World first carbon neutral city – what would Adelaide need to do to claim this title?

Pictured above: A rendering of Masdar City, a “smart city” in the United Arab Emirates. By Forgemind ArchiMedia under a Creative Commons license from

Yesterday the Premier of South Australia announced his ambition for Adelaide as a carbon neutral city and alluded to a green zone and electric vehicles – a bit light on detail. I have decided, therefore, to take you on a whirlwind tour of similarly ambitious cities and then pitch some ideas for making this announcement an economic boon for our city.

Masdar City

Masdar (pictured above) in the United Arab Emirates is famous for size of its ambition and probable expense. Estimated to cost $20billion, Masdar is currently being built and will run on renewable energy (mostly solar) to meet its goal of zero carbon, zero waste. As an aside, the tag ‘zero carbon’ suggests that it will generate all of its energy needs locally from renewable sources, as opposed to carbon neutral where the greenhouse emissions from a site can be offset by credits purchased elsewhere. This highly planned endeavour will showcase high tech, world renowned design and support specialised industries, universities and institutions for a low carbon future.

Dongtan, China

Wikipedia bills Dongtan, alongside Masdar as a zero carbon city and importantly, “The brief calls for integrated sustainable urban planning and design to create a city as close to carbon-neutral as possible within economic constraints.” This development will showcase what can be achieved when urban sustainability is designed into a city as it is built from scratch.

Burlington, Vermont

While the Premier was announcing ambition, Burlington in Vermont was announcing results. Yesterday it claimed to be the first reasonable sized city (popn 42,000) in the USA using 100% renewable energy. They have been chasing this strategy for well over a decade when the publicly owned utility first did its sums and concluded that renewable energy would provide the cheapest power and the most economic benefits over the long term. The city sources its power from locally sourced biomass (30%), wind and solar (20%) and hydro and also runs extensive energy efficiency programs.

Other International Examples

There are many more examples of climate smart, car free, sustainable etc. communities around the world – some built from scratch and some in transition and all with long term vision, and pursuit of social and economic benefits through a low carbon lens. As a minimum, I would recommend a look at Vauban Germany, Brighton UK, and Hammarby Sjostad in Sweden. Wikipedia has a longer list of carbon neutral pledges by countries and communities and interestingly Adelaide makes the cut in the Eco-cities entry.

But how does carbon neutral look in an Australian context?

Australian cities

The Sydney City Council takes a rigorous and transparent approach to measuring its emissions and buying carbon offsets in order to claim carbon neutrality. They used to buy GreenPower but have decided since 2008 to spend $2m per year on installing renewable energy generators on buildings instead. They also have an energy efficiency program and target. Sydney has been an advocate for moving toward more local and efficient generation with a masterplan and blueprint for decentralised energy by 2030.

Melbourne has been the most ambitiomelbourneus city in Australia to date with a goal to produce zero net emissions from the CBD and surrounding suburbs by 2020 – and a comprehensive plan to back it up. As the picture shows, this would still involve substantial purchase of carbon credits and the question needs to be asked about whether that investment is better spent in driving local changes.

Ideas for Adelaide

Adelaide needs to create a unique version of carbon neutral, in order to claim anything close to ‘world first’. This is not a worthy goal in itself but can generate significant benefits for the city if it is cast in terms of the economic and social benefits it can unlock.

My idea for a carbon neutral city is to create ten green ‘havens’, (or precincts or streets) – each of which showcases a different element of extreme low carbon living. Many of these could be part of developments already underway in the city centre and surrounding suburbs. Each haven would specialise and try to do its thing so well that there is R&D, learning and industry development involved and it would attract the residents and businesses that love its thing. Some examples:

  • ENERGY: 100% renewable and owned by the energy users – A smart solar microgrid, using and managing locally owned solar power in conjunction with energy efficiency, demand management and a sophisticated relationship to the electricity market.
  • WASTE: An extreme near-zero waste system, identifying the recycling opportunities, challenging the norms of what materials are needed for cradle to grave recyclability, and with 3D printing supporting a repair economy and sharing economy.
  • WATER: catching and re-using every ounce of water that falls to support the life in the system. We already have some world leading expertise in aquifer recharge and water efficiency.
  • GREEN: green rooves, green walls, vegie gardens. Like Singapore, a haven absorbed into a garden rather than a garden attached to the city.
  • BIKES AND WALKING: What does a liveable car free zone look like and can it benefit from the enormous TDU tourism that we saw this year? Does a system like this need just a simple car sharing scheme to do away with car ownership.
  • ELECTRIC AND DRIVER FREE VEHICLES: The pollution free precinct and Clipsal could become the zero carbon car race with alternative fuels and car designs. Holden V Ford might become Tesla V Toyota.
  • SENSORY CITY: How can the Internet of Things help us go green.
  • PUBLIC TRANSPORT HEAVEN: Where can I live and get everywhere I need to go with public transport – a haven for the elderly and less mobile.
  • DESIGN CITY: Architecturally outstanding, low carbon imperatives in the design process from the outset – long term beauty, function and sustainability.
  • CREATIVE CITY: A haven for the artists, the makers, the experimenters and the entrepreneurs – the source of green innovation.

Each haven will create the specialisation for some genuine world leading experiments, innovation and exportable skills.

These are my ideas – what would yours be?

or vote on your favourite:

About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
This entry was posted in Bright Ideas, Climate change policy, Community energy, Solar Energy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to World first carbon neutral city – what would Adelaide need to do to claim this title?

  1. Pingback: Adelaide as a carbon neutral city? Good idea. But can we really commit? | urban collaboration

  2. @timkellyADL says:

    What would it take to achieve a carbon neutral Adelaide?
    • Defining the boundary. Does it include just the CBD (South Adelaide) and parklands and North Terrace Precinct or does it extend to cover North Adelaide as well?
    • Does it cover for the workforce traveling to and from Adelaide Each day, or only movement within the city?
    • Defining baseline of annual emissions. An inventory of baseline emissions is required to show current emission sources for the key activities and who has control over these emissions. Previous studies have estimated Adelaide’s emissions in the order of 1.5 million tonnes CO2.e per year, but an up to date baseline is required showing for Scope 1, scope 2 and the significant scope 3 emissions.
    • A carbon neutral Adelaide would also need to cover not just the operational emissions, but also the emissions used in constructing new infrastructure and buildings.

    • Achieving carbon neutrality for Adelaide would require commitment by Government and opposition parties to lead the change for the longer term by managing the emissions associated with Government activities in Adelaide to be zero. Emissions would be reduced where possible and residual emissions would need to be fully offset.
    • The Adelaide City Council would also need to demonstrate the same commitment
    • The Government would need to inspire around 6,000 businesses to manage their activities in Adelaide to be zero net emissions
    • The Government would need to inspire approximately 12,600 people who live in Adelaide to manage their net emissions to equal zero
    • A substantial effort would also be required to encourage visitors to Adelaide to participate in carbon neutral activities as far as is reasonably practicable.

    Policy Reform
    • Policy reforms would be required for the National Carbon Offset Standard and GreenPower accreditation framework to improve the value for money of those paying to buy renewable energy and offset residual emissions. Currently, GreenPower does not provide value for money or legally assign emission reduction benefits to GreenPower paying electricity customers. If renewable energy is to play an important part of a carbon neutral Adelaide, accounting and pricing reforms are essential.
    • The South Australian Government would need to streamline the Sector Agreement Process for partners to self-sign up to agreements on line in a process that takes no more than a few minutes, and be able to withdraw at any time.
    • Prevention of futility and displacement of effort would need to be addressed by the State Government in consultation with the federal Government. Currently, years of energy efficiency gains and, GreenPower purchasing and renewable energy growth are not being used as a platform to close down fossil fuel power stations and take the next step to transition to near 100% renewables. Instead, the achievements are being used as justification to cut back the renewable energy target. For voluntary effort to work, Governments must value this effort and ensure that they have a long term goal and transition pathway to reduce emissions.

    Carbon Neutral Support
    • A team of skilled carbon accounting and management advisers would need to be accessible by households and businesses. Links to demand reduction services, low emission products, renewable energy and offset providers would need to be maintained

    Reducing emissions
    There are many ways that emissions can be reduced across the full spectrum of activities. Some ideas include:

    Government vehicles used in the CBD & metropolitan areas should be mostly electric and plugged into directly generated renewables or 100% GreenPower if on grid. All residual emissions would need to be offset.
    The electric train network bringing passengers into and out of Adelaide should be powered with 100% GreenPower. As an absolute minimum interim measure, passengers should be offered an option for a 100% GreenPower tickets.
    Diesel and gas fuelled public transport bringing people into and out of Adelaide would need to be fully offset. As an absolute minimum interim measure, passengers should be provided with a ticket offset option.
    The recommendations from the late Professor Stephen Schneider on differential registration fees for the most efficient vehicles should be re-visited.
    Electric mopeds should be supported through the creation of appropriate express pathways and safe crossing to build a network that protects both riders and other roadway and pathway users.
    Support for safer walking pathways should continue.
    Consideration should also be given to cope with the rise of gopher vehicles with an aging population and exploring ways to provide assistance for these to be carbon neutral

    On site renewable energy systems and energy storage systems should play a key role wherever possible. Newer precincts such as along North Terrace should have substantial rather than tokenistic renewable energy generation integrated with each site to be near self-sustaining for electricity needs.
    Car parking and cycle parking sites should be major centres for electric vehicle recharging.
    Electric mopeds should be mostly recharged with direct connect renewables at no cost to riders as this would provide the incentive to substantially grow ultra-light renewable transport.
    Street lighting should be powered by direct connect renewables where possible or with 100% GreenPower if sourced via the grid.

    Gas use in buildings and structures
    The use of fossil gas is not consistent with achieving carbon neutrality. As such emissions from all gas use (based on scope 1 and scope 3 emissions) would need to be offset

    Construction Projects
    Emissions associated with the use of key construction materials such as concrete, plasters asphalt, steel, stainless steel, copper, aluminium and plastics would need to be offset.
    All diesel and electricity use used in construction activities would need to be offset
    Major projects should achieve carbon neutrality to a standard and be certified/audited to confirm that carbon neutrality has been achieved.

    Food and food miles
    Food consumed in Adelaide should be certified as carbon neutral or steps taken for emissions to be offset. Low food miles could be an important part of reducing emissions associated with food.
    The emissions associated with drinks provided in glass bottles would need to be offset.

    Government (state and local)
    All emissions from of state and local government activities that occur within Adelaide would need to be offset.
    Procurement for carbon offsets should support local industries as a preference, such as avoided landfill carbon offsets, methane capture projects, seagrass, mangrove and saltmarsh recovery projects where carbon sequestration methods can be demonstrated and approved under the NCOS.

    • Heather says:

      Excellent, detailed analysis Tim – of what Carbon Neutrality means and what it needs to mean in the long run. I may have been cynical in my blog because I assumed we wouldn’t give this project the firepower it needs for true Carbon Neutrality and offered an alternative vision of smaller deep green projects that showcase different elements of a low carbon future. I also feel buying offsets can be fraught with difficulty and the money might be better spent transitioning the city. Where do you stand on buying offsets vs doing the hard work ouselves?

  3. Thanks Heather,

    I believe in making the onsite gains to reduce emissions where possible, including energy efficiency, use of technology, behavioural change and in buying low emissions products and services which will help grow a low emissions economy. Where there are residual emissions, and where a net import of electricity is needed, then I think this is the place for buying offsets and GreenPower.

    Some organisations have shifted from buying GreenPower and offsets to focus on energy efficiency first, but I think there are advantages in running energy efficiency programs in parallel with GreenPower and offset purchasing to achieve targets. In time, as on-site project initiatives lead to achievements, less GreenPower and fewer offsets would be needed. It all depends what level of performance is defined as the target and when it is to be achieved.

    In my recent NCOS submission I supported the important role of the Domestic Offset Integrity Committee to assure that offsets are basically sound. I did however urge that using any kind of permit as an offset is fundamentally unsound as this just leads to greater scarcity, upward price pressure making it difficult for Governments to tighten permits through time.

    I would argue that reforming GreenPower is hard work but essential because there will never be enough offsets to cover the nearly 200 million tonnes CO2-e per year from the stationary electricity sector. In ten years the cost of producing renewable electricity has fallen dramatically yet the cost of buying GreenPower has stayed as a penalty of around $55 to $58 per MWh above the cost of a standard electricity contract (plus GST). The pricing structure is simply unfair, particularly given that the emissions reduction benefits and use of renewables attributes are not even legally allocated to the GreenPower customer.

    If we could get these basics right then I think the whole approach to tackling emissions becomes more achievable.

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