Review of “Life After Carbon” by Pete Plastrik and John Cleveland


Life After Carbon by Pete Plastrik and John Cleveland

Book review
Life After Carbon opens with Dean Stewart, an aboriginal guide, leading a tour along the Yarra River in the center of Melbourne, Australia. Stewart is instructing a group of urban sustainability professionals to walk as if they are “many people with a single footprint,” elegantly summarizing the potential efficiencies of urban systems. But Stewart goes further, noting that for millennia people have drawn together to trade information, stories, goods, and services, and these same forces are the foundation of cities today.

Stewart’s observations articulate the core premise of Life After Carbon: Cities present tremendous opportunities to apply the collective ingenuity, efficiency, and adaptive capacities of city dwellers and urban systems to the monumental challenges of climate change. As daily headlines juxtapose dramatic climate impacts with perilous policy decisions, authors Pete Plastrik and John Cleveland, keen observers of the past decade of urban climate initiatives, deliver an optimistic guide to where, how and why mayors and dedicated civil servants are determinedly applying Stewart’s wisdom.

Life After Carbon is a “projection of possibilities grounded in what is already happening.” To draw this trajectory, Plastrik and Cleveland locate current climate action in the arc of cities through history, providing a concise review of the forces shaping cities, from the specific (e.g., automobiles) to the general (e.g., consumerism). Their familiarity with the successes and challenges facing cities makes for a rich narrative of anecdotes and lessons from the experiments that cities are conducting as they address climate change.

Plastrik and Cleveland bring deep experience in public policy and private-sector economic and community development. In recent years their insights into networks of people and organizations have informed, among other things, the development of several influential local government practitioner networks, including the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. (Full disclosure: The Innovation Network of Communities, the organization for which Cleveland and Plastrik serve as President and Vice President, serves as the fiscal agent for City Scale.)

Plastrik and Cleveland organize Life After Carbon around four concepts that characterize the transformational potential of 21st-century cities. First, building on Richard Florida’s thesis that the global economy is now powered by the innovation, diversity, and proximity that cities foster, they explore the notion that a transition to clean energy presents unparalleled economic opportunity. Second, they illustrate the potential resource efficiencies inherent in dense networks of buildings and transportation systems. Third, they show how leading cities are integrating natural systems into the urban fabric. Last, they examine the adaptive capacity of city dwellers.

Critically, these concepts are central not just to responding to climate change but to delivering on the potential that draws people to cities in the first place. Fundamentally, Plastrik and Cleveland are exploring what makes cities desirable and successful in the long run. Solving climate change is an essential element of this success, but Plastrik and Cleveland underscore that cities will need to “recast the purpose of their climate efforts into the broader goals of creating a better city.”

Within this framework Plastrik and Cleveland detail dozens of examples of city innovation: Singapore’s recognition that, where it once viewed itself as a city of gardens, it is in fact “a city within a garden”; the revitalization of Mexico City’s historic Zócalo district through the siting of a bus rapid transit station; Oslo’s move to eliminate vehicles from its center city; Boston’s engagement of 30 powerful institutions to establish and implement a climate action plan that spans public policy and private investment.

Many of these initiatives are in the early stages. They are pilots, plans, and programs that are signaling ambition and generating the kind of information that can only be gained by trying Plastrik and Cleveland highlight the experimentation that characterizes these cities’ work: Test, evaluate, report, revise.

Life After Carbon arrives at an auspicious time. With national governments in the United States, Australia, and even in Europe undermining the transition away from fossil fuels, local leaders around the world are championing climate action more assertively than ever. Cities have key roles to play both through their own authorities over land use, transportation systems, housing, and commercial buildings, and perhaps still more so as the level of government closest to the community. Mayors tend to be pragmatists; their staff are well grounded in constituent priorities; and local government is typically the least partisan level of government. At the same time, cities are asking themselves if their actions can deliver on these pledges: Can cities reinvent transportation systems, transform markets for energy-using products, and influence energy supply decisions with the speed and scale that is required? Life After Carbon suggests that they can.

Plastrik and Cleveland masterfully organize and structure their observations. Life After Carbon is a highly readable tour of committed civil servants advancing ambitious work in a range of contexts. It is an important detail that, for all of the focus in this book on cities and local government, Plastrik and Cleveland are clear-eyed that life after carbon will require all of this and much more: “Cities cannot complete the journey by themselves.”

Life After Carbon recognizes and celebrates that urban climate innovation is not the product of government alone—it requires community, business, and professionals of many disciplines. In the realm of local government, success on climate demands engagement not just from prosperous coastal cities, but from smaller communities, culturally conservative regions, and suburbs that can work together at the metropolitan scale, with their utilities, and in coordination with states. Within the larger landscape of action that is urgently needed to address climate change, Life After Carbon aims its spotlight on heartening examples from cities around the world, illuminating innovations and teeing up the hard work ahead.