Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty

Executive Summary
Printable version (304k PDF)

Wind turbine at Toronto Exhibition Place. Photo: Randy Park.

Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty provides guidance and support to local government officials and staff for meeting three critical goals:

- breaking community dependence on oil,

- stopping community contributions to global warming, and

- preparing the community to thrive in a time of energy and climate uncertainty.

The most direct strategy for achieving these goals is to reduce consumption and produce locally: reduce the community's overall consumption, and develop the capacity of local farmers and manufacturers to provide for the community's basic needs. The more your community can get its energy and basic goods from local sources, the less vulnerable it will be to rising and unstable oil prices, and the less it will contribute to climate change.

Energy and climate uncertainty

Most credible observers now recognize that our global climate faces radical change in the coming decades if we do not take immediate and far-reaching action. Peak oil (the coming high point and subsequent decline of world oil production) is not as widely understood, but presents a similarly complex set of challenges.

Time is short to prepare for peak oil and global warming. At current rates of fossil fuel consumption we will most likely pass peak oil by 2010*, and we seriously risk widespread, catastrophic climate change if we do not begin dramatically reducing global carbon emissions.†

The key problem posed by both peak oil and global warming is ultimately one of uncertainty: these phenomena are creating changes in economies and ecosystems at the global, regional and even local levels that we cannot easily predict. For local governments -responsible for managing local public services, planning for future land use and transportation, and protecting the community's economic and social health- this uncertainty creates a wide variety of risks and vulnerabilities. How will local economies be affected when the price of oil exceeds $200 a barrel? How will regional climate shifts affect the local water supply? Local government decision makers need to understand and respond to these challenges.

Incentives to act locally

As many southeastern U.S. municipalities discovered after Hurricane Katrina knocked out regional fuel pipelines in 2005, state/provincial and federal government agencies do not have the ability to meet every jurisdiction's resource needs in times of crisis. Local governments, however, have the flexibility, capacity and motivation to address risk management and emergency response needs in ways that higher-level government agencies cannot.

Local governments have strong financial incentives to address peak oil and climate change. Reducing local oil dependence and carbon emissions means pursuing energy-efficient buildings, locally-controlled energy sources, compact transit-oriented land uses, alternative transportation modes and other aims that are energy prudent, and thus ultimately fiscally conservative. When the challenges created by peak oil and climate change are not future risks but present problems, those communities that have prepared will have distinct advantages over those that haven't.

Local governments are well-positioned to address peak oil and climate change because they have influence over three key areas of urban spatial and economic development:

» Building construction and energy efficiency. Through zoning codes, building codes and the permitting process, municipalities can encourage building designs that save energy and resources.

» Local land use and transportation patterns. Municipal land use and transportation planning decisions directly influence whether people and businesses will have mobility choices that allow them to save energy and money.

» Local economic activity. Municipal economic development initiatives are opportunities to encourage development in low-energy, zero-carbon directions, by both incentive and example.

What local governments can do

The challenge for local governments is not to predict the future, but to plan for the future using appropriate tools and accurate information. Local governments should take a three-pronged approach to addressing energy and climate uncertainty:

» Identify local vulnerabilities based on a careful analysis of the potential impacts of peak oil and global warming on the community.

» Mitigate local vulnerabilities, and contribute to national and global efforts to limit the damage from peak oil and climate change.

» Plan for long-term changes that cannot be avoided, minimizing the disruptions they will cause and taking advantage of the opportunities they will offer.

Over the last fifteen years, hundreds of local governments in the U.S. and Canada have begun systematically reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in response to global warming. Since 2004, when oil prices climbed beyond 15-year highs, a number of local and regional government agencies in both countries have also begun responding to the threats posed by peak oil.

Drawing from the experiences and examples of these early actors -as well as from consultations with dozens of elected officials, managers, planners, architects, scientists and scholars- here are four initial steps that your own city can take in response to energy and climate uncertainty:

1. Sign the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (U.S.) and/or endorse the World Mayors and Municipal Leaders Declaration on Climate Change. For U.S. mayors, signing the Agreement commits your city to "meet or beat" Kyoto Protocol targets for greenhouse gas reduction, in the absence of federal leadership. Both U.S. and Canadian cities can also contribute to international carbon mitigation efforts by signing the Declaration.
See and

2. Join ICLEI's Cities for Climate Protection Campaign to get your city started on reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and to connect to the resources and expertise of the leading global movement of local governments working on climate change.

3. Sign the Oil Depletion Protocol, which sets a target for reducing oil consumption across your community. Signing the Protocol sends a signal to citizens, business leaders and municipal staff that your city is serious about reducing its energy vulnerability. It also makes you part of an international effort to dampen the effects of peak oil.

4. Establish a Peak Oil Task Force to quickly identify the challenges and vulnerabilities your community faces as a result of peak oil. A task force is also a valuable way to introduce businesses, citizens and other community stakeholders to the challenges of energy uncertainty, and engage them in developing a broad-based community response
See Section 6.2, "Guide to establishing a peak oil task force."

Also drawing from these examples and consultations, here are five principles to integrate into your local government's ongoing decision-making and long-range planning processes:

1. Deal with transportation and land use (or you may as well stop now).
Fundamentally rethink your municipality's land use and transportation practices, from building and zoning codes to long-range planning. Make land use and transportation infrastructure decisions with 100-year timeframes. Organize with neighboring jurisdictions to address the land use and transportation challenges of energy and climate uncertainty at a regional level.

2. Tackle private energy consumption.
Use the tools you already have to encourage serious energy conservation and efficiency in the private sector. Engage the business community aggressively, challenging your local business leaders to reinvent the local economy for the post-carbon world.

3. Attack the problems piece-by-piece and from many angles.
Meet your energy and climate uncertainty response goals with multiple, proven solutions, pursuing many different kinds of solutions at different scales. Enlist the entire community, setting clear community goals and spurring action from all sides to meet them.

4. Plan for fundamental changes...and make fundamental changes happen.
Educate and involve your fellow elected officials, staff and community stakeholders about the challenges of energy and climate uncertainty, and challenge them to come up with serious solutions. Lead your city's transition by integrating peak oil and climate change considerations in your own decisions.

5. Build a sense of community. In short, do anything you can to get people talking with each other, forming relationships, and investing themselves in the larger community.

Next steps

The Post Carbon Cities network is a resource for everyone who works with or for local governments. Our website at provides news feeds and special features, resources for policymakers and planners, and a forum where elected officials, municipal staff and others can share and discuss their common problems, challenges, best practices and lessons learned.

We welcome your participation in this dialog; we can all learn much more, much faster, by sharing our successes and our failures, building an ever-richer knowledge base. Please visit us online and join the growing movement of municipal leaders who are preparing their communities for the challenges of energy and climate uncertainty.


Media: Video, articles, interviews

News and other media by and about Post Carbon Cities staff.

  • ARTICLE: 21 September 2008, Sacramento Bee (Calif.)
    A less car-dependent California
    Daniel Lerch on our enduring relationship with the personal automobile, and the potential for a less car-dependent California. Written for the Sacramento Bee's "The Conversation".
  • ARTICLE: 13 August 2008, Homer News (Alaska)
    - Homer in good shape to tackle energy volatility, says expert
    - Council considers oil prices, energy conservation issues
    "The volatility in supply and costs makes it difficult to make infrastructure and policy decisions," Lerch said. "Budgets become difficult to plan because costs are unpredictable."
  • ARTICLE: 13 August 2008, The Homer Tribune (Alaska)
    Finding fuel for the planet
    "Local governments can address energy uncertainty -- indeed, should address it. 'What is it going to be like two years from now?' Lerch said cities should be asking."
  • INTERVIEW (radio) 8 August 2008, Alaska Public Radio Network
    Alaskans beginning to look at alternative energy solutions
    APRN's Steve Heimel interviews Daniel Lerch.
  • INTERVIEW (radio) 13 July 2008, Business Matters Radio Talk Show
    Surviving the Oil Crisis

    BM's Thomas White interviews Daniel Lerch.

  • ARTICLE: 3 July 2008, Mountain News (N.M.)
    Ad Hoc Citizen Energy Board Lighting Up The Future
    "As pointed out by Post Carbon Institute's Daniel Lerch, author of the essential planner's guidebook Post Carbon Cities, 'Identifying and mitigating community vulnerabilities is one of the more important ... expectations we have of our local governments.'"
  • ARTICLE: 2 July 2008, News & Record (N.C.)
    Cities plan for world where oil is scarce
    "Local government officials need to initiate conversations about how to respond to declining oil supplies, said Daniel Lerch, a program manager with the Post Carbon Institute."
  • ARTICLE: 1 July 2008, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority Communiqué
    Peak oil expert warns dependence leaves economies vulnerable
    Daniel Lerch presents at NJTPA's "Symposium 2035".
  • REVIEW: 27 June 2008,
    Book Review: Post Carbon Cities
    "The focus of [Post Carbon Cities] is absolutely right on for most local governments, and the information in the book is desperately needed by local municipalities. Post Carbon Cities focuses on the basics: what the energy problem is, why it is, and what can be done about it."
  • ARTICLE: 27 June 2008, Asbury Park Press (NJ)
    With a backdrop of high gas prices, transportation planners hold symposium
    "The old assumptions no longer fit," Lerch said. "No one thought (crude) oil would be $140 a barrel in June 2008. No one based plans on that scenario, and that becomes a problem. ... We must take time to make fundamental changes to land use," he said.
  • PRESENTATION (video): posted June 2008 on Global Public Media
    Peak Oil and Energy Uncertainty: Challenges for Local Governments
    Daniel Lerch, author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, describes some of the short and long term challenges that peak oil will create for local governments. Peak oil will have very local repercussions, but prompt planning can take the edge off of some of the negative effects. (Excerpts from a November 2007 presentation.)
  • ARTICLE: 28 May 2008, Maclean's
    After cheap oil: soaring energy costs are about to change everything
    "Public policy -— from decisions to invest in multi-billion-dollar freeway projects to airport expansions —- remains stubbornly rooted in the idea that oil will be available and affordable far into the future, says Daniel Lerch, author of Post Carbon Cities."
  • ARTICLE: 7 May 2008, Solar Today
    Tools exist to defeat global warming
    Reporting from the Solar 2008 conference. "Local governments need to start planning for fuel-shortage emergencies, said Daniel Lerch... "It’s important to give your local officials the information on distributed generation and solar technologies so that they can make informed decisions."
  • ARTICLE: 2 April 2008, The Kilkenny People
    Finding local solutions for the world's oil crisis
    From Daniel Lerch's presentation in Kilkenny, Ireland. "'Even if things aren't happening at a national level, you can still act on a local level,' Mr Lerch said. 'You know how much sun you get here, you know what your potential is for bio-fuels is, and they don't necessarily know that in Dublin.'"
  • INTERVIEW (audio): 13 March 2008, Corporate Watchdog Radio
    Post Carbon Cities: Planning for the Convergence of Peak Oil and Climate Change
    Lerch discusses the overlap as well as the distinctions between peak oil and climate change. He also responds to the question of how the policy void at the federal government level in the US is driving action at the municipal and state level to address climate change and peak oil.
  • REVIEW: 1 March 2008, Permaculture Activist
    Peak Planning by Erica Etelson
    Book review of Post Carbon Cities. "If you’re worried about peak oil, you should be. But don’t waste your time ordering peak oil survival kits off the internet. Get this book, and share it with your local officials. We’ve all got a lot of work of to do."
  • ARTICLE: 11 February 2008, Business Week
    Rise of the Carbon-Neutral City
    "But even the glitziest, most intelligently designed projects have raised significant questions from environmentalists about how much of an impact new developments can have on the global environmental crisis. 'You have to wonder what that money could have done to make existing cities more sustainable,' says Daniel Lerch, program manager of the Portland (Ore.) Post-Carbon Cities Institute, which helps local governments plan green development projects."
  • PRESENTATION (video): 31 January 2008, Focus the Nation national teach-in
    Daniel Lerch: Post Carbon Cities presentation
    Teach-in session at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon.
  • ARTICLE: 23 January 2008, Post-Bulletin (Rochester, MN)
    Adjustments will be needed as oil supplies dwindle
    On the occasion of Lerch's presentations in Minnesota.
  • INTERVIEW (audio): 22 January 2008, The Reality Report (radio, Mendocino, CA)
    Daniel Lerch on the Reality Report
    Lerch discusses the responsibilities and roles of local governments, systems thinking as it applies to planning for energy uncertainty, and what some localities are already doing.
  • ARTICLE: 18 January 2008, The Daily Kos (blog)
    Peak oil event in Minneapolis
    "After listening to Daniel, I highly recommend his blog. Furthermore, go and buy his book."
  • ARTICLE: 14 December 2007, The Hamilton Spectator
    Hamilton, Ontario: Energy City
    (Report on a recent presentation by Lerch in Hamilton)
  • REVIEW: 12 November 2007, Wild Green Yonder (blog)
    Post-Carbon Cities and the Future of Growth
    "Daniel Lerch, author of the recently released book Post Carbon Cities, might be the best messenger yet for the peak oil cause..."
  • INTERVIEW (video): 17 September 2007, Peak Moment TV
    Post Carbon Cities - Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty
    Interview with author Daniel Lerch.
  • INTERVIEW: 22 August 2006, Post Carbon Institute (text)
    Interview with Post Carbon Cities Program Manager Daniel Lerch

To view all news items that reference Post Carbon Cities view the Post Carbon Cities tag.