America’s Cities, Stepping Up

With Washington becoming more hostile to climate action, the nation’s mayors are volunteering to fill the leadership vacuum.

Rudy Balasko/iStock

Within environmental circles, at least, it’s the question that’s on everybody’s mind right now. What kind of progress can we realistically hope to make over the next four years, when the next administration and Congress in Washington, D.C, seem ready and eager to thwart our mission?

The answer is: Plenty.

While it’s certainly easier to accomplish things with an administration that shares our philosophy and supports our efforts, we’ve been around long enough to know that our work must, can, and will be done irrespective of who’s occupying the White House.

We also know that the goals of stopping climate change, protecting wild lands, fostering clean energy, and protecting public health are shared by tens of millions of people across this country, regardless of their political ideology or party affiliation. Fortunately, this group includes many leaders at the city, state, and regional levels. And in the wake of a what’s likely to be a significantly weakened federal response to the biggest environmental challenges of our time, local leaders are poised to emerge as some of our most creative and innovative champions of sustainability.

A case in point: the City Energy Project, a joint initiative of NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation. This groundbreaking and still-growing initiative now boasts 20 cities—including 10 new ones that were just added to the list last week—that are all dedicating themselves to addressing the single biggest source of energy use and climate pollution: buildings.

If the buildings of the U.S. were considered a nation unto themselves, they would rank third in worldwide energy consumption. Now, through the pursuit of aggressive energy efficiency measures inside these buildings, members of the City Energy Project are committing to reducing their cities’ collective carbon pollution by nearly 10 million metric tons by the year 2030—an amount equivalent to taking two million cars off the road for an entire year. The mayors of these cities well understand what one of their own, former New York City Mayor Michael C. Bloomberg, has observed: that our urban centers “are the key to solving many of the world’s biggest challenges, including climate change. With 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from cities, they also present the greatest opportunities for action.”

That’s why these mayors—whose cities are the economic anchors of blue states, red states, and swing states alike—aren’t waiting to see how things “play out” in Washington: They’ve opted to make history rather than merely react to it. In Pittsburgh, for example, Mayor William Peduto has announced that his city will be cutting its energy use, water consumption, and transportation emissions in half by 2030—and cites Pittsburgh’s partnership in the City Energy Project as a key factor in helping it realize this goal. Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, credits the initiative not only with reducing energy and water use in his home city, but in the entire southeast region as a whole—of which Atlanta serves as the cultural and economic hub.

How and why does it work so well? By tailoring a plan built to the scale and needs of participating cities, the project is able to maximize the energy efficiency and energy performance of each city’s building stock. Since the largest public and private-sector buildings typically account for a disproportionately large share of a city’s energy use and carbon pollution, it makes sense to start there. But the strategy necessarily extends to the forging of relationships with developers, building owners, building managers, institutional leaders, and other stakeholders—all of whom can be made to see the direct correlation between cutting energy use, cutting carbon emissions, and cutting costs.

In the words of Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation (a City Energy Project partner), “Every unit of energy that isn’t consumed not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but also bends down the energy cost curve.” This correlation is crucial to the project’s overall effectiveness: There’s not a mayor in any U.S. city—small, medium-size, or mega—that doesn’t thrill to the prospect of lowering administrative costs, and of passing those savings down to taxpayers. And when you can tell your constituents that you’re also lowering carbon pollution into the bargain, you’re reinforcing the proven connection between these two different kinds of efficiency—and helping to erase the political and ideological lines that needlessly separate people when it comes to fighting climate change.

So far, six of the 20 City Energy Project cities have implemented energy-efficiency policies that cover nearly 12,000 buildings, representing more than 2.3 billion square feet of space. That volume is, in and of itself, the size of Indianapolis. And as evidenced by its recent doubling in size, the project is just getting off the ground: As it racks up more successes, more cities around the country will ask to join the partnership—and both the cost savings as well as the carbon savings will multiply exponentially. Eventually, the City Energy Project will no longer be a “project.” The ideas at its foundation will simply be how all cities—of all sizes, and all over—work to reduce their carbon footprint through maximizing the energy efficiency of their buildings.

At a national political moment when so much seems so uncertain, it’s good to be reminded that real progress—like flowing water—doesn't stop when it meets an obstacle. It just finds another way. 

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

President

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