Steffen on sustainability: Planetary futurism, and the carbon-zero city

At the inaugural SXSW Eco conference in Austin, planetary futurist Alex Steffen offers his take on how urban density, policy, design and education can help the globe catch up on sustainability.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

AUSTIN, Texas -- A Norwegian ship captain, having damaged his navigational instruments during a violent storm, found himself lost in the fog of the morning.

Over the radio, a squawk, "Please advise of your status."

He replied, "Utterly lost -- but on time."

The truth is that this fictional story is an accurate assessment of the world's status on sustainability, said author and former WorldChanging.org editor Alex Steffen.

"We are pursuing a lot of things with great passion and often a lot of innovation behind them that simply don't add up," he said.

In a keynote speech at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference, Steffen demonstrated that the climate change situation -- and carbon emissions trajectory -- is so bleak that even if the developed world went on a breakneck pace to eliminate CO2 emissions today, it would just barely achieve 350 parts per million -- the maximum amount of carbon in the atmosphere without causing human and natural disaster.

"We need to be thinking much more along the lines of 100 percent reduction net by 2030," he said grimly.


But there are many things that make any goal, much less this lofty one, exceedingly difficult. For one, we are in the midst of the largest building boom in human history, one response to a rapidly urbanizing global population.

"We live on an urban planet. But we have on the way an even greater urban conglomeration," Steffen said. "We're growing our cities by 250,000 people a day. That's a city the size of Seattle roughly every three days. Ten cities the size of Seattle every month."

People are moving to cities for the same reasons our ancestors did: that's where the jobs are, along with wealth and health. By mid-century, two-thirds of all humanity will live in cities -- and at least 90 percent will live within a day's travel of one, Steffen said.

"Essentially everyone on the planet will live in an urbanized environment," he said.

The problem? Not everyone is equipped to face this crisis. Sure, the U.S. and many other developed nations have the universities, research facilities, think tanks and policies to handle such a massive issue -- but much of the world does not.

But first you must measure what you're trying to reduce, and that's the scary part: our activities have emissions implications far beyond how we measure them today, Steffen said.

"Once you start counting everything, all of the demand we create, all of the things we buy, you find out two things: we have much, much larger emissions than we generally talk about. But second of all, the priorities [we have] to change those emissions change."

Take transportation, for example. We're used to thinking about transport emissions as what comes out of the tailpipe -- but it's far bigger than that.

"We tend to assume that the kinds of demands that we're creating are kind of immutable," he said.

But merely making the American dream of two family cars an electric one doesn't solve the greater systemic problem, Steffen said.

"We want to live well. Very few of us have a deep stake in how that life is delivered to us. Most of us simply want to have the best life we can," he said. "This brings us to one central problem in my mind: we tend to regard climate change as an energy problem. [Because energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which creates emissions. -Ed.] There's absolutely nothing wrong with clean energy, but the fact is that we simply do not have the capacities at this point to imagine business as usual spreading around the planet and that demand being met with clean energy."

And worse, energy consumption just keeps increasing.

"The idea that we're just going to take all of that energy demand and swap it with clean energy is just not being realistic," he said. Plus, scale aside, it's a political hot potato.

"The fact is, these guys -- the carbon lobby -- are not going to roll over," he said. "They're going to fight every step of the way because every second of delay makes them gobsmacks of money."


So where does that leave us, aside from imagining a post-apocalyptic world in which humans fight and kill each other over energy sources?

We must first ask ourselves why we need the energy in the first place, Steffen said. Most of the energy we use is determined by the kinds of systems we live in, from neighborhood to infrastructure that supports it.

The good news: "This stuff is highly variable," he said. "It's variable in a way that can be changed."

It starts with compact communities and denser cities that can bring more things together in one place. Displaying a chart illustrating the tradeoff between urban density and transport-related energy consumption, Steffen showed the audience how bad cities such as Houston, Phoenix, Detroit, Denver, Los Angeles -- even San Francisco and Boston -- are compared to Singapore, Tokyo, Moscow and the most extreme outlier in the other direction, Hong Kong.

"Compact development gives us access to a really great tool: the most climate-friendly trip we'll have to take is the trip we never have to take," he said.

And transportation changes affect more than your daily commute. People who take transit travel differently, Steffen argued. When your only form of transport is a car, every single thing you need is a trip.

But it's unreasonable to expect sprawling suburban communities that already exist to add a few floors and build skyward. Or is it?

Density works on averages," Steffen said. By adding density in specific spots of a community, it actually helps boost the density of the entire community -- mathematically, sure, but also in terms of encouragement in lifestyle changes.

It's called "tentpole density," and when applied in the right spots -- major corridors, neighborhood centers -- communities can add density without changing their low-lying character, Steffen said.

"We need to be strategic and intervene where we can add density."

For those cities without lots of vacant land to commit to the cause, infill is the answer, Steffen said.

"Take density and drop it into existing patterns," he said. "Not only do it well, but do it innovatively, and do it at a profit. It's not enough to just increase number of people to live there -- we also need to think about what it's like to live there."

In other words, no vertical suburbia. Development must address the street -- and then everything begins to slowly fall into place.

"If you get to a certain amount of density and a certain amount of walkability, people change how they live and what they want."


But as anyone who lives in an American city with freshly painted bicycle lane lines can attest, transition is difficult. Such is the paradox of densification: the addition of these elements initially results in a temporary worsening of the situation as residents learn to accommodate their lives to a new way of living, Steffen said.

"The reality is that as you add more and more people to an area there's a lag time [in adoption]," he said. But eventually residents will reach a threshold where, in the case of motorists losing road space to pedal pushers, they'll soon give up their keys.

"It actually gets easier to drive," he said. "In a way, everybody wins."

He added: "We simply need to create spaces where cars understand that they share the road. That they understand that they are moving through an environment with lots of different users."

And as drivers begin to change their behavior, it becomes possible to create spaces -- "Heretical as it sounds in the U.S." Steffen acknowleged -- where cars are simply not allowed, or not allowed at certain times.

"This is something many people want," he said, showing a photo of such a zone in Edinburg.

Real estate agents may say there's no demand for compact, mixed-use environments in the U.S., but the reality is that the best-educated and most highly-trained people -- who are often young -- prefer it, Steffen said.

"There's a group of people who almost every city in the world wants to attract," he said.

There are more ways of optimizing communities. Take the U.S. Postal Service, for example -- instead of inefficiently delivering packages to every door, perhaps the agency should take a page from Germany and roll out centralized "Pack Stations" that you can unlock, once notified by SMS, to receive your package.

"All of this stuff has economic benefit," he said. "Making dense urban places has terrific economic payoff."

Which is why New York City transportation chief Janette Sadik-Khan reported a 70 percent increase in sales for stores whose roadways were blocked off to cars.

"If you want people to buy stuff you need them to slow down, enjoy the neighborhood and walk around," he said.

Thriving small-scale retail gets better return on investment in dense, multi-use areas because infrastructure costs are lower and revenue is higher.

"Want a city that's going to do well financially? Don't build malls, whatever you do," he said. "The goal is no longer dream homes. It's dream neighborhoods."

Plus, the health benefits can't be ignored.

"The time you're [spending] walking is not time you're wasting, Steffen said. "It's actually time you'd spend dead."


Steffen made several different points around density and energy efficiency.

To summarize:

  • According to the Land-use Transportation Affordability Index, the suburbs can be more expensive than the city in the long run because transportation costs soon outweigh real estate sticker prices. "It never was a very good bargain to begin with," he said. "Unlike housing, cars are mobile money pits." And the suburbs are only getting poorer over time.
  • Smart design plays a big part in changing minds. Building passive homes and installing mileage meters in automobiles are two examples. "The great killer app of energy use: letting people know how they're doing relative to others," he said. "Comparison will change behaviors very quickly. Nobody wants to be the outlying energy hog."
  • So does sustainable design. "Most of the impacts of any object are determined not by us, the user, but by the designer, sitting at her desk," Steffen said. "Almost everything around us is toxic, designed to be thrown away, not easily recycled or not recycled at all…almost everything in this room is already in a landfill -- it just doesn't know it yet."
  • So does the business model. The average home drill is used between six and 20 minutes in its lifetime because it's usually purchased for a specific job. But a lot of energy and materials goes into manufacturing that drill; each is hole is therefore ecologically expensive. The answer: share the tool. Real-world example of this model: car-sharing schemes in cities.
  • Policy needs to help, not harm. "Most of the things we want to do in terms of sustainable in our cities are in many places illegal" under local and state codes, Steffen said. "One of the things we need are places to try stuff out."


"The cities we live in, the places we love, are headed into a storm of forces that are going to put enormous strain on them," Steffen said. How it turns out is due in large part to how willing we are to address these issues.

Take the Czech Republic and Albania, for example. Both countries dealt with communism differently: the former shed it and embraced what needed to be done; the latter wasted money building 700,000 bunkers for a nation of just three million.

"No matter how innovative you are, being left in a position where you're turning bunkers into real estate is a sign that you've failed," Steffen said. "The lesson here is: don't be Albania."

Move in the direction that makes sense for health, safety and prosperity, Steffen said.

"That is the only goal worth having," he said, "And a goal that every one of you can contribute to."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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