A net zero city is a city with zero non-renewable energy consumption across all sectors and community-wide (not just government operations), or which purchases clean energy offsets for any non-renewable energy used. There’s no one perfect path to net zero, and the solutions for cities depend on a wide variety of factors, but there are plenty of cities leading in different ways.
The first step to net zero for any community is energy efficiency. The less energy a city uses, the less they will have to generate from renewable sources or offset. Efficiency programs are not new or revolutionary, but there are tools you can use to improve their success: laying the foundation with a community-wide vision, integrating energy efficiency across departments and job duties, ensuring programs are accessible to all regardless of income and home ownership, and leading by example with government buildings.
Once energy use is reduced, the focus is on decarbonization, which means decarbonizing electricity sources and the transportation sector – often one of the most challenging pieces, especially in cities with mass transit systems. Many cities have done this by committing to 100% renewable energy (most often by 2050), while others have pledged to be carbon neutral.
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What Cities Can Do
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Comprehensive Plan & Vision
Burlington, VT’s municipal utility, Burlington Electric Department (BED), has worked hard to create a clean and green community-wide vision. Under the direction of BED and Mayor Miro Weinberger, Burlington has enlisted its citizens as partners and stakeholders in energy and carbon reduction. The city overall is using 4 percent less energy today than it did in 1989, thanks in large part to its energy efficiency initiatives and Defeat the Peak program. To put that in perspective, the nation overall is using 28 percent more energy over that same time period. The city plans to be net zero across the board – electric, thermal and ground transportation – by 2030, and has an ambitious plan to accomplish it. Burlington is also making transportation a key piece of its net zero plan, including electric buses for transit and rebates for personal electric vehicles.
Institutionalizing Net Zero Goals
Fort Collins, CO, a long-time leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy, has found an innovative way to institutionalize its net zero goals within city staff roles and responsibilities. Their Climate Action Plan executive team meets bi-weekly and includes high level representatives from a wide range of city departments – but that’s not all. The city also has a CAP Core team representing an even broader range of departments and “Strategic Initiative Teams” comprised of a range of both city staff and citizens. Their Budgeting for Outcomes process makes sure that the program has teeth and is responsive to its commitments in terms of both results and finance.
Bridging the Partisan Divide
A number of Republican-led cites are proving that clean energy and energy efficiency are not partisan issues. The city of Spokane, WA just recently celebrated achieving net zero energy consumption across all municipal facilities and services under the leadership of Republican Mayor David Condon. Lancaster, CA Mayor Rex Parris has made headlines for his dedication to the cost effectiveness of renewable energy sources in the Golden State. The City’s “Zero Net Energy Ordinance” that requires new dwellings in the city to include 2 watts of rooftop solar generation per square foot of living space. Other cities from California to Florida are following suit with renewable energy mandates on new properties.
- Pathways to 100: An Energy Supply Transformation Primer for U.S. Cities
- A New Way Forward: Envisioning a Transportation System without Carbon Pollution
- Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign tracks city and Mayoral 100% renewable energy commitments
- The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance is a project of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and provides resources and information for and from cities leading on decarbonization
- The Institute for Sustainable Communities has a number of projects and resources related to community resilience, inclusivity, and energy efficiency