Visitors to Vatican City may soon be breathing a little easier. That's because the Holy See, along with cities in more than half a dozen other countries, is locked in a race to become the world's first carbon-neutral city. Spurred by environmental concerns and the novelty of being the world’s most eco-friendly locale, cities around the globe are drawing up distinctive plans to neutralize their carbon footprints. Newcastle, England, is encouraging the use of tidal and solar power while planting new forests around the city to soak up emissions. Wellington, New Zealand, is revamping its public transportation. And in the United States, Woodstock, New York, has already installed a solar-heating system on top of its town hall. Not only will carbon neutrality cut pollution, it will also slash the cities' energy bills. The initial green investment is costly, but it will "pay for itself quickly," says Ann Rappaport, an environmental engineer with Tufts University's urban planning department.
Two cities vying for the global title aren't simply changing their carbon ways; they're being built from scratch. Dongtan, a multibillion-dollar "eco-city" being developed in eastern China, will be a completely self-sufficient metropolis, relying on a combination of wind and solar power for its superefficient buildings. And oil-rich emirate Abu Dhabi is breaking ground on Masdar, a 2.5-square-mile city that will ban automobiles and rely on a solar-powered driverless taxi system for public transportation.
Skeptics, though, dismiss the initiatives as greenwashing. "This whole idea of being carbon neutral is a bit of a gimmick," says Kevin Smith of Carbon Trade Watch, a project of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. The cities' strategy of purchasing carbon offsets is particularly troublesome, because it shifts the burden of reducing emissions elsewhere. And Rappaport questions whether carbon neutrality can really exist in the West if products are still imported from big polluters such as China. But it's hard to argue that a smaller carbon footprint isn’t a small step in the right direction.