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2010-07-16 | U.S. Cities Lead the Way on Climate Change Policies

U.S. Cities Lead the Way on Climate Change Policies

16 July 2010
Michael Bloomberg in suit next to charging station (AP Images) (Photo: AP Images)

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg “refuels” an electric car at a new charging station. (Photo: AP Images)

People walking by Philadelphia trash compactor (AP Images) (Photo: AP Images)

Philadelphia has installed several hundred solar-powered trash compactors that have reduced trash pickups. (Photo: AP Images)

By Karin Rives
Staff Writer

Washington — More than half of the world’s population now resides in cities, and urban areas account for an estimated 75 percent (PDF, 145KB) of global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. But those facts don’t tell the whole story.

“Cities are actually the greenest place on Earth,” said Joan Fitzgerald, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and author of Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development, a book highlighting city success stories. “Cities, by virtue of their density, use less energy.”

Apartment buildings always will be more energy-efficient than a free-standing home, Fitzgerald said. People in cities also walk and use public transportation more than noncity dwellers, keeping per capita emissions relatively low. That’s why cities and their growing populations will be a key part of the solution to climate change, she said.

Transportation and buildings are the two largest contributors to climate change, and in this area, cities can — and increasingly do — set an example.

In the United States, a number of municipalities have set their own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and they’re taking advantage of federal and private funding to meet their goals. The East Coast city of Philadelphia, for example, plans to cut emissions by 20 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade and has a number of projects under way.

The city of 1.5 million people received a $17 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation this year to expand bicycle and pedestrian trails that will reduce car traffic. Buildings throughout the city are being retrofitted to waste less energy, thanks to a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and a tree-planting campaign has begun.

Smaller projects also are progressing. Nearly 500 solar-powered trash cans that automatically compress garbage have been installed in the city, reducing truck collections by more than half. Many of the trash cans also have recycling bins next to them. The city is now collecting between 14 tons and 18 tons of recyclables a week from those bins, said Sarah Wu, outreach and policy coordinator for the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

Farther north, New York City is installing 100 electric charging stations to encourage drivers to purchase electric cars. The city also recently created three “solar empowerment zones” to direct resources to neighborhoods suitable for solar power installations. Using a mix of tax breaks and grants, the city of 8.3 million has seen a rush of applications for subsidized solar panel projects in the last year. The city’s goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Many cities struggling through the economic recession are financially motivated to make buildings more energy efficient and to explore alternative power sources, said Martin Chavez, executive director of Local Governments for Sustainability USA, an organization representing more than 500 municipalities seeking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. “Every policymaker and executive is looking for ways to balance a very difficult budget and retrofitting buildings and cutting energy costs makes financial sense,” said Chavez, a former mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “This technology costs money upfront but [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus bill Congress passed in 2009], has made a big difference for cities and their ability to fund these programs.”

Boise, the state capital of Idaho in the western United States with nearly 206,000 residents, built the country’s first geothermal heating district in 1983 and has recently been expanding the district with the help of a federal grant. Sacramento, the capital of California, is turning landfill methane gas — a potent greenhouse gas — into power for 8,900 homes. This is equivalent to taking 117,000 cars off the road, city officials say. Sacramento has more than 407,000 residents.

A number of movements and trends are converging to give cities the impetus to forge ahead on climate issues, Fitzgerald said. “We’ve had an environmental justice movement, a smart grid movement, a new urbanism movement around since the late 1980s, early 1990s — and now we have a green jobs movement,” she said. “Mayors who get it take leadership, and once it gets started it feeds on itself.”