Carbon Mitigation Strategies
The United States emits nearly a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide and many argue that this challenges the U.S. to take a lead role in implementing mitigation solutions. Because total carbon emissions are the product of countless local actions, any effective solution must involve decisions at local as well as global scales. Each county, city, and town contributes to the global carbon cycle. The efficiencies of our homes, offices, and schools have impacts on carbon emissions, as do the cars and trucks we use and how much we choose to drive. Land-use decisions involving agriculture, forest management, and residential development all affect the carbon cycle.
Some mitigation solutions provide win-win opportunities, reducing carbon emissions while cutting back on energy bills and other costs. Many efficiency upgrades in county and municipal buildings, schools, and private homes, for example, tend to reduce utility bills enough to pay for those system upgrades. Some options provide multiple benefits; planting trees in urban areas sequesters carbon and provides shade that reduces the demand for air conditioning. Some mitigation options, however, are potentially expensive at least until technology or markets improve or national and regional policies are developed.
There are numerous carbon mitigation strategies to consider, and this can be a vexing process for communities which are just beginning to devise carbon-reduction plans. But in the Northeast, a relatively small number of options contain the most promise for reducing meaningful amounts of carbon. They can be found under the following broad categories, each of which will be summarized below:
For those forests actively managed, the method of cutting, time between cutting, and eventual use of the wood can have large implications for the carbon cycle. Carbon storage can be maximized on the landscape in three main ways: 1) maintaining forests as forests, using conservation easements or other long-term protection strategies; 2) using harvested wood for durable wood products; or 3) using wood as a substitute for fossil fuels.
Planting trees in urban areas not only sequesters additional carbon but increases the property values of the neighborhood, improves air quality, provides habitat for urban wildlife, and cools and shades urban streets.
Planners and managers interested in urban forestry should consult the following resources established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service’s Urban Forest Effects program. Here, users can use tools designed to assist in the mapping and assessment of urban forests, plan for future tree growth and management, and receive answers to technical questions.
Finding and implementing alternatives to carbon-rich fossil fuels must be a cornerstone of the global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. As models for energy production and distribution become increasingly decentralized, local and regional efforts will become key to establishing these alternatives. Many resources already exist to assist planners interested in investing in wind and solar. New research and markets on fuels produced from wood biomass and other sources of biomass (corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, algae-based fuel, and methane from landfills or manure, among many other examples) are in some cases emerging now, and in other cases offer hope for the future.
More information on wind and solar resources in the Northeast can be found at Clean Air Cool Planet’s Community Toolkit with detailed descriptions of sample projects, estimates of cost and benefits, and contacts for more information.
Hubbard Brook scientists have calculated carbon budgets for nine northeastern counties [link to in-house content on case studies] and discovered that residential heating and electricity usage can account for as much as one-third of a county’s total carbon emissions. Reducing this demand for carbon literally begins at home. Communities can help reduce carbon emissions by improving the efficiency of outdoor lighting, while individual households may choose to replace incandescent bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescents. Resources exist to help people conduct home energy audits, which will indicate how to weatherize and better insulate homes so that heat energy is not wasted. People can also reduce the residential demand for power by purchasing energy-efficient appliances, furnaces, and air-conditioners. The U.S. government’s Energy Star program certifies which newly constructed homes are energy efficient. See for more information:
Since the end of the Second World War, the Northeast’s share of commercial space has steadily increased and in some areas accounts for nearly one-third of carbon emissions. Commercial development tends to require heating, cooling, and illumination of large spaces, making these buildings a good target for planners interested in meaningful reductions in regional energy demand. Energy Service Companies may help planners perform energy audits for municipal buildings and schools and suggest a host of improvements to reduce fuel and electricity usage. The National Association of Counties has partnered with Energy Star to help counties improve the efficiency of their courthouses, administrative buildings, and other structures. Purchasing electricity from approved sources of green power can also greatly reduce a county’s dependence on oil and gas. Reinstalling efficient traffic signals is a small but effective action to reduce overall electricity use.
County and regional planning offices often have a mandate to attract businesses and industries to their localities. Encouraging industries that employ efficient uses of power and fuel can have large impacts on a region’s carbon emissions. For a broad overview of efficiency opportunities listed by industrial sector visit the following site maintained by the Environmental Defense Fund.
Since the invention of the automobile, the United States and other nations have structured development patterns, commercial spaces, homes, offices, and cities around the expectation of abundant and cheap petroleum. As the world’s petroleum supplies diminish, however, coupled with increasing prices for oil, pressure mounts to switch to alternative fuels and improve the efficiency of existing vehicles.
Local governments interested in purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles or replacing existing fleets can compare various makes and models by consulting the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide. To learn more about federal incentives to purchase vehicles that run on biodiesel and to learn how some New England communities have taken advantage of these incentives click Here. Need link.
Reducing the need for single-passenger private transportation and total vehicle miles traveled will also reduce the growing global demand for gasoline. Planners can consider carpooling opportunities when drafting regional development plans; urban communities can encourage bike-to-work programs. Several northeastern communities have sought to reduce the need for buses and encourage more children to walk to school by developing programs such as Safe Route to Schools. Previous work has also demonstrated that even rural communities with help from state and federal funding can provide public transportation for its citizens.
Since many northeastern states grant counties and towns sweeping powers to define their own zoning and land-use regulations, local actors can have an enormous impact on shaping the carbon dynamics of their region. Local decision makers often have the power to site wind and biomass plants, to shape the density and pattern of residential development, and to design local transportation networks. Perhaps the most important first step for any community is to adopt zoning and planning laws if none are already in place. Below are brief introductions to zoning mitigation strategies that can be applied to urban, suburban/exurban, and rural areas.
The density of urban communities lends itself to efficiencies in housing and transportation that are difficult or impossible in other areas. In addition to fostering large-scale public transportation, apartments and other dense housing, and centralized utilities, urban planners can undertake additional zoning practices to reduce carbon emissions. Redeveloping brownfields (former industrial or commercial lands) and adaptive reuse of historic buildings are two ways to capitalize on existing infrastructure and utilities while alleviating the use of carbon-rich building materials. Revising building codes to fast-track the installation of solar panels on rooftops can provide a relatively cost-effective means to utilize underused spaces and support clean and renewable energy.
Without careful design and planning, the sprawling resource-intensive development patterns of most suburbs and exurban areas will contribute ever larger carbon emissions to the northeastern United States. Zoning intended to redress this should focus on reducing the number of miles needed to travel in single-passenger vehicles and on clustering development and services to maximize the landscape’s ability to sequester carbon. Since much of the region’s suburban infrastructure has already been built and planned around the automobile, high scrutiny should be placed on any new developments that are not designed with efficiencies in mind.
Zoning regulations can be amended so that new subdivisions are required to include planning for cluster development. The practice of creating smart growth policies that manage economic and community growth with an eye toward protecting environmental resources can contribute to reducing carbon emissions and capitalize on forest carbon sequestration. Encouraging infill of abandoned retail and commercial spaces can make the best use of land while creating mixed-use neighborhoods that required less driving and place residents closer to services and jobs. Some communities have adopted performance-based zoning which evaluates a specific development project’s impact on environmental resources rather than protecting resources indirectly through listing permitted and denied uses. This increased flexibility can in some cases ensure that carbon-friendly zoning does not compromise economic growth.
Rural towns and counties often contain most of the region’s aboveground stored carbon and hold the greatest potential to manage growth since many areas are only now beginning to experience diffuse development pressures. Rural areas, however, are the least likely to have formal zoning and planning, making them vulnerable to development patterns that negatively contribute to carbon emissions. With proper planning, rural economies can encourage growth, manage forested lands [link to forest management content] as sources of income and for carbon storage, foster smart-carbon agricultural practices [link to content], and cluster housing and services. Discouraging conventional sprawl will protect carbon stored in wood, but also protect carbon reserves stored in the soil that are released when developers dig foundations and grade housing lots.
Rural town zoning boards can also assist alternative energy investment by streamlining the application process for appropriately scaled wind. Zoning regulations that favor the construction of facilities to process biofuels and wood biomass as a substitute for fuel (wood pellet manufacturers, for example) may also assist national efforts to reduce carbon while offering the potential for local job creation.
Agriculture has steadily declined as a proportion of the Northeast’s total economy over the last century. But even in lightly farmed areas, the disproportionately large use of land by farmers can have negative impacts on the carbon budget if poorly managed. No till agricultural practices have been shown to reduce the amount of carbon lost from the soil compared to conventional plow-and-harrow agriculture, and such practices may be feasible among the many small-scale farms with high-value crops in the Northeast. In counties that actively support large dairying, new vaccines have been marketed for cattle to reduce methane in their flatulence, a surprisingly large source of greenhouse gas. Larger farms with animal husbandry may choose to invest in anaerobic digesters that convert the energy stored in organic compounds found in manure to a type of biogas that can be used on the farm as a substitute for fossil fuels. State and regional partnerships that encourage consumption of local foods will not only support sustainable agriculture, but reduce the overall amount of fossil fuels needed to ship produce to local consumers from distant national and global sources.