How close are we to zero carbon communities?

My paper about BedZED in was published in the Environment and Urbanization journal last month, there’s a free PDF for download. Aside from the many nitty gritty technical lessons learned from the UK’s first and still-largest Zero Carbon development, I took away two basic lessons for green policy.

The first is that good urban design really can influence behaviour, making for a better sense of community and more environmentally friendly lifestyles. The old rule of thumb – make good choices the default and easy, bad choices more effort – bore fruit.

The second is that the prevalent “save you money” view of selling sustainability needs a good kick in the teeth. Of course bill savings can be a good motivation for some people, but where did BedZED residents spend their savings? Flights; the now well-documented rebound effect at work.

If you save money somewhere, do you automatically think “Great, I’ll stick it in my savings account!” Maybe you prefer to give it to charity? More likely it will be spent elsewhere. Short of the population revolting against the basic logic of a capitalist economy – you know, those utopian calls for drastic cuts to the length of the working week, all getting by on much less, fundamentally changing our values and attitudes – we need to offer people exceptionally low carbon options for their disposable income.

Inge Røpke is one of several academics writing about “practice theory”, which addresses this very point. BioRegional are one of the few mainstream organisations out there who actually start with a breakdown of our impacts and try to take a holistic view of interventions. What I find fascinating about BedZED is that the infrastructure, the layout and other design choices have managed to shape people’s behaviour. So how far can we use spatial planning policy to offer low carbon consumption options?

Even if we built on the work of Tim Jackson et al and move towards a more stable economy, with a fundamental break from the logic of capitalism, this basic question of where we spend our money will remain a tricky piece of the puzzle to solve.

One Comment

  1. Bruce Nixon said:

    Hi Tom,
    Your blog hits the mark, is humorous, bold,highly informative and inspirational.

    Congratulations Tom.

    Here is a quote that you and your readers may like.

    “An individual without information cannot take responsibility: an individual
    who is given information cannot help but take responsibility.” – Jan Carlzon

    Best wishes,
    Bruce Nixon, author, writer and activist

    30th November 2009

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