From clothing to utility providers, companies in almost every industry are looking for ways to create their products and services with a smaller impact on the environment.
One of the easiest ways to determine the impact of a product or activity on the environment is to measure its carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced by activities that involve burning fossil fuels.
A carbon footprint can be assessed for just about anything, from the food on your plate to the shoes on your feet. In the past few years, urban planners have been looking for ways to combine renewable energy sources and green building practices into a complete system that will enable communities around the world to become completely carbon neutral.
In order to call itself carbon neutral or a zero-emitter, a city would have to find ways to reduce greenhouse gases as much as possible, and then develop a system for offsetting what it could not eliminate.
But what does a carbon neutral city look like?
A small handful of existing models give us an idea of how more communities can achieve this ultra-green goal.
Carbon Neutral in Rizhao, China
The 2.8 million residents of this seaside resort town are among the first to see the rising sun each morning. But this isn't the only thing setting this town apart from the rest of the world. It's also the first city in China to take definitive steps toward becoming carbon neutral.
Nearly 100 percent of the city's new skyscrapers take advantage of Rizhao's 260 days of sunshine to heat water for bathing-and 30 percent of those going up in surrounding suburbs and villages also make use of the technology. The city also employs a "circular economy" in which companies like the local Luxin Jinhe Biochemical Company citric acid plant, create ways to utilize the by-products of their process in a safe manner. According to Wang Shugang, chief of Rizhao's Environmental Protection Bureau, another important step toward carbon neutrality was to "shut down many small-size enterprises [that] are really high consumers of coal..."
Carbon Neutral in Masdar, Abu Dhabi
The Middle East, with its reputation as one of the most oil-producing regions of the world, might be one of the last places you'd expect a carbon neutral city to sprout up. However, many political authorities in the Middle East have recognized that oil is a finite resource, and that urban centers must implement changes now if they are to remain sustainable in the future.
The city of Masdar was built by the government of Abu Dhabi as a showcase of renewable energy and clean technology. "Rising from the archetypical desert landscape are two opposing styles of buildings," reports Inhabitat. "Laboratories are housed in modern concrete structures covered in a strong translucent plastic called ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene topped with photovolactic panels." Inspired by the architecture and urban planning of traditional Arab cities, Masdar City incorporates narrow streets that take advantage of natural shading to reduce heating and cooling costs. The city is built to be walkable and eliminate the need for fossil fuel transportation systems, and has an aggressive waste reduction policy in place that could eliminate waste to landfill within its first 10 years.
Image source: Inhabitat
Carbon Neutral in Tocco, Italy
Modern towns with all the latest sustainable technology aren't the only ones that can achieve carbon neutrality, however. The ancient town of Tocco, Italy has only 2,700 inhabitants, all of which get 100 percent of their power from four wind turbines installed by the local government. The turbines create 30 percent more power than is needed, netting the town a profit of $200,000 last year. This windfall (pun intended!) has allowed the town to eliminate local taxes and garbage collection fees, and triple its budget for street cleaning and retrofitting the local school for earthquake protection.
Carbon-neutral in the U.S.?
Do you think carbon-neutral cities are possible in the U.S.? If so, which city do you think could be first?
Beth Buczynski is a freelance copy writer and environmental blogger. She holds a Master's in Public Communication and Technology with specialization in Environmental Communication from Colorado State University, and is passionate about leaving this planet in better shape than she found it.