What is a net-zero city?

Written by
Morgan Kelly
Morgan Kelly, High Meadows Environmental Institute
June 3, 2021

In an effort to accelerate urban decarbonization plans, scientists are proposing seven key service sectors city leaders can evaluate to gauge — and reduce — their carbon emissions: energy, transportation-communications, food, construction materials, water, green infrastructure and waste management.

A team of researchers report in Nature Sustainability that strategically focusing on these seven factors, rather than on reducing the carbon associated with all trade, is the best way to achieve a realistic and long-lasting reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

They suggest that transitioning these sectors to net-zero carbon can be coupled with improvements that would enhance equal access to food, sanitation, clean air and water, transportation, and essential city services. 

“We make the case for researchers and practitioners to consider defining a net-zero carbon city as one that has net-zero carbon infrastructure and food provisioning systems,” said lead author Anu Ramaswami, Princeton’s Sanjay Swani ’87 Professor of India Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute.

The researchers emphasized what they are calling a “transboundary approach,” which involves tracking carbon emissions along the supply chains that connect community-wide demand for these services to the power plants, factories and farms that produce electricity, fuels, construction materials, water and food essential for cities to function.

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