Kevin McCloud invites us to visit somewhere that has already achieved net-zero carbon and has a 100 per cent recycling record.

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Forests are an exemplar of circular economy. Image: Jocelyne Yvonne

It’s getting to the point where anything we do to try and mitigate carbon emissions is pointless. We are almost at the tipping point of no return, as Jonathon Porritt explains in his book Hope in Hell. Wholesale runaway planetary warming is inevitable and it is going to become uncomfortable quite a while before 2050, as we see more devastating events such as Australia’s wildfires of 2019 and more and more species wiped out – including, perhaps, our own.

That is a deliberately negative, but quite possible, scenario. I happen to be a cautious optimist and therefore in the Bill Gates camp of those who believe technology and collective action will get us out of this mess, but who cites two important numbers: 50 and 0:50, as in
50 billion tonnes of carbon emissions that our species spews out every year and zero carbon emissions, our 2050 target.

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All carbon emissions are systematically captured and stored. Image: Lukasz Szmigiel

Net zero carbon city

So my heart skipped a beat when I recently read of an exemplar city that has already achieved net-zero carbon and has a 100 per cent recycling record; a place with a circular economy and a super-sustainable history that my friend Paul King recently visited. Paul is MD of sustainability at Lendlease (lendlease.com), a development company that has set its own ambitious net-zero carbon targets, so I expect him to seek out urban paradigms of eco-goodness and tell us all about them.

You have to guess which country this city is in, so I’ll allow you to read the full citation as written by Paul: this is a big, thriving place composed of high-rise towers, single-storey dwellings and everything in between. It is a home and workplace to millions, and yet it has been independently verified as net-zero carbon, water and waste through rigorous lifecycle assessment. All carbon emissions are systematically captured and stored, to be used for local fuel production and the manufacture of new building materials. Water use is carefully managed, but not at the expense of extensive green space at all levels.

And this place also has a strictly enforced 100 per cent recycling policy, so absolutely nothing goes to waste. Everything gets reprocessed and reused in the best example yet of a truly circular economy. Clever aesthetic design is one of the keys to success. For example, more than 50 per cent of this city’s sophisticated infrastructure is housed and managed in plant spaces underground – and a jaw-dropping maze of pipes, wires and waste distribution ducts is kept completely out of sight.

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50 per cent of this city’s infrastructure is housed and managed in spaces underground. Image: Irina Iriser

No poverty, homelessness or despair

Above ground it is visually stunning, juxtaposing some of the oldest with the newest architecture creates a consistently stimulating environment that surprises at every turn.

So, this place is not just an environmental exemplar, it is a social and economic one too. The housing complexes cater for all, in tenure-blind, dense and beautifully designed places and open spaces that encourage interaction and connection. And clever design guides demand that even as the local population grows and traffic increases – albeit powered by 100 per cent renewable energy – the place manages to feel both bustling and peaceful at the same time.

Food is also grown, produced and distributed locally. It is accessible to all and affordable too. And there is no sign of poverty, homelessness or despair.

I had difficulty figuring out where on the planet this city is. Until I began to realise that it is not in one country – nor is it even a hybrid place made up out of the best bits of Vancouver, Singapore, Bristol and Freiburg. Nope, it is a place which, remarkably, exists in nearly every country on the globe.

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There is no sign of poverty, homelessness or despair. Image: Steven Kamenar

The forest ecosystem

It is a forest. Forests are not just woodland, places to grow timber, but giant ecosystems of interdependent plants, trees, insects and fungi that show us how to produce, manage, recycle and cherish resources.

If you’ve read another great book of 2020, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, you will know that the forest is not red in tooth and claw, but a respectful and balanced system. You will know that trees are sentient, can smell and feel when they are being harmed, that they carefully rear their young, will continue to feed the root systems of decaying pensioner tree stumps around them, and will act collectively to sacrifice foodstuffs and channel them to an outlier relative sitting on stony ground at the edge of the forest. They are philanthropic – I mean philodendric. They love other trees. Who knew? Only Mr Wohlleben apparently.

A model for the future

If you read Jonathon Porritt’s magnificent and at times terrifying book, then read Peter Wohlleben’s too, as an antidote. And go to a forest to take the pulse of an oak and benefit from a dose of phytoncides, the calming chemicals produced by trees. As Paul writes, ‘You can experience for yourself the best net-zero places on the planet, and ask yourself if only we could achieve a fraction of these things in the places we design, build and inhabit, we might yet stand a chance of leaving our grandchildren the future homes, cities and forests they deserve.’

With thanks to Paul King

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