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Cities, Towns Work to Combat Climate Change

The international climate-change agreement would have required the U.S. to reduce its carbon emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Now, more than 900 mayors have signed a “Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement” to reach the Kyoto goal in their individual cities and towns.

The mayor’s agreement was proposed by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels in 2005 and organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and it reached the 900-mayor milestone in November. Together, those 900 mayors represent 80 million Americans, and they illustrate the increasingly prominent role that cities and towns are playing in combating climate change.

It’s a prominence that some climate change experts say was long due.

“Even just a few years ago, in 2005 when we started this in earnest, we got questioned with a very skeptical tone: ‘What part of global warming don’t you understand? You’re just a city, you have to fill potholes and keep cops on the street'” says Steve Nicholas, the former director of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. “I don’t think a lot of people feel that way anymore. The vast majority of pollution is produced in cities, and cities are on the forefront of dealing with its effects.”

Indeed, cities cover less than one percent of the earth’s surface, but hold half its population and produce about 80 percent of greenhouse gasses. And cities will have to deal with the effects of climate change, from sea level rise in coastal cities to heat waves, strong storms and other extreme weather.

Cities also have some key climate-change fighting tools at their disposal, explains Amory Lovins, an expert on energy efficiency and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. For example, seventy percent of U.S. energy use goes to buildings, he says — and cities and towns control the building codes that can mandate energy efficiency in new construction and building retrofitting.

“In cities […] you have all the infrastructure you need to make big changes,” Lovins says.

A few cities are at the forefront of beginning to make those changes. Seattle, for example, reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent between 1990 and 2005 — mainly due to the power company, Seattle City Light, zeroing out its net greenhouse gas emissions through using more clean energy sources such as wind power, among other things.

Seattle has also developed a plan that goes beyond the Kyoto goals, aiming to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2024 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The plan includes transportation goals — such as building a light rail system, improving bicycling infrastructure and using more “clean vehicles” in the city’s fleet — and improvements in building energy efficiency.

New York City is also developing a comprehensive climate plan — one that will address adapting to as well as preventing climate change. As part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for refurbishing the city’s infrastructure, dubbed PlaNYC, the goal is to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The city will do a carbon inventory every year to track progress. In New York, the reduction plan will focus mainly on buildings, which contribute 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the already public-transportation-friendly city.

New York also convened an adaptation task force last summer to look at how to protect the city’s infrastructure from the possible effects of climate change, including sea level rise and stronger storms.

Not every city that has signed the Mayor’s agreement has a comprehensive climate plan in place already, of course. Steve Nicholas, the former Seattle sustainability chief, estimates that perhaps 10 percent of them do.

In his new job, Nicholas is focused on spreading the lessons learned by the “early-adopter” cities to other cities and towns. He works for a nonprofit called the Institute for Sustainable Communities, where he is developing a program that will bring experienced officials from cities like Seattle and New York together with people from other cities who want to learn — in short “academies” and longer-term mentoring relationships.

“There’s a lot that’s unique to individual communities,” he says. “But a lot of core stuff — challenging issues and themes — is pretty common.” There are also enough “experienced” cities of different sizes and locations to provide good models for many others, he says — from a large city like New York to a middle-size city like Albuquerque, N.M., to a smaller city like Burlington, Vt.

Adam Freed, a senior policy adviser in the New York Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, agrees with that assessment. He’s spent time talking to people in other cities, and he says that many of the lessons learned in New York are applicable to other, smaller cities.

For example, he says, “We spent a lot of time developing the tools we used for our baseline carbon inventory, and they’re useful anywhere.”

As more cities and towns sign on to the mayor’s agreement, they’re also about to get a boost from the federal government. The recently-passed federal stimulus bill included $3.2 billion in funding for Energy Department block grants that will be available to cities with populations over 35,000 for energy efficiency improvements such as weatherizing houses, retrofitting buildings and switching city lighting to LED lights.

It’s funding that the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Center long advocated for, according to Tom Cochron, executive director of the mayor’s conference. And he says, the money spent will pay off in both green jobs and energy reduction cost savings.

“The fact of the matter is that some of this stuff is a costly investment, but it pays out over the long haul,” Cochran says.

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