By Tim Johnson

Each year as Earth Day approaches, we once again confront the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the growing threats they pose to our planet’s and our species’ survival. As we look for innovative approaches to reverse or slow the damage, it’s important to remember that strategies to address our most pressing environmental, economic, and social concerns are not always big, bold and glamorous.

Sometimes, re-thinking the little stuff can yield big benefits, too.

Take, as an example, the changes that have been taking place in my hometown, Minneapolis, after City Council approved an end to single-family-only zoning in many neighborhoods in 2019. 

Zoning is boring, I know. But as you stifle that yawn, note that ending restrictions that limit development to one house and one household per property can significantly increase urban density, which is correlated with a reduction in personal travel demand and improved access to walking, biking, public transit, and other zero- or low-carbon modes of transportation—all of which Minneapolis is now actively pursuing. 

Ending those restrictions also addresses broader sustainability concerns by boosting equitable access to housing, especially for people who formerly might not have been able to afford the purchase price of a home in a desired neighborhood or may have been barred from residence there by discriminatory practices.  

Tim Johnson

Sustainability advocates are now looking at Minneapolis’ example to see how big of a difference these changes eventually make.

Want another example of an unsung sustainability strategy? Look to the private sector this time and think about UPS the next time one of its drivers drops off the $12 t-shirt you just ordered. (Ahem.)  

UPS, like other freight transport and package delivery firms, is investing heavily in low- and zero-emission vehicles, alternative fuels, and even electric-assist cycles. But did you know that efficient routing is as important to the industry’s emissions reduction and wider sustainability efforts as the latest fleet of electric delivery vans? Yep, you heard that right: logistics. 

Consider left turns, or what traffic engineers call “cross-traffic” turns. Making these turns accounts for much of the wait times typically experienced while driving in a city. For UPS, of course, time is money, and these delays add up over the course of a day. But there is more. Idling vehicles waste energy and their emissions are a significant source of urban air pollution that disproportionately affects low-income households and historically marginalized communities living near these roads. Left turns also increase the risk of accidents and injury for UPS drivers, oncoming drivers, and for pedestrians and bicyclists who cross the intersection and are simply trying to coexist with the vehicular traffic.

Using logistics to reduce the need for these turns and other inefficient routing options yields benefits all around.

Lastly, let’s talk for a moment about cement. 

Did you know that cement production is responsible for about 7% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activity worldwide?  That’s more than aviation’s share. 

Most of the emissions stem from burning fossil fuels to generate the high heat needed to make cement. But now, a new wave of start-ups, such as Brimstone Energy, is developing lower-carbon cement mixes and production processes, and some U.S. states and the European Union are considering policies that would require new development to use these lower-carbon alternatives or reuse salvaged cement from demolition projects.

It's another example of an unsung sustainability strategy that seems dull and uninspiring until you consider how much of an impact it could have by reducing the amount of energy needed to construct the buildings, roads and sidewalks that surround us. 

Focusing on “little things” such as zoning, logistics, or cement may not have the glamour of bigger, bolder sustainability strategies, but it’s something nearly all of us – individuals, communities, corporations and governments alike – could put into practice today to help reduce energy use, curb energy waste, and enhance human and environmental health and social well-being while bigger, bolder initiatives are being developed and implemented. And if you ask me, there’s nothing boring about that.


Tim Johnson is professor of the practice of energy and the environment at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.