Princeton University Team Develops City Planner Tool To Achieve Carbon Neutrality

Princeton University Professor Anu Ramaswami and her team have developed a tool for city planners to help them design a series of actions that will set them on the path to carbon neutrality. The actions include compact development, smart electric mobility, electric heating systems, mass timber construction, urban reforestation, and technologies that will allow resources to circulate efficiently throughout the community.

“In cities, environmental health and human well being intersect,” said Ramaswami. “About 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and more than 90% of the world’s gross domestic product is generated in cities. If you can figure out zero-carbon strategies at the city scale for different types of cities across the globe, there’s potential to solve global challenges with local benefits.”

Ramaswami’s team initially developed the Zero Emissions Calculator for Communities (ZECC), which calculates carbon dioxide emissions. They then partnered with the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council (Met Council) in Minnesota to create a “Greenhouse Gas Scenario Planning Tool” for every city, town and rural community in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. The tool uses high-resolution local data to equip every mayor or town council in the Twin Cities region with the knowledge required to design their own pathways toward a net-zero future.  

Russ Stark, the chief resilience officer for the City of Saint Paul, said: “The creation of the new Scenario Planning Tool could be really valuable for us. We’re always trying — literally month to month — to figure out the best use of our time in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This can help us decide whether to focus more on particular transportation initiatives, or building energy initiatives, or other things… It can really help us decide which ones we need to do first, which actions can have the most impact, and how to stage those over time.”

In her work around the globe, Ramaswami has noted that big changes – such as transitioning to a net-zero carbon electric grid – can help cities achieve their goals in reducing emissions, but it can be difficult to close the final gap to net-zero.

“Many cities are finding that it is very challenging to get to net-zero by 2040, but they can get close, maybe 80% along the way,” she said.