Creating Low-Carbon Cities

According to a broad consensus of climate scientists, the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically by 2050 to avert dangerous climate change—by 80% in the developed world. For cities, this will require a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing buildings.

We took a close look at the feasibility of deep carbon reduction in 90 by 50: NYC Can Reduce Its Carbon Footprint 90% by 2050. Through widespread deployment of existing technologies, New York City could switch entirely to electric energy (no gas or oil), needing no more electricity than we use today. New York City’s One City Built to Last plan calls for a similar 80% carbon reduction by 2050, one of the most ambitious goals for cities of its size. 

The key elements of this approach—increased insulation and air sealing, triple-glazed windows, energy recovery ventilation, heat pumps, and photovoltaic solar power—are the norm under the Passive House standard popular in Europe and gaining ground in the United States. Passive House buildings are near net-zero, but the standard has only been widely used in small projects. Cornell University’s Passive House high-rise on Roosevelt Island will be the first of its kind in the country, following the footsteps of Vienna’s famed RHW.2 office tower.

The low-carbon city of the future will need to marry Passive House technology with the urban mid- and high-rise. Better building envelopes are central to this future.