in the process.”
The project sprang from the mind of David Orr, the iconic Oberlin College Environmental Studies professor. Orr’s vision on the Oberlin Project’s necessity in meeting the impact of climate change has helped rally the college to follow through on a lot of initiatives. A few examples include installing 2.27 megawatts of solar energy production, starting dorm competitions that has reduced energy use by 56%, supporting the growth of local food through CSAs and co-ops, and empowering students to start a bike share operation. The school secured an agreement with its municipal-owned utility to use the methane gas produced in a nearby landfill to provide 90% of its power (instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere).
60 miles east, Kent and KSU are holding a public meeting in April to discuss making it a GreenTown. A city of 30,000, Kent now has “a re-born core and a strong collaborative relationship with Kent State University and for-profit and government partners,” organizers of the April 13-14 workshop write. They have invited a huge list of speakers, from transit operators to local developers and national experts like Mark Fenton to explore economic development, food and waste, water and green infrastructure, community sustainability planning, and transportation.