From Orlando to the EPA: Innovative Strategies to Cut Carbon Pollution and Save Money for Cities, Businesses and Consumers

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson recently compared the climate crisis to the 2008 financial crisis. He said: We’ve seen and felt the costs of underestimating the financial bubble. Let’s not ignore the climate bubble.

Case in point: Florida, where I recently went to speak at Orlando’s Climate & Energy Summit at the invitation of Mayor Buddy Dyer. The state has been declared a disaster area 19 times since 2000, due to damage from hurricanes, storm surge, heavy rains, and flooding. In 2011 alone, Florida experienced record-breaking heat in 20 counties and a total of 34 broken heat records; record-breaking rainfall in 22 counties and a total of 27 broken rainfall records; and extreme drought.

Scientists are clear on this point: extreme weather events like these are a hallmark of a warming climate. They are deadly and they are costly. In 2012 alone, extreme weather cost more than $140 billion nationwide. Taxpayers had to pick up nearly $100 billion of the cost of that cleanup.

Bottom line: climate change is a problem that no one can afford to ignore.

The good news is, most people aren’t ignoring it any longer. In the Southeast, cities like Orlando are leading the way in implementing climate solutions. And these solutions aren’t occurring in a vacuum. In many cities, in states as disparate as Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon, and Illinois, and even, at last, at the federal level, solutions are being put in place that will make significant cuts in carbon pollution. These solutions will save energy and money for cities, businesses and consumers, while making our air cleaner and our climate safer.

The Clean Power Plan

The biggest step we’ve ever taken, as a nation, to combat climate change is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, announced on June 2. The plan is the agency’s first-ever proposal to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants, the biggest source of global warming pollution in the country.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all mandate, the plan would set individual carbon standards for each state, respecting differences in energy supplies. It would allow states and utilities to meet their goals in the most cost-effective manner, which could be through a combination of cleaner fuels, increased efficiency, and more renewable energy.

Nationwide, the end result would be a 26 percent reduction in carbon by 2020, and 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. The EPA estimates that the benefits for health and environment total anywhere between $55 and $93 billion a year, compared to costs of about $7 to $9 billion.

That’s a 10:1 return on investment. 

Also, implementing these carbon pollution standards could create more than 274,000 new efficiency-related jobs across the nation and 10,000 jobs in Florida alone, according to an NRDC analysis. That includes electricians, roofers, carpenters, insulation workers, heating/air conditioning installers, heavy equipment operators. Cities understand that to realize the promise of these efficiency jobs, they need to lead the way on energy efficiency solutions.  

Cities Lead the Way with Efficiency

It is no surprise that leading cities are the places where the big ideas get put into practice.  Orlando is one of these places. Under the Greenworks Orlando sustainability plan, the city set goals of reducing Orlando’s CO2 emissions 25 percent by 2018, and 90 percent by 2040, from 2007 levels. Improving energy efficiency in buildings has been a key strategy in meeting those goals because 76 percent of Orlando’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings.

With a relatively small $1 million investment—the money came from federal funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—Orlando improved the energy efficiency of 28 municipal buildings, reducing energy bills by an average of 31 percent a year.

The city pumps these savings back into an Energy Revolving Fund, and is using it to fund more energy efficiency projects. Thanks to this fund, 110 more city facilities—including swimming pools, baseball fields, City Hall, and the Amway Center—will be getting energy-efficient retrofits that will save about $2.4 million each year for the city.

It’s no wonder the EPA now points to Orlando as a case study in smart financing for other cities to follow.

This energy efficiency work is further bolstered by Orlando’s participation in NRDC’s City Energy Project, a national initiative to improve energy efficiency in existing buildings across ten cities. The project is still in the development phase, but has the potential to significantly cut the city’s carbon footprint while saving Orlando consumers $55 million a year on energy bills. Across the 10 cities, savings will reach a combined total of nearly $1 billion annually. 

Some people argue that it’s too expensive to fight climate change. But here’s the reality: the longer we delay, the more expensive it’s going to get to reel in carbon pollution. Holding off for a decade would increase the costs of even moderate cuts in carbon pollution by 40 percent, according to a recent study from the White House Council of Economic Advisors.

And here’s another reality: one-quarter of the U.S. population lives in states that are already limiting carbon pollution from power plants. Twenty-five percent of the country is already doing this.

We have the know-how to solve this problem. We have low-cost tools that can help us do it. We have cities that are leading the way and showing their states that being more energy efficient is not only good for the environment but good for the local economy. 

The only thing standing in our way is the lethargy of the status quo. And the entrenched special interests who are invested in that status quo, and who are lobbying intensely at the state level to roll back clean energy and efficiency efforts and keep America dependent on dirty energy.

We can change this. We can choose to invest in energy efficiency, in our homes, businesses, places of worship, and schools. We can tell our elected officials that we expect action to combat the threat of climate change that is already hurting our communities and our bottom line.

Together, these solutions are creating a framework that is developing all over the country; a framework that will allow us to build a cleaner energy future, with a more stable climate, for generations to come.