The Clinton Climate Initiative’s Climate Positive Development Program intends to demonstrate workable solutions for sustainable urban growth through pilot projects in ten countries on six continents.

When the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) announced an ambitious “climate positive” development program last May, it marked a milestone in the collective consciousness of architects, designers, engineers, urban planners, and advocates of green design and sustainable development practices everywhere. For a long time the conversation—both in the media and the development community—has revolved around issues of viability: can green design and development survive not only in the marketplace of ideas, but also in the unforgiving competitive arena of bottom lines and profit margins?

In fact, in a reflection of how rapidly and profoundly the fundamental realities of green development have evolved, there are now entirely new questions to be asked and new goals to be reached. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards developed by the U.S Green Building Council (USGBC) no longer represent ambitious goals to be reached by a select few, but instead are emerging as the accepted—and, in many cases, required—industry standard for developers trying to remain competitive in today’s greener marketplace. Many developers are spending less time worrying about the costs of going green, and more time wrestling with a more relevant concern: what are the costs of not going green?

Green ambitions of even a few years ago can appear modest and uninspired compared with those of today. Developers, architects, elected officials, and green design advocates both inside and outside the development industry are now pushing hard to achieve what would perhaps be the ultimate goal in green development: an urban environment that is not just sustainable or neutral in terms of emissions and environmental impact, but actually carbon negative—offsetting more than 100 percent of carbon emissions and actually removing carbon from the atmosphere.

When former president Bill Clinton and his William J. Clinton Foundation launched the CCI in 2006, the organization looked to begin work on fulfilling its mission of preserving the environment not only by applying a practical, business-oriented approach to tackle the problems associated with climate change and environmental degradation, but also by demonstrating the results of those efforts in measurable and significant ways. Its programs range from a partnership with the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group that allows municipalities to enter a consortium to buy energy saving products, to a 2007 initiative to help several cities reduce greenhouse gas emissions by retrofitting buildings with energy-saving technologies and materials.

Through these efforts, the CCI is credited with having had a significant impact not only in terms of the financial resources dedicated to combating climate change, but also in the coordination and codification of standards by which municipalities will ultimately be able to measure their progress. For example, the group’s 1Sky campaign, unveiled in 2007, promotes a government stance to fight global warming and aims to achieve an 80 percent reduction in overall climate pollution by 2050. To that end, 1Sky coordinates vigorous grass-roots initiatives, promotes legislative engagement, and develops innovative communication, education, and media awareness campaigns in its effort to “communicate a positive vision and a coherent set of national policies that rise to the scale of the climate challenge.”

With the support and collaboration of the USGBC, the CCI recently rolled out the Climate Positive Development Program, aimed at demonstrating workable solutions for sustainable urban growth, with pilot projects in ten countries on six continents. From Jaipur, India, and Palhoça, Brazil, to Stockholm, Seoul, Johannesburg, and San Francisco, the Climate Positive Development Program plans to demonstrate real-world design and development techniques to serve as examples for the future of sustainable development. Together, CCI and the USGBC are striving to provide an effective combination of business, financial, and technical expertise as an institutional support network that not only facilitates planning and development for each project, but also establishes consistent metrics to track climate-positive progress.

Working examples of efficient design concepts, recycled and sustainable materials, and innovative technologies and engineering are helping translate ideas into actual living spaces. Projects like the Climate Positive Development Program’s Victoria Harbour in Melbourne, Australia, and Godrej Garden City in Ahmedabad, India, provide examples of green design for dense, large-scale, mixed-use urban environments.

By working closely with local governments and developers to design, develop, and maintain workable and sustainable innovations in construction, clean energy generation, energy efficiency, water and waste management, and transportation and infrastructure efficiencies, the program’s goal is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions of these projects to zero, and then to have the projects actually absorb greenhouse gases. When the initial 16 Climate Positive Development Program projects are completed, more than 3 million people are expected to live and work in climate-positive communities.

Zonk’izizwe Town Center in Midrand, Gauteng, South Africa—located between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and one of the 16 projects— offers an example of the design and mechanisms that are an integral part of these development projects. An urban lifestyle destination, the 5 million-square-foot (465,000-sqm) master-planned community, with integrated residential, office, and retail components, will include renewable resource management, energy efficiency strategies, and a conservation ethic that is expected to set a standard for the future of ecofriendly South African development. A 12-story hotel and a series of midrise residential towers will surround a lake created at the center of the project, while open promenades will link an office plaza to department stores and an enclosed retail/entertainment district with a multiscreen cinema. Sustainable development and green architecture are incorporated into the design, which includes a biowater recycling/purification system and power contributions from solar energy.

To reduce the net greenhouse gas emissions of their projects to below zero, developers participating in the Climate Positive Development Program and local governments will work in concert on specific areas of sustainability, which include implementation of economically viable innovations in green building technology, generation of clean energy, waste management, water management, mass transportation, and outdoor lighting systems. For example, the Zonk’izizwe master plan includes bike paths and trails to allow pedestrians and bicyclists access between the project’s components, thereby reducing automobile use and carbon output.

The town center, which will be the first phase of the project, will use groundwater and some graywater to fill the lake. Energy efficiency, densification, and public transportation, including a planned rail network—atypical in African development—are also part of the plan. Solar energy will be incorporated, and the design retains much of the local egoli granite grass found on the site. An ecological corridor, planned to preserve existing plant and animal habitat and create environmentally friendly wetlands, will also connect communities, as well as provide an outdoor recreational amenity for the people who live and work there.

Energy-efficient and environmentally friendly projects have gained additional traction recently as instruments of urban renewal and financial stimulus, helping motivate major urban transformations. In Kansas City, Missouri, for example, a $200 million infusion of stimulus funds has helped energize the Green Impact Zone, a project that aims to revitalize a 150-block area of the city through employment and training of residents to perform energy audits, construction of a “smart” local power grid, construction of a 13-mile (21- km) downtown rapid transit line with solar-powered stations and biofuel-powered buses, and provision of additional job training in environmental cleanup and community policing.

While some existing projects can technically claim to be carbon negative based on credits and comparisons with other proposed developments that would have occupied the space, true less-than-zero status is likely still to be years away. Researchers are working on a number of carbon-negative technologies, such as underground carbon storage, gasification of a mixture of coal and biomass, carbon retention and recycling, and use of waste heat from smokestacks to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. While many of these technologies are still in their infancy and will not yet work on a practical scale, the goal for developers, urban planners, and civic leaders in the short to medium term is to design and develop projects that are equipped to use the best of existing design and development innovation, and to integrate new technologies as they come on line in the years ahead.

With—for the first time in history—half of the world’s population now living in cities, how urban environments of tomorrow are conceived, designed, and built will have a defining impact on the planet. Cities, though they occupy just 2 percent of Earth’s overall land mass, account for more than two-thirds of global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the USGBC, in the United States, buildings alone account for 72 percent of electricity consumption, 39 percent of energy use, and 38 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.

The collective ability to develop new design concepts and technological innovations to reduce the climate impact of cities will be critically important. The push toward climate positive, carbon-negative development provides a vision of an alternative to wasteful, inefficient, and uninspired design—an opportunity to expand the boundaries of ingenuity and inspired design and achieve new standards for both buildings and the world.