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Paris, Sydney, Oslo . . . Salt Lake City: A Trip Report from the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance Conference

Several weeks ago, Salt Lake City’s Sustainability Department Director, Vicki Bennett, traveled to Sydney, Australia to meet with the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA). The purpose of her trip (which was fully funded by a scholarship) was to share best practices in carbon reduction strategies with 20 other cities from around the world.

Each city sent a sustainability representative to discuss one collective goal: limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius and how cities are taking on that challenge. Salt Lake City was selected to attend because of our commitment to lowering emissions city-wide via Climate Positive SLC, our membership with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and the involvement of Mayor Biskupski with Mayors For 100% Clean Energy.

“It was an honor to be included in this group,” Vicki said, noting that the attending cities all have some of the most progressive carbon reduction strategies in the world.

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Read on for an abbreviated version of Vicki’s trip report . . .

As with the other networks SLCgreen participates in, the CNCA conference was highly participative, with cities comparing issues and looking for ways to collaborate on projects.

“One interesting note was that at the start of each session, all local speakers held to the custom of thanking the native tribes, whose land we were on, and paid respect to their elders past, present and future,” Vicki recounted. “That tradition continually grounded our thinking, making us truly understand how we were part of a much larger whole.”


The group discussed the “circular economy,” which offers a paradigm shift from our current model of buying stuff, using it, and then throwing it out.

RRR Flickr

Creative Commons | Flickr | Steve Snodgrass

In a circular economy, a carbon accounting system which factors in the energy and materials used in a product or service makes explicit that our throwaway society significantly contributes to the world’s carbon emissions.

The conference attendees discussed how cities can advance the idea of durable goods, as well as the efficient use of space and resources.

For example, the world’s cars are parked much of the time, going nowhere. Ride sharing and car sharing can help minimize this. How can cities promote this concept?

Similarly, offices are only used part of the day. Shared office space, use of schools after-hours and encouraging staff to occasionally work from home can make the use of space more efficient. How can cities promote this idea?

This is just the beginning of a much larger conversation. However, over the coming year, Salt Lake City will work with other cities to learn more about how they undertake consumption-based carbon accounting.

Specifically, we have plans to team up with San Francisco to examine one particular area of plastics recycling – small, single use items that often don’t have a good reuse and resale market – to see how we can shift the conversation away from their use.


Autonomous Car Creative Commons

Creative Commons | Wikimedia

We’ve all heard a lot about the future of cars. As we enter into a world of electrified vehicles, self-driving cars, and ridesharing ventures, the group discussed how sound policy making with autonomous vehicles (AVs) is important to keeping our cities’ carbon emissions low.

One concern is that having more single occupancy vehicles on the road, even if they don’t need a driver, will not be of any benefit in terms of energy use. How can we look ahead to this in the not-so-distant future?

Can AVs be required to be emissions-free? Or should we create specific routes for AVs to use when they have more than one passenger? (Like the carpool lane of autonomous vehicles).

These are important policy questions for cities as we enter a new era of transportation.


Finally, as cities set carbon action plans and commit to doing our part to limit the globe’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to ensure that every action we take as a city supports and builds upon our climate goals.


photo by Kyle Strayer

Both renewable energy and renewable heat were prime topics of conversation, with cities discussing the ways they are decarbonizing their energy systems.


With diverse constituencies comprised of residents, visitors and businesses, cities are at the forefront of communicating about climate change to varied audiences. The CNCA conference therefore included two training sessions for municipal staff on climate communications.

The first focused on the role of disruptive events and their potential to focus public attention on the need for climate action.  As cities we must watch for these events, and use them to educate the public about (for example) the connection between large wind storms, floods, tree die-offs, etc, and climate change.

The second training emphasized that cities need to up the ante. We need to stop being polite, and instead should take the “shock” approach to make our point on the urgency of climate action (not unlike this recent story about climate change and the uproar it sparked.)



Creative Commons | Wikipedia

Vicki and the CNCA group took several tours while in Sydney. The first was to an old shipyard, part of which was filled in to become a park, with the rest becoming high-rise apartments and offices with a Net Zero energy goal. Seeing proof of concept of these types of developments is important for all cities, since we’re all growing. The Sydney development included such features as: Shared utilities including a central heat pump and cooling water systems; rainwater capture; and a common recycling system that included its own small food digester for methane production.

The group also went to the Sydney Opera House and saw a backstage tour of their recent energy efficiency upgrades. By switching to LED lighting, the Opera House saved a whopping 75% of their energy use.


“The connections that I made were invaluable,” writes Vicki. “While I knew the 12 Sustainability Directors from the US and Canada, I also got to meet sustainability directors from around the world. Oslo, Stockholm, Rio, Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Yokohama, and Auckland attended. I now have yet another peer group with whom to share ideas and best practices.”

These connections are more important than ever. To make headway on climate action at the local level comes down to determining what exactly cities can change, and where we have the ability to make a difference. This is the first step.

The next step is to recognize the importance of collection action. “While we can all have carbon reduction goals, and even meet them,” noted Vicki, “it won’t be enough unless we use our collective influence on other cities, and the regions around us, to step up and take similar action. That is why networks such as the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance are so important.”

CNCA Melbourne


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