The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge. If we can deal with this in the right way and have this informal mechanism then I think we can find a way of meeting what I believe is the clear desire of our people – which is to find a way of combining rising living standards with the responsibility to protect our environment.”

Tony Blair, Former British Prime minister

We are running out of resources. And most important, we are running out of time. Our needs turned into greed due to the ever increasing demands and we are on a verge to exhaust almost every possible resource known to us. There is a dilemma about the availability of energy in near future- the energy to run our houses, our vehicles, our industries and our cities.  This energy crisis has led many to think about the need of “Zero Carbon cities”.

Why we need to act sooner?

Figure 1 Assumed population by 2050, (Source: UN Population Division)

“Cities are the Engines of growth”- we hear it now and then. These engines also consume energy to run. The urban areas are the biggest consumers of natural resources and the biggest producers of pollution all over the globe. If the planet warms a total of 2 degrees more than its average temperature before the Industrial Revolution the results could be appalling. In the Paris summit (COP21), an agreement to reduce global carbon emissions was made so that the 2-degree threshold is not crossed. The 2016 globally averaged surface temperature ended as the highest since record keeping began in 1880, according to scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). (Refer Figure no. 2 for significant climate anomalies in 2016). The two major causes of Global warming and climate change are the increased Carbon based energy consumption and increased greenhouse Gas emissions, both due to human activities, IPCC states. With our ever growing population (Refer Figure no. 1), our dependency on energy resources is increasing. The more resources we burn for energy, the more carbon we produce. “Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use were 9.795 gigatonnes in 2014 , Fossil fuel emissions were 0.6% above emissions in 2013 and 60% above emissions in 1990 (the reference year in the Kyoto Protocol). Based on a 2015 GDP forecast of 3.1% by the International Monetary Fund, the Global Carbon Project projects a 2015 decline of 0.6% in global emission[1].


Figure 2 Significant climate anomalies in 2016. (Source:NOAA)

The Fifth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) quantifies the global maximum CO2 the world can still emit and also have a likely chance of keeping global average temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures.  It reports that the goal is likely to be met if cumulative emissions (including the 535 GtC emitted by the end of 2013) do not exceeed 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (PgC).  A gigatonne of carbon (1 GtC) is the same as a petagram of carbon (1 PgC).

Watch this video by NASA: A Year in the Life of Earth’s CO2

Zero Carbon Cities- A viable option

To curb our emissions here we are talking about one option of conceptualizing Zero Carbon Cities. A zero-carbon city runs entirely on renewable energy; it has no carbon footprint and will in this respect not cause harm to the planet.[1] The Urban Areas in the future need to be powered by alternate energy resources which are efficient and recyclable. Human-induced GHG emissions are primarily due to burning of fossil fuels and land-use changes (IPCC, 2007a). (Refer Figure 3 for Human-caused sources of CO2 over time)


Figure 3 Human-caused sources of CO2 over time (fossil fuels/industry and land use change) sinks of CO2 (land plants, oceans and the atmosphere) All figures are in billions of tonnes of carbon per year (GtC / yr). Source: Le Quéré, C. et al. (2016)

An efficient Land Use Planning and development strategies can help to reduce the emissions by giving options like mixed land use development, by decreasing travel trips, by promoting Public Transportation and by promoting the usage of nonpolluting alternate energy resources etc. giving way to a sustainable Development along with low carbon emissions.

Following suggestions can be implemented to achieve this realization of the Zero Carbon Cities:

  • Energy: Renewable energy resources will help in reducing the carbon footprints of the city. Using Photovoltaic plants, Wind turbines, Solar Thermal Collectors, biomass sources etc. will ensure the self-sufficiency of cities in energy.   Eco-cities are self-sufficient in energy. They meet energy need through solar, wind and biomass sources.
  • Adapting the Vernacular architecture using locally available material: The local culture and climatic conditions of a place need to be kept in mind while planning. Heat islands can be avoided by proper orientation of buildings to avoid direct sunlight, using cooler building materials, building shaded and narrow passageways, Landscaping by using soft elements like water, plants and trees etc. Keeping the cities naturally lighted and cool will reduce the need of electricity in Air conditioning. Using locally available material for construction like clay, mud etc. will keep the houses cooler, reduce the cost of transportation, minimize the pollution levels, maintain the microclimate of the place etc. These building materials are renewable and do not have major impacts on the environment.
  • Intelligent Transport System: Promoting Walkability and cycling, public transportation running on clean energy, banning polluting vehicles, promoting battery powered transit systems are some of the ways to achieve a sustainable transportation system in the city. A well planned connectivity to the work place will lead to reduced urban sprawl, shorter trips and reduced dependence on car based infrastructure.
  • Promoting mixed land use: Land use patterns are directly related to emission growth. Mixing various land uses make a city self contained and make communities more inclusive for people to work and live in.
  • Promoting Waste to energy, recycling practices: Promoting Rainwater harvesting, recycling grey water for irrigation purposes, recycling and composting solid wastes are some methods to achieve optimum utilization of waste resources . Waste to energy fuel cells can be developed which use waste reduction and reuse measures.
  • Conservation and rejuvenation practices: Promoting practices of restoring the damaged urban ecology, Conservation of our resources within the cities like green spaces, Lakes, Ponds etc. Restoring the city from within rather than sprawling it to the hinterlands is required. Conserving unused land parcels within the city will make cities more compact and will leave more spaces for forests, wilderness and agriculture. These spaces are efficient to absorb carbon in the form of soil and vegetation.
  • Promoting Urban Agriculture: Maintenance of community gardens where despite of lack of spaces in their own homes, a community of people can grow and consume their own food. Utilization of roof surfaces will promote mixed land use, reduce the surface temperature leading to cooler houses and will minimize the transportation of farm produce into the cities. It is a healthy practice which promotes green growth, Aesthetics of a place, self sufficiency and food security.
  • Getting back to our roots: Growing our own food, using locally available construction material, minimizing the dependencies on technology, using our muscles for transit, being thankful to the nature are some Simply-city practices everyone can adapt in a city.
  • Promoting ecologically sound practices: A growing number of businesses around are taking effective steps to reduce the emissions and are working for the betterment of the climate and the communities. The citizens can get involved in promoting such practices by purchasing energy and money saving technologies for home and work places, promoting car pooling, cycling, public transits, promoting video conferences rather than transits for work, promoting recycling practices (paper, water etc.) in your own homes and work places etc. the authorities need to use Zoning, subdivision regulations, building codes, standards effectively. The finances and budgets need to be strong and effective and the authorities should have the power to absorb and implement these practices. Practices like “Carbon taxes” need to be implemented.
  • Awareness about Environment: Using Information, Education and Communication tools to persuade people to have a consensus about protecting the environment.

Challenges before us:

Zero carbon cities are not easy to achieve. However, there have been some good examples of these cities like Masdar City, Dongtan etc. which can work as a blueprint for further cities. There are many challenges ahead to set up these cities. In countries like India, when the development boom is happening, the concept of Zero emission cities is vaguely connected with the proposals. The concept of Climate Change is still considered as a hoax by many Renowned leaders all over the globe. A huge Politics is involved in this and many vested interests are involved which do not support the people centered development. Conceptualizing Zero waste cities on a large scale will be difficult due to this. The processes and Mechanisms to curb the carbon emissions are effective but are flawed. Reforms like Carbon credit merely legalizes the shifting of carbon-generation from one geographical location to other.  Lack of resources for the developing countries is another drawback. We don’t have resources to evolve such transitional concepts.

Innovative solutions are required and are currently being worked upon by those who worry. The transit from the non renewable resources to the renewable resources should be the response of every city towards the Climate change.

Author – Ananya Bhatia