With a spring in our step coming out of Paris, I am excited about the potential achievements we can make as a global community in charting a course to keep temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. It's all about commitment now, and action and reporting.

Patching up our climate is now front of mind. Its time for serious action and deep emissions cuts, and much work is underway toward this end. We are indeed a smart bunch. Net zero buildings, cities declaring carbon neutrality, climate positive development projects around the world pushing the boundaries, and beyond-zero advocacy campaigns that rally and inspire citizens and business alike. There seems to be a relentless pursuit to net zero. I like it, and I see good things happening.

So I thought to myself, “what if?”

What if the idea of net zero went well beyond just energy and carbon? Our ailing planet is in need of some serious repair in other places as well – health, transit, and social equity to name but a few. So I decided to hack the net zero ideal and came up with the following concepts.

Net zero street tree loss

This one is jut so logical – cities should achieve net zero street tree loss. Every time we take a mature tree for ‘safety’ reasons, or as we trim them to death during power network maintenance, we replace it with two others. Could we strategically identify ‘net zero tree loss zones’ within our neighborhood and precinct plans that trigger net zero street tree loss provisions? With many cities in Australia (and across the world) now having a street tree asset register in place, now could be the time for such policies. The Federal Government recently announced their commitment to increasing urban tree canopy coverage, so there is no better time for this type of thinking, right?

Net zero inequity

Here we would seek to plan and deliver projects that commit to a model of development that consciously embraces social uplift, rather than letting economic development be the dominant driver over other critical outcomes.

Displacement of vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the poor as rent skyrockets from neighbourhood gentrification is kept in check – net zero displacement. We provide a diversity of jobs – skilled, unskilled, full-time, part-time and cross sectoral – to achieve net zero job loss. And social services are provided where people have best accessibility – maybe a net zero worsening of social service accessibility?

Net zero increase in impermeable surfaces

As we continue to build out our cities, in both urban infill areas and on greenfield sites, could we achieve a net zero increase in the square metre coverage of non-permeable surfaces? What a win for water quality, and what an opportunity for innovation. It would create greater open space and enhanced biodiversity while reducing the heat island effect. It sounds too good to be true. Rooftops, streets, parking lots, all needing to be transformed. Could innovative projects create ‘permeability credits’ and trade them on an open market?

Net zero import of food

You’ve seen it in the grocery store, that little sign sitting along side that fillet of frozen Nile perch – Origin: Uganda. There’s also “Baked in Store Today” labelled bread actually travelling in a frozen form from Ireland, Germany or Denmark before going through additional processes to become “fresh.” Our food miles are killing us.

Whilst getting Australia self-sustainable in terms of food production is a long way off, I lay down the challenge for our neighborhoods, or regeneration projects, to seek a net zero import of food beyond the region. Of course, an outcome like this would require strong community cohesion, local governance and collaboration among many sectors and stakeholders, but I reckon some communities are ready for this one.

Net zero cardiovascular disease

In this scenario, we pull out all stops on built environment design, food and lifestyle choice, unleashing all we have to get to net zero cardiovascular disease. From smoking to unhealthy diet to lack of exercise – we crush them one by one through design thinking. Every possible land use plan, code, regulation, policy, infrastructure investment is seen as an opportunity to get to net zero cardiovascular disease.

It would travel from neighbourhood by neighbourhood, precinct to precinct. Net zero cardiovascular disease (NZCD) neighbourhoods would become the building blocks of a net zero city – active living like we have never seen before, local fresh food aplenty. Getting to net zero buildings has taken industry transformation, but things have changed monumentally in just 10 years. Imagine if our pursuit to prioritise walking and cycling in our cities were as relentless as the green building agenda. United advocacy voices, significant private sector investment, alignment with the investors – the business case is crystal clear, and dollars flow.

These were my top five net zero hacks, with others on my list being net zero private vehicle trips, net zero big box retail, and net zero sprawl. It’s not about the individual targets per se, as it would be ideal to actually get beyond zero to a net positive or restorative state with each. But rather the message lies in the power of how the “net zero” brand and idea can mobilise and inspire for action – policy, investment, implementation.

Who wants to join in a cities hackathon to really take this idea to the next level?