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A climate moonshot: Carbon neutral cities by 2030

cities and SDGs

Climate scientists tell us we must achieve by 2030 what humanity is trying to accomplish by 2050 — if we are to avoid irreversible ecological tipping points. In other words, we must accelerate time by three times. To achieve this, we need to change the way we think about change. 

Business-as-usual climate solutions are not up to the task. And hoping the next generation of leadership will deal with the complex political and financial challenges we face is no longer acceptable. As reported recently in the New York Times: "Jennifer Granholm, the energy secretary, called the U.S. plan to tackle climate change ‘our generation’s moonshot … we need a mindset that overcomes resistance to change.’"

For these reasons, a climate change moonshot previewed before the pandemic is launching into reality.

The invitation

The Cool City Challenge (CCC), an initiative of the nonprofit Empowerment Institute, joins the most leaderly of cities, businesses and universities in responding to this imperative. It offers communities an audacious goal, a challenge prize and a compelling path by which to achieve both.

Specifically, it invites and supports early adopter cities — first in California, then throughout the U.S. and worldwide — with the funding, social change expertise and other support needed to embark on one of the climate moonshots of our time: becoming a carbon neutral city by 2030.

Every moonshot is something we don’t know quite how to do. Yet a well-targeted one will take us places we’d only imagined. In particular, the quest to become carbon neutral on an accelerated schedule has the potential to supercharge a system. In the case of cities, it can galvanize a community’s citizens, empower its businesses and nonprofit organizations, and ennoble its political leadership with a profoundly inspiring mission for humanity’s future.

Carbon neutral cities

CCC looks to C40’s definition of a carbon neutral city. This implies 100 percent renewable energy, electrified buildings and transportation, a resilient and distributed electrical grid, zero waste and more. The challenge goes a step beyond, eschewing the use of offsets and encouraging cities to tackle their consumption-based footprint through circular strategies and localized carbon removal.

In other words, a carbon neutral city strategy involves the full suite of green business priorities — energy, mobility, infrastructure, electrification and carbon, complemented by food and circular economy processes and supported by green finance and a nuanced view of net zero. 

Cities are facing what systems theory calls a second-order change problem, in which the stresses placed on a system are greater than the current system design can handle.

While the goal is audacious, city and citizens in the game together have the power to birth new possibilities. A set of empowered public-private-civic partnerships can unleash the collective intelligence and political will to crack the code on the technical, political, financial and community integration needed to unleash a carbon-neutral economy. As they do, each city will replace its dirty, linear and increasingly fragile systems with clean, regenerative and more resilient ones.

Each will become a carbon neutral city. 

Second-order change

Cities are facing what systems theory calls a second-order change problem, in which the stresses placed on a system are greater than the current system design can handle. What is required is a second-order change solution that transforms limiting beliefs and unleashes the performance capacity of systems. Indeed, bold goals tend to be achieved ahead of time, because they force a change in thinking.

The Cool City Challenge presents a robust second-order change climate solution based on decades of experience designing such strategies. It inspires a multi-sector team with a carbon neutral city scaling strategy designed to activate the community’s collective intelligence and social creativity. It accelerates the speed of change through tipping point science. And it empowers cross-sector collaboration and synergy.

Integrating these and the other second-order change strategies provides communities with the potential for a successful moonshot.

Cool Block: An on-ramp to carbon neutral cities 

"You need a community to raise a carbon neutral city," explains creator and CEO David Gershon. "Not just any community, but a carbon literate, empowered and galvanized community where everyone has a stake in its future." CCC creates just such communities.

It starts with Cool Block, a community empowerment program consisting of five interconnected action themes — carbon reduction, disaster resiliency, water stewardship, neighborhood livability and empowering others — taken up by neighbors living on a block. 

The Cool Block methodology has been shown to enable substantive results, including an average household carbon reduction of 25 percent or more. Action is supported by local resources — information, incentives and services — provided and curated by the community, creating an informal partnership between city and citizen.

The potential was recognized early by Gavin Newson, governor of California: "The Cool Block is an exemplary how-to-guide for local communities to make a significant impact on climate change. The program demonstrates the untapped potential of citizens to engage in this grassroots initiative in an effective and achievable way. Very cool indeed." 

First cool, then carbon neutral

With carbon literacy and experience embedded in the community, a city can go to the next level — forming public-private-civic partnerships to drive the initiatives needed to create the carbon neutral systems of the future.

Initiatives organize into design teams around several core dimensions: technology; finance; policy; and community engagement. A synergy team is added, which scans for cross-pollination opportunities across initiatives to enable second-order change breakthroughs.

These change innovations are then piloted and evolved through iteration. The resulting systems become the upgraded local resources for ongoing use by the now carbon-neutral community.

Cool City Challenge: California

The Cool City Challenge will begin in California — a natural candidate for seizing this opportunity, given its climate change legislation and leadership, economic heft, penchant for innovation and the climate-related devastation it is suffering.

Empowerment Institute is investing $1 million in three cities and $100,000 in three runners-up. Cities with a minimum population of 40,000 and a climate action plan (CAP) are invited to apply. The $1 million budgets will fund campaign staffing and carbon neutral city seed capital. Runner-up cities will start the Cool Block journey and develop as strong candidates for the next round of prizes as they become available.

You need a community to raise a carbon neutral city. Not just any community, but a carbon literate, empowered and galvanized community where everyone has a stake in its future.”

Each city also will have access to resource partners to support them in accessing green financing as well as state-of-the-art carbon reduction technologies and simulation and data visualization tools. Ygrene Energy Fund has partnered to provide $2 billion in low-cost financing for Cool Block participants to implement energy upgrades. 

The CCC has raised additional capital to scale its climate moonshot model to more cities in more places. These will become part of a new global learning community of large and midsize cities, building on their collective experience and that shared by others (C40, CNCA) to accelerate best practice exchange and leverage financial and technological resources.

The first step could be yours

Carbon neutral cities will not be achieved by local governments alone. They’ll rely on the business and nonprofit communities to help lead and participate in public-private-civic partnership.

Formal and informal community leaders are invited from every sector into this collaborative and synergistic journey. If you are or know someone who is a visionary leader, systems thinker and lives or does business in California, the first step on this Challenge journey could be yours.

The Cool City Challenge invitation comes with a thoughtfully supported application process and strategy, to be launched June 1. Seven guided actions will create a powerful challenge team, tee up an empowered community, and pre-activate a partner ecosystem to support a whole-system approach to creating a carbon neutral city.

Learn more about the Cool City Challenge and its timeline at CoolCity.earth, then step up to vie for a prize. This is an idea whose time has come.

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