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All Progress Is Local

How mayors are picking up our national climate action slack There's a phrase you hear time and time again in any discussion of American climate policy: lack of national leadership. But, while Washington twiddles its thumbs as the mercury and sea levels rise, local governments are anxiously proving that..

How mayors are picking up our national climate action slack

There's a phrase you hear time and time again in any discussion of American climate policy: lack of national leadership. But, while Washington twiddles its thumbs as the mercury and sea levels rise, local governments are anxiously proving that they're not similarly asleep at the wheel.


Last week, "The New Ideal" looked at the efforts of ten northeastern states effort to put a price on carbon emissions by utilities. State leaders, like California's Governor Schwarzenegger, regularly receive praise for their regional work in developing cleaner energy sources and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But the real action is on the city level, where the policy steps are the most progressive-and, one could argue, successful.

"Cities are not the problem," says Jaime Lerner, a renowned urban planner and former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, "cities are the solution."

Why is this? Bill Clinton believes mayors are better equipped to push policies and actually implement programs on the ground. "I think doing is more satisfying than talking," the former president offered last year at the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit, flanked by the mayors of New York and London. "The thing I like about working with mayors is that they're in the doing business."

To that end, the Clinton Climate Initiative has partnered with the C40 (formerly the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group), to form an international alliance that shares ideas and creates solutions that more acutely target the challenges of massive megacities.

"Some of these programs will work better than others," Clinton said. "Some cities will be more successful than others. But I know one thing: Every day these people will get up and try to make something good happen."

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels saw the potential for mayors to collectively make a big impact in 2005. Frustrated by the U.S.'s dismissal of the Kyoto Protocol, he dialed up nine other mayors and asked them to pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, in order to meet the goals of the federally neglected international treaty. Soon, other mayors wanted in. Nickels initially hoped for a symbolic 141 signatures on the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (CPA)-equal to the number of nations that ratified Kyoto. He got 400. Today there are 884 mayors signed on, representing a total population just shy of 81 million Americans (more than a quarter of the national population).

The strength in numbers approach has proven useful. Cities pool buying power and save money on energy saving products, force producers to offer more efficient construction materials, and hasten the development of new technologies. Politically, the US Mayors Climate Protection Center-which formally administers the CPA-is a vocal and aggressive force in Washington, pushing Congress to pass greenhouse gas reduction legislation and to create a national emissions trading system. In the past four months alone, the Center has also published two influential reports-"The Impact of Gas Prices, Economic Conditions, and Resource Constraints on Climate Protection Strategies in U.S. Cities" (pdf) and "Current and Potenial Green Jobs in the U.S. Economy" (pdf)-that are driving many clean energy and climate change discussions.

But, the mayors aren't working alone. Many have turned to ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability, an organization that predates the Climate Protection Agreement by about 15 years with a stated mission "to build, serve, and drive a movement of local governments to advance deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and achieve tangible improvements in local sustainability." ICLEI provides a city with a whole slew of tools and resources for reaching its climate ambitions-emissions analysis software, policy templates, and plenty of "best practices" case studies chock full of smart, sustainable planning ideas.

So what exactly are the mayors getting done? Here's a taste: The AlbuquerqueGreen program requires all new construction projects to be carbon neutral and powered by 100-percent renewable energy by 2030. Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC is working to expand the city's hybrid taxi fleet, improv the efficiency of existing buildings, promote solar and wind development within the five boroughs, and drastically reduce private vehicle use through tolls and reducing traffic lanes. Three weeks ago Chicago unveiled an ambitious plan, which corrals many programs already underway-including promoting alternative fuels, adding green roofs to the skyline, educating the public about energy conservation and shutting down two local coal-fired power plants-into one comprehensive goal: cutting the Windy City's greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

ICLEI has a popular slogan: "Cumulative local actions can have global impacts." The Mayors Center's efforts are becoming proof of that principle. When the next administration finally delivers a national climate plan (and they will, regardless of who's in charge), I expect that most of the innovative action will still be born in cities.

Photo by Djordje Zlatanovic

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