Energy-gobbling buildings, air-polluting cars, sprawling suburbs, carbon-spewing power plants—cities account for more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and two-thirds of the world’s energy use. Fortunately, urban centers are also often hubs of adaptation and innovation. And when they get efficiency projects right, as they do more and more these days, they discover powerful solutions that can be adopted all over the world.
“It turns out that many of the things we do to make our communities safe, healthy, and economically robust are the very same things that can help us adapt to, and curb the effects of, climate change,” says NRDC’s chief climate strategist Shelley Poticha. “But the window for solving climate problems is starting to close. We need to get mayors and local decision makers to see that their everyday decisions can be part of the solution.”
How can you make sure your local government is doing its part? If your city has a sustainability director or resiliency officer—and more than 200 U.S. cities do—that’s a good sign. If not, put some heat on the mayor’s office by asking the five questions below.
1. What are our options for cleaner transportation?
Cities nationwide are jumping on the “mobility on demand” bandwagon by improving public transportation and walkability and supporting car- and bike-sharing programs that give residents quick, cost-effective ways to get around without personal vehicles. Even cities historically resistant to mass transit are incorporating projects to improve congestion and solve the “last mile” problem—how to get people from a transportation hub to their home or office.
Many cities are also paying more attention to incorporating equity into transportation planning—and, critically, giving local communities a seat at the decision-making tables. When racial equity is integrated into city infrastructure, the kinds of improvements that benefit the environment—for instance, making neighborhoods more accessible by foot or bike—should also bring economic, transit, and public health opportunities to residents who have historically been left out of large investments in their communities.
2. Can we handle extreme weather?
If your city has a disaster preparedness plan, it should be posted on its official government website. If it doesn’t, international and national government agencies offer tool kits to help create one with community input. Involving local stakeholders will boost the plan’s chances of success.
Of course, resiliency isn’t only about reacting to disastrous weather events; it’s also about prevention. This is where green infrastructure—like ground cover plants and rain gardens—which absorbs water naturally without overtaxing drainage and sewer systems, comes into play. Push for green roofs, which capture rainwater and help cool buildings and streets, as well as initiatives to plant more trees and sidewalk gardens, all of which prevent polluted runoff from entering public water systems while also helping to improve air quality and reduce smog. More green areas not only provide shade to city-dwellers but also absorb pollutants such as carbon dioxide. And cooler and cleaner air can reduce heat-related illnesses—vital when you consider that 210 million Americans currently live in places where high summer temperatures put them at risk for heat-related problems such as exhaustion and heatstroke.
3. What are we doing to encourage energy efficiency?
City buildings, specifically, are responsible for more than 50 percent of U.S. energy consumption. But many city governments are now working to pass regulations for energy efficiency in existing buildings. Building owners should be compelled to calculate their energy consumption and use that data to improve their overall efficiency. Residents can play their part, too, by turning off lights, air conditioners, appliances, and computers, which drain energy even in idle or “sleep” mode.
You can also advocate for systemic change by supporting elected officials who recognize that energy efficiency must be accessible to all—and that it is a critical component of climate adaptation. Out-of-date heating systems, old faucets and refrigerators, drafty windows, and incandescent light bulbs can all factor heavily in the cost of a resident’s monthly utility bills; they are also major energy drains—heating and cooling account for almost half of the energy use in a typical home in the United States. The mission of upgrading homes and reducing energy bills for affordable housing residents is especially critical given that the proportion of earnings low-income communities spend on energy is, on average, more than three times the proportion paid by average households.
4. Do we have enough access to locally grown food, and how are we reducing our food waste?
“It may seem obvious, but growing your own food lessens demand for, and pollution from, big corporate agriculture,” Poticha says. Community gardens and farmers’ markets are part of a healthy urban ecosystem and have the added benefit of bringing communities together. Ask your city to support these efforts and to purchase locally grown food for schools and other city services.
Another way cities are taking climate action is by creating and expanding composting programs. An average family of four in the United States throws out about $150 worth of food per month, a 50 percent increase since the 1970s. NRDC research in three U.S. cities indicated that the category of edible food most wasted by households was fruits and vegetables. Composting is a great way to recycle those discards instead of sending them to the landfill, where they generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Some cities have programs that provide curbside collection of organic waste along with regular trash on select days. Others offer community or municipal composting sites where residents can subscribe to a pickup service or drop off their organic waste. If your city doesn’t have a composting program, help jump-start interest by lobbying city council members.
5. Are we working to protect every resident?
Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “A beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich doesn’t work.” Not just in New York, but in cities all across America, lower-income residents live closer to dirty power plants and reside in older buildings with leaky windows and inefficient appliances and systems. Along with wasting energy, these subpar housing conditions cause these residents to suffer disproportionately from the negative health effects of pollution, like asthma.
Look into any barriers in your city that prevent low-income residents from enjoying clean air and water and lower utility bills. Ensure your city supports climate justice initiatives, like efforts to increase green spaces in communities without parks and community solar projects that provide individuals and organizations an affordable means of contributing to the development of renewable power.
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