Discourses of carbon neutrality and imaginaries of urban futures

My journal article "Discourses of carbon neutrality and imaginaries of urban futures" with Nicole Klenk has recently been published in Energy Research and Social Science. The paper examines urban policy documents that are mapping trajectories towards carbon neutral cities. These policy documents are imagining what it might mean to be a future carbon neutral city. We find a few themes in the stories that are told about low carbon governance and urban energy futures.

ABSTRACT: By analyzing the discourses in carbon governance texts, this paper identifies visions for the built environment in carbon neutral urban futures and the storylines driving those urban imaginaries. Local authorities have begun aiming for ‘carbon neutral’ transformations, but it is not clear what kind of city will result. Different imaginaries about the futurity of energy will send cities down divergent sociotechnical paths. Using discourse analysis, this paper identifies the storylines underlying sociotechnical imaginaries of urban carbon neutrality among the 17 founding members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which is a network of local governments mainly from Europe and North America pioneering deep decarbonization. This paper elaborates on five storylines in urban carbon governance texts: 1. The diverse meanings of carbon neutrality 2. The new economy of carbon control 3. The city as a laboratory 4. Technological fixes and the modern city and 5. Reframing what it means to be a ‘good’ urban citizen. The developing sociotechnical imaginary of urban carbon neutrality is structuring shifts in policy and practice. Trends include a focus on technological fixes and innovation as solutions where private capital is a fundamental partner, as well as reflexivity about the experimental nature of achieving carbon neutrality.

Read the full article here.

Laura TozerComment
CFP AAG 2018: The Urban Material Politics of Decarbonization

Organized by: Laura Tozer (University of Toronto), Sarah Knuth (Durham University), Anthony Levenda (University of Calgary), and John Stehlin (University of California, Berkeley)

Sponsored by: Urban Geography Specialty Group and Environment and Energy Specialty Group

This session explores today's multi-sited movement to frame urban built environments as a central point of intervention for both climate change mitigation and resilience. Today's interventions build on a long history of urban climate change activism and politics that geographers have long been at the forefront of efforts to empirically investigate and theorize (e.g., Bulkeley & Betsill 2005, Rice 2010). However, the bulk of urban geography continues to neglect the importance of urban materiality in climate activism, even as new calculations of decarbonization (often profit-driven) and climate risk transform core areas of scholarly exploration and engaged praxis. These areas include among others urban real estate development and redevelopment, financing, growth machine politics, displacements and injustices. Similarly, critical geographic explorations of climate policy have often been preoccupied with carbon markets, offset politics and policy representations to the exclusion of the embedded materialities of actual decarbonization. As decarbonization unfolds, it becomes necessary to consider the material politics of low carbon transformations, in which retrofitting urban built environments have becoming increasingly central.

This session aims to help fill this gap, building on Bulkeley, Castán Broto & Edwards’s call (2014) to address the material politics of low-carbon transitions, and by Biehler and Simon (2011), Knuth (2016) and Edwards and Bulkeley (2017) in critiquing urban political ecology's persistent neglect of buildings and the political economy of real estate. Particularly, the session aims to place work on retrofitting for climate change mitigation and resilience more firmly in conversation with critical accounts of "green" urban (re)development (Greenberg 2015, Cohen 2017, and others) and to consider the politics of these transformations (Rutherford 2014, Hodson et al. 2016, McGuirk and Dowling 2016). Following this work, we aim to support necessary ongoing discussion of green gentrification/displacement as an outcome of urban property transformations for climate change, but also to consider the other multi-scalar political work that building and real estate-led climate interventions may be doing in the political configuration of cities, in national struggles over energy transitions, in transnational accumulation strategies, in transformations of the real estate development industry, in varieties of urban competition, and beyond.

Interested participants should send abstracts to laura.tozer@mail.utoronto.ca by September 29th. Participants will be notified of acceptance by October 10th.

Biehler, D.D., & Simon, G. L. (2010). The Great Indoors: research frontiers on indoor environments as active political-ecological spaces. Progress in Human Geography, 35(2), 172–192.
Bulkeley, H., & Betsill, M. M. (2005). Rethinking sustainable cities: multilevel governance and the “urban” politics of climate change. Environmental Politics, 14(1), 42–63.
Bulkeley, H., Castan Broto, V., & Edwards, G. A. S. (2015). An urban politics of climate change: experimentation and the governing of socio-technical transitions. New York: Routledge.
Bulkeley, H., McGuirk, P. M., & Dowling, R. (2016). Making a smart city for the smart grid? The urban material politics of actualising smart electricity networks, Environment and Planning A, 48(9), 1709–1726.
Cohen, D.A. (2017). Other low-Carbon protagonists: poor people's movements and climate politics in Sao Paulo. In M. Greenberg & P. Lewis (Eds.), City is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Edwards, G. and Bulkeley, H. (2017) Urban political ecologies of housing and climate change: the ‘Coolest Block’ contest in Philadelphia, Urban Studies, 54(5), 1126-1141.
Greenberg, M. (2015). “The sustainability edge”: competition, crisis, and the rise of green urban branding. In C. Isenhour, G. McDonogh, & M. Checker (Eds.), Sustainability in the Global City: Myth and Practice (New Directions in Sustainability and Society). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hodson, M., Burrai, E., and Barlow, C. (2016). Remaking the material fabric of the city: ‘alternative’ low carbon spaces of transformation or continuity? Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 18: 128–146.
Knuth, S. (2016). Seeing green in San Francisco: city as resource frontier, Antipode 48(3): 626-644.
Rice, J. (2010). Climate, Carbon, and Territory: Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in Seattle, Washington, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(4), 929-937.
Rutherford, J. (2014). The vicissitudes of energy and climate policy in Stockholm: politics, materiality and transition, Urban Studies, 51(7), 1449–1470.

Laura TozerComment
CFP UAA 2018: Urban Decarbonization, Infrastructure, and Politics

Organized by: Laura Tozer (University of Toronto) and Anthony Levenda (University of Calgary)

This panel will discuss urban climate change response in the age of the smart city. As greenhouse gas emissions reduction measures and climate action plans are implemented in cities, it becomes necessary to consider which visions of ‘smart’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘low carbon’ are being implemented and by whom. Panelists will examine the implementation of low-carbon transformations for urban infrastructure, with focus on data-driven urban sustainability governance and the politics of the transition to smart/low carbon cities. Considering the increasing role of cities in climate change governance, the growing visibility of urban actors in climate change politics, and the proliferation of smart and sustainable city policies, it is essential that we consider the nature of low carbon and smart city urbanism. How are visions of smart grids and low carbon technologies being embedded in urban infrastructure? Who is involved in planning, implementing, maintaining and engaging with these infrastructures? And what are the implications of smart/low carbon urbanism for democratic urban politics?

Interested participants should send abstracts of no more than 250 words to Anthony Levenda (anthony.levenda@ucalgary.ca) and Laura Tozer (laura.tozer@mail.utoronto.ca) by Wednesday, September 20th. Accepted applicants will be notified by Monday, September 25th.

Laura TozerComment
Looking for Utopia

This blog was originally posted on What's Next, a web magazine accompanying the International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam 2016.


We were looking for utopia. Our time in the IABR exhibit was almost up, but I had found my way to a display titled Utopia as an Option. I considered the images suspended in a mesh of wires that gave an impression of both structure and space and I was particularly struck by the suggestion that we look for utopia “without losing our naivety”.

I had come to the IABR exhibit on The Next Economy as part of a workshop field trip. A group of researchers, practitioners and artists had gathered in the Lorentz Center in Leiden Universityfor a workshop focused on how we might tell stories about low carbon futures. Radically reducing the entanglement of carbon in our economies requires not only action in the present, but also thinking about the future differently. And so we came to the IABR with burgeoning ideas about how we might narrate those potential futures.

The idea of utopia was particularly enticing to a group of the workshop participants. Utopia seemed to draw together shared interests in experimentation, better ways of being, and about the possibilities of positive story telling. At the same time, we were also curious about how easy it is to limit utopia. As we reflected on what we had seen in the exhibit, our group discussion developed along a key line of tension: utopian potential vs. limitations on utopia.

Utopian Potential

Across the exhibit, we saw nuggets of utopian potential. We saw that there were many stories told about the creation of spaces of encounter for people and the creative use of space in cities. These displays showed the possibilities of using encounters between people to solve other social and environmental problems at the same time. We also saw how many of the displays took an expansive view of infrastructure. Many showed us the ways that enhanced social systems, for example, can be thought of as infrastructure essential to the next economy.

But we also realized that looking for utopia was challenging. It is so easy to see the ways that ideas fail to reach our personal understanding of utopia. Can it be productive to suspend our criticism in order to offer utopian readings of ideas, even if it means working against the grain of the exhibit? Should we sometimes hold on to our naivety to fully unleash utopianism as a way of thinking?

Limitations on Utopia

In many ways, the exhibit also shed light on the ways that we limit ourselves when we tell stories about the future. The messiness of life becomes sanitized in computer renderings of the future, for example, so that there are no dirty utopias. We also found it hard to see utopian potential in cases where ownership and control was glossed over. The presence (though not exclusive) of top-down visions rather than those arising from the multitude limited what kinds of utopian visions were available across the exhibit. If we are looking for utopia, a key question is whose utopia are we seeing? What kinds of quality of life and what kinds of distributions of access are present in various utopias? Finally, by deciding on a primary goal, even an important one, we do shut down other approaches that might have centred on a different utopian ideal. The focus on productivity in some ways limits the things that can be accomplished by a utopia.

Practicing Utopia

Though we saw limitations on utopia in the exhibit, this tension in our group discussion showed how utopia might be a useful concept to exercise anyway. Maybe utopianism is a way of thinking that can be enabled or limited. Perhaps it is like a muscle that can be exercised and we can get better at flexing utopian thinking as we try to tell stories about low carbon futures.

Laura Tozer Comment
Cutting Edge Green Buildings in London, Stockholm and San Francisco
The first residents moved into Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm in 2002, which was developed as a sustainable neighbourhood with a closed loop urban metabolism approach

The first residents moved into Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm in 2002, which was developed as a sustainable neighbourhood with a closed loop urban metabolism approach

For my PhD research project, I'm visiting three cities with some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the world. On my trips to London and Stockholm last fall, I asked policy makers, research organizations and industry about their efforts to transform urban built environments in order to achieve deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. I have just arrived in San Francisco to ask individuals here the same questions. But in all three places, I am also getting a chance to see decarbonization efforts in action in some of the most progressive sustainable buildings and communities.

In London last September, buildings across the city opened their doors to guests for Open House London. Some people waited in the huge line to try to get to the top of the Gherkin, but I followed the green building track. It led me back and forth across the city from homes to office blocks to district heating tunnels under the Thames.

London social housing unit built in 1870 that has achieved a 77% greenhouse gas emission reduction

London social housing unit built in 1870 that has achieved a 77% greenhouse gas emission reduction

This Victorian terrace is a pretty classic London building, but this one is a little different than its neighbours - it achieved a 77% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Originally built in 1870, it now boasts new insulation, thicker (but still heritage approved) windows, heat recovery units and a solar hot water system on the roof. I was guided through by the resident on a sunny afternoon with about 15 or 20 others, most of whom seemed interested in tackling their own terrace renovation for energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction. The renovation on this social housing unit was fully funded as a pilot project for the Superhomes scheme promoted by the local Camden Council.

London office building that achieved sustainability performance in the top 1% of UK non-domestic new buildings

London office building that achieved sustainability performance in the top 1% of UK non-domestic new buildings

The Camden Council Building at 5 Pancras Square achieved a BREEAM rating of Outstanding, which is meant to signify sustainability performance in the top 1% of UK new non-domestic buildings. The design  for this building incorporates a number of passive design elements, like high levels of air-tightness and insulation in the external envelope, high levels of thermal mass, and windows that open to ventilate and purge heat. Our tour guide, a Camden Council employee that works in the building, didn't notice many of these features day-to-day since the building mostly feels like a regular office tower.

On my trip to Stockholm, I learned about efforts their to target the sustainability performance of whole new neighbourhoods within the city. In 1996, the city began redevelopment of Hammarby Sjostad on an urban brownfield site. The neighbourhood aimed to be twice as efficient as a typical one. The closed loop urban metabolism model that was developed through this experience is well-known in urban planning circles since Stockholm policy makers exported their experiences around the world to other sustainable communities. But this knowledge is also being applied a little closer to home in the Stockholm Royal Seaport development.

The Stockholm Royal Seaport neighbourhood has high standards for sustainability performance to push forward innovation

The Stockholm Royal Seaport neighbourhood has high standards for sustainability performance to push forward innovation

Stockholm urban planners and developers are now tackling a new sustainable neighbourhood redevelopment scheme called the Stockholm Royal Seaport or Norra Djurgårdsstaden. The land is owned by the City of Stockholm and they have set high standards for the new development. For new buildings, they are trying to achieve the very efficient standard of 55 kWh per square meter per year performance (the national standard was 90 kWh/m per year when they first started the redevelopment). The development also aims to meet city targets of greenhouse gas emissions below 1.5 ton per person by 2020 and fossil fuel free by 2030. Multiple developers and companies are working with the each other and with the city in collaborative processes to try to innovate to achieve these goals. Developers are motivated to participate not only because this is highly valuable urban land, but also because involvement in the innovation process creates cutting edge sustainable building capabilities within their operations that they can then offer to other clients.

The Järva project tackled the retrofit of these existing residential towers to achieve significantly improved energy efficiency performance

The Järva project tackled the retrofit of these existing residential towers to achieve significantly improved energy efficiency performance

The retrofit of existing buildings is also being tackled in Stockholm. About half an hour by transit from central station is a neighbourhood made up of older low to medium rise buildings. The buildings in this picture don't stand out much from their neighbours, but they've been overhauled to improve their energy performance. Solar photovoltaics were installed and insulation, the envelope, windows, doors, and the heating system were all replaced to improve energy efficiency.  The performance of the building was 137 kWh/m per year before retrofit and after retrofit it was measured at 89 kWh/m per year. Since many estimates suggest that 80% of existing urban buildings will still be in place in 2050, retrofits like these are clearly a key aspect of urban decarbonization.

The San Francisco City Hall has achieved LEED Platinum certification in the Existing Building Operations and Maintenance category

The San Francisco City Hall has achieved LEED Platinum certification in the Existing Building Operations and Maintenance category

Finally, I've just arrived in San Francisco but I've already taken a tour of the 101 year old City Hall. It just recently became the oldest building in the US to achieve LEED Platinum certification in the Existing Building Operations and Maintenance category. Like all municipal buildings in San Francisco, it is supplied by 100% carbon free power. To achieve certification, the heating and ventilation system was reconfigured and significant water-efficiency upgrades were installed. It is 90% more efficient than similar buildings in the US. Unfortunately, the tour doesn't yet include these details or bring visitors' attention to the LEED status, but hopefully it will be updated soon. I've just started my research in San Francisco and look forward to speaking with people working on urban decarbonization here. 

I've certainly seen some cutting edge sustainable urban buildings so far in my research travels. Looking across all three places, I hope to get a better sense of decarbonization as it rolls out on the ground and what the politics of transformative decarbonization look like in practice. 

Laura TozerComment
Dispatch from Paris: COP21 and the Transformation of Cities
Mayors Convene in Paris during COP21 For Landmark Climate Summit For Local Leaders ( photo by ICLEI )

Mayors Convene in Paris during COP21 For Landmark Climate Summit For Local Leaders (photo by ICLEI)

Not so long ago, city action on climate change was a topic discussed in obscure back corners of U.N. Climate Change Summits. This year in Paris, however, the action taken by cities to respond and adapt to climate change is playing a much more central role. 

Negotiators at the Paris summit are trying to develop a global deal between countries that would keep global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. As nations work through the issues that remain unresolved in the negotiations, cities have played an active role at the Paris summit trying to galvanize momentum.

Cities are key players in the fight against climate change. Urban areas are responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are also an important source of climate solutions. In addition, they represent the frontline in the effort to protect citizens from the impacts of climate change. Deep transformation of urban areas will be necessary to limit global warming to 2 degrees and to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

There have been a few key themes at the Paris summit when it comes to discussions on local action on climate change:

1) Cities are acting, learn from them:

We can learn directly from cities as they work towards transformation. For example, sessions throughout the summit focused on Stockholm as it plots a path to zero fossil fuels by 2040, on Copenhagen’s rapid transformation to carbon neutrality by 2025, the experiences of cities like Vancouver as it strives for 100% renewable energy, and efforts to increase resilience to the impacts of climate change in Dhaka.

Cities have banded together in a number of networks to share their experiences around the globe and to develop the resources to scale up the implementation of solutions. The European Covenant of Mayors brings together 6300 municipalities under an agreement to strive for GHG reductions of at least 40% by 2030. Participants in COP21 also heard that the members of another city network called the Compact of Mayors can deliver half of the global urban potential greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions available by 2020

2) Cities are ambitious, nations should follow suit:

Two weeks of presentations at the Paris summit have highlighted how cities are trying to push ahead at the leading edge of climate action. The members of the C40 Cities network (a network of the world's megacities taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) have taken 10,000 climate actions since the last major U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 and they have committed to reduce their emissions by 3 Gt CO2 by 2030 (the same as the annual carbon output of India).

International city networks are using their joint power to try to influence countries to reach a global agreement. At one official U.N. side event, governors and mayors from North America, Latin America and Africa reinforced their commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 2 tons per capita, or 80-95% below a 1990 benchmark by 2050. They called on national governments to follow their lead and come to a global agreement. The cities and regions that are members of an association called ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability also called on national governments to scale up their efforts to achieve low-carbon transitions. 

3) How can we finance local climate action:

Numerous sessions at the Paris summit have tried to tackle the question of how we can pay for climate action at the city scale. In one presentation, the Mayor of Johannesburg talked about the Green Bond the city offers on the stock exchange that funds local climate projects. Cities are also connecting directly to international climate finance. For example, the Global Environment Facility described their $1.5 billion Sustainable City program to fund local climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts and the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance explained how to mobilize capital into climate proof cities.

It is clear that city officials can’t accomplish low-carbon transformations all on their own. A quiet undercurrent of the discussions touched on some of the limitations of cities, such as governance structures that limit action, constrained local government budgets, and regulatory barriers. Connecting back to Canada, Premier Wynne of Ontario recognized this need during the second week of the summit and asked Ontarian cities facing regulatory barriers to local climate action to open up a dialogue with the province about removing obstacles. National and regional governments should find ways to further enable local ambitions.

It is important to celebrate the work happening in urban areas to accelerate low-carbon and resilient transformation. But it is also critical that national and regional governments don’t leave the work to city officials. There are essential climate change responses that just can’t be achieved at the local scale and low-carbon transitions can be achieved much more effectively using coordinated action. As we move into the final days of the Paris climate change summit, national leaders should see the transformation of urban areas as a driving force for an ambitious deal.

Laura Tozer is PhD candidate from the University of Toronto whose research focuses on urban greenhouse gas mitigation policies. She is in Paris as an official observer at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties 21.

Laura TozerComment