Chicago and the Clarion Call on Climate Change

Chicago leads on climate action, from access to climate science to updated streetlights.
City of Chicago offers disappearing climate science at

Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, hosted dozens of mayors from the United States, Canada, and Mexico for the North American Climate Summit to discuss city leadership in tackling climate change. Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy’s Christiana Figueres opened the event with Mayor Emanuel on the eve of the Summit. In her opening remarks, Figueres referred to Chicago’s leadership: “I cannot think of a better container for the clarion call on climate change,” kicking off and establishing this “network of radical collaboration.” Indeed, Chicago’s leadership on climate has been tremendous.

Protecting Access to Climate Science

In the wake of the 2016 election, and as climate science was systematically disappearing from federal government websites, Chicago was determined to keep decades of climate change research and messaging accessible to the public. The City replicated the Environmental Protection Agency’s former breadth of information at Within a few months, there were seventeen cities hosting climate data on their servers, continuing to protect their residents’ access to information on the causes and impacts of climate change.

Leading by Example

April 2017 saw not only the publication of climate science, but also a major renewable energy goal from one of the largest cities in the country. With the interdepartmental partnership and support of Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Housing Authority, the Department of Fleet and Facility Management, and the City Colleges of Chicago, the Mayor’s office announced that all city buildings will transition their electricity to 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. With 900 city buildings accounting for 8 percent of all electricity use in Chicago, this move is not just symbolic: the sheer size of the transition has the potential for very real market impacts, paving the way for other building owners to make similar investments.

Improving Transparency in Building Energy Use

In 2013, Chicago adopted the Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, which makes transparent the energy use of large buildings around the city. Building energy use is responsible for over 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the ordinance requires building owners or managers of large properties to measure and report energy use on a yearly basis. In the intervening years, the City Energy Project, a joint partnership of NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation, worked closely with the City to implement the benchmarking and transparency policy.  This simple act of benchmarking and making energy use data public available has contributed to a 10 percent reduction in building emissions and millions of dollars in bill savings during a time of economic and population growth. In November 2017, the Chicago City Council updated that ordinance, creating a new Chicago Energy Rating System under which any benchmarked building would receive and post a rating of between zero and four stars. The first of its kind, the new rating system makes benchmarking scores even more understandable for Chicago’s residents and commercial tenants while further encouraging building owners to explore opportunities to increase energy savings.

Christ Wheat at Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge 2017 Awards
Chief Sustainability Officer Christ Wheat at Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge 2017 Awards
Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge 2017 Awards
Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge 2017 Awards



Rewarding Innovation in Private Building Energy Efficiency

At the same North American Climate Summit, Chicago received international recognition by C40 for the innovative energy program, Retrofit Chicago. In addition to the Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, under Retrofit Chicago the city established the Energy Challenge, with 76 participating buildings covering 51.3 million square feet. NRDC is a proud founding partner on Retrofit Chicago, having worked closely with the City on this program since its inception in 2012. As of November 2017, 22 buildings had joined the Mayor’s Leadership Circle for buildings that have reduced energy use by at least 20 percent, and the City has annually recognized people and projects from around the city, from Trinity United Church of Christ to the 100 East Huron Street Condominium Association to the Shedd Aquarium.

Rahm Emanuel Accepts C40 Award for Retrofit Chicago
Rahm Emanuel Accepts C40 Award for Retrofit Chicago from the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and Bloomberg Philanthropies, alongside Copenhagen, Denmark
Credit: North American Climate Summit 2017

The Container of the Clarion Call

As NRDC President Rhea Suh describes, the North American Climate Summit provided an opportunity for cities to demonstrate their very real commitment to tackling climate change. The Chicago Climate Charter not only affirms that commitment but identifies specific actions for cities to take, from addressing energy use in the built environment to reducing solid waste to making improvements to transit systems and city vehicle fleets. Cities are, after all, where the rubber hits the road on policy. From potholes to stormwater concerns to heat islands, mayors face the day-to-day needs of infrastructure investment and climate change mitigation. By bringing together North American cities, Chicago has helped to fill a void at the national level. With upgrades to city lighting, renewable energy investments for city buildings, and smart policies and programs to shape the city’s built environment, Chicago is 40 percent along its way to the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.

To borrow once more the words of Christiana Figueres, “These mayors have chosen not only to stand on the right side of history, but to act on the right side of humankind.” Thank you, Chicago, for your leadership.