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April 10, 2019
Climate change—Can cities make a difference?

Yes, say mayors, with federal help

Hundreds of U.S. cities of all sizes are not waiting for the federal government to recommit to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and regain its position as the world leader in stemming climate change. At an April 2, 2019, House hearing, the mayors of three of those cities told their stories of commitment to a better future for their citizens and how they are stretching their resources to address the climate crisis in imaginative ways, sometimes with the assistance of the federal government.

The role of U.S. cities in quelling the climate crisis is often overlooked because actions by the federal government, the states, and utilities are believed to have a more direct and substantial effect on GHG emissions. Moreover, the achievements and commitments of cities are often bunched together with those of other groups. For example, a report called Global Climate Action from Cities, Regions, and Businesses views the potential of the three actors in the title collectively:

“In the United States, the additional impact from the full implementation of recorded and quantified individual city, region, and business commitments is significant compared to current national policies,” the report states. “They could reduce emissions at least half way (670 to 810 million tons carbon dioxide equivalent a year [MtCO2e/year] in 2030) to what would be needed to meet the U.S. original target under the Paris Agreement.”

While that statement is informative, it does not by itself illuminate the specific progress cities are making in both reducing emissions and contributing to a broader public recognition that new policies and undertakings in energy generation, transportation, and buildings are essential if the worst impacts of climate change are to be averted.

Cities support the Paris Accord

The role of cities in the context of emissions and mitigation was described more specifically in a report from America’s Pledge, an initiative intended to “aggregate and quantify the actions of states, cities and businesses and other non-national actors in the United States to drive down their greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.” The September 2018 report states:

“Cities and counties control city planning, building standards and permits, public transportation, waste management, and zoning, all critically important to climate mitigation. Increasingly, they seek to serve their populations by exercising greater influence over such economic factors as the sources and prices of electricity, modes of transportation, and climate resilience. In particular, large cities and counties represent sizable shares of state and regional economies, taxes, and energy demand. Indeed, the 25 largest urban areas in the United States account for 46 percent of total GDP [gross domestic product], 10 percent of the population, and 6 percent of climate emissions.”

The America’s Pledge report notes that 141 cities and counties have expressed support for the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement from which the Trump administration wants to withdraw. Those cities comprise an increasingly large footprint, says America’s Pledge.

“The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of U.S. states and cities that remain committed to action in line with the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement would be the third-largest country in the world—larger than the economies of either Japan or Germany—and would account for over 35 percent of U.S. emissions,” according to America’s Pledge.

Clean energy commitments

Even without pledging support for the Paris Accord, cities are refusing to take a back seat in climate commitments, a point made in a report issued in conjunction with the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit.

“Nearly 500 cities, with a population of over 100 million, 30 percent of the U.S. population, have made climate commitments (these include 10 of the US’s 20 largest cities),” the report states. “Of these, 96 cities, representing a population of more than 43 million, 13 percent of the total U.S. population, have made quantifiable greenhouse gas emissions reduction or renewable energy commitments.”

Also, a 2018 survey of 158 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Alliance for a Sustainable Future found that 60 percent of those cities have launched or significantly expanded a climate initiative or policy in the last year; 65 percent procure renewable electricity for municipal operations; more than 70 percent have energy efficiency policies for new and existing municipal buildings; and more than 50 percent have established energy efficiency policies or incentives for new and existing commercial and residential buildings.

Those who question whether a 100 percent clean energy goal is realistic for any city can look to the examples of Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont: Georgetown, Texas; Greensburg, Kansas; Rock Port, Missouri; and Kodiak Island, Alaska. Each of these cities has already hit its 100 percent clean energy target by adopting nonpolluting and renewable sources of energy. 

Federal funds essential

At the hearing, the three mayors testified about what their cities are accomplishing and committed to accomplishing to address climate change. They also spoke about how much more needs to be done. One point made by each of the speakers is that cities, counties, states, and businesses acting alone or together will not be able to meet the goal set by the National Climate Assessment and the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change that global warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Centigrade by 2030 to avoid catastrophic impacts. As pointed out by one of the mayors at the hearing, the federal government must take the lead in reaching this target because it has the money to do so.

“We need a strong federal partner,” said Stephen K. Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. “Local governments collect approximately 15 percent of our nation’s tax revenue. With that 15 percent, we are expected to deliver an array of core governmental services that many of us take for granted but are the foundation of modern, civilized society: education, streets, sidewalks, alleys, water, sewer, transit, parks, recreation, and much more. We cannot tackle the tasks of slowing climate change and adapting to climate change on our own.”

Mayors tell their stories

Following are snapshots of how Benjamin and the other mayors at the hearing are leading their cities.

Columbia, South Carolina. Benjamin noted that over 3 days in October 2015, Hurricane Joaquin, a 500-year storm, stalled over central South Carolina, inundating Columbia with almost 30 inches of rain, taking lives, nearly wiping out the city’s main drinking water treatment plant, and damaging 400 homes and 60 businesses.

According to Benjamin, in 2009, Columbia conducted a municipal energy audit with the help of a Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG). Several of the audit’s recommendations were implemented, including upgrading lighting and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems on city buildings and installing solar panels on fire stations. These projects reduced the city government’s GHG emissions and energy consumption and saved Columbia taxpayers approximately $337,000 per year.

The city has also taken several actions to provide residents with alternatives to cars, including initiating a “1-cent tax” to improve mass transit, upgrade pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and build thousands of new housing in downtown Columbia. Two years ago, Columbia set a target of powering the city with 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

Benjamin’s top request to the subcommittee was for reauthorization and full funding of the EECBG in 2020 and beyond. Block grants provide recipients with considerable latitude in how they make use of the funds. “EECBG is probably one of the easiest and quickest ways that Congress can jump start GHG emission reduction programs,” said Benjamin.

Salt Lake City, Utah. Salt Lake City’s 200,000 residents have seen the impact of climate change in lower drinking water supplies from the reduced snowpack, lower water quality and algal blooms because of higher temperatures, and more fine particle air pollution because of the rise in forest fires, among other effects.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who also serves as chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Alliance for a Sustainable Future, told the subcommittee that she and the city are working to reduce emissions generated by municipal operations and the community as a whole.  Actions by Salt Lake City include implementation of a comprehensive energy management Executive Order that has produced “significant reductions” in energy use through upgrades and tune-ups. The city also passed an energy benchmarking and transparency ordinance for commercial buildings over 25,000 square feet. “The simple act of measuring and reporting energy use costs no money and is projected to eliminate up to 29 tons of air pollutants annually and even more carbon,” said Biskupski.

Biskupski touched on a critical issue for cities tackling climate change—“navigating the relationship with their energy providers.” The city has been working cooperatively with Rocky Mountain Power and in 2016 signed a cooperative agreement with the utility with the goal of becoming 100 percent dependent on renewable electricity by 2032. The city also has a target of reducing its carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2040.

Carmel, Indiana. Located just north of Indianapolis, Carmel has a population of 100,000. The city is surrounded by farms that have felt the impact of climate change through declining yields, a change in which crops will grow in the state, increased risk of heat stress to livestock, and decreased quality of soils in general. “This could greatly impact food security for all of us,” testified Mayor James Brainard.

The mayor said the city has a four-page list of green initiatives that include:

  • Replacing traditional signalized intersections with roundabouts. Carmel now has 122 roundabouts, more than any other U.S. city. Roundabouts reduce fuel use and harmful emissions as the start and stop movement of traffic is all but eliminated. It is estimated that replacing stoplight intersections with 122 roundabouts saves Carmel drivers about 272 tanker trucks of fuel per year, which translates into a reduction of carbon emissions by approximately 27,816 tons annually.
  • Since 2005, requiring that city departments purchase alternative fuel vehicles when available.
  • Using a bio-pasture system at Carmel’s wastewater plant to turn waste into fertilizer.
  • Reusing methane gas, a natural by-product of the wastewater treatment process, to heat the boilers used in the biosolids process, as well as to heat a maintenance building and thereby reducing their energy consumption.
  • Replacing almost all street lights with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), resulting in a 48 percent reduction in energy consumption to power those lights.

At the hearing, Brainard argued that environmental protection is a nonpartisan issue.

“Conservation of energy and improving our environment should have little to do with political persuasion,” said Brainard. “There is no Democratic way or Republican way to fill a chuck hole and there should not be a Democratic way or Republican way to be resilient. Liberals and conservatives should be interested in conservation and energy independence. This is not only an issue of cleaning up our air and water. It’s a matter of quality of life.”

Testimony from the hearing is available here.

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