"In summary, we have ignored the earth’s environmental stop signs." –Lester R. Brown, Full Planet, Empty Plates
Recognizing that global warming may fast be approaching the point of no return and that the world cannot wait for the U.S. government to act, hundreds of U.S. city mayors have pledged to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. By signing the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, these mayors-representing some 44 million Americans-have committed their cities to meet or beat the U.S. emissions reduction target in the Kyoto Protocol, despite the federal government's refusal to ratify that treaty.
This grassroots political revolution, spearheaded by Greg Nickels, Mayor of Seattle, Washington, and endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, responds to the mounting concerns of the American people. It calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. As Burlington, Vermont, Mayor Peter Clavelle noted: "We can't wait for this vacuum of leadership to fill."
Since February 16, 2005, the date the Kyoto Protocol came into effect for the 141 countries that ratified it, 227 U.S. cities have joined the mayors' agreement, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the three largest cities. The Northeast, the Great Lakes Region, and the West Coast are particularly well represented, and the list keeps growing. (See map and additional data.)
The group includes both communities with an eye on global problems and those concerned about climate-related impacts closer to home. For example, a dozen coastal Florida cities that risk destruction from storms and rising seas have signed on. Mayor Ray Nagin noted a similar concern when adding New Orleans to the agreement, stating that "the rise of the Earth's temperature, causing sea level increases that could add up to one foot [30.5 centimeters] over the next 30 years, threatens the very existence of New Orleans"-and this was before Hurricane Katrina.
The cities' action plans vary in both content and completeness, but the common refrains include increasing automobile efficiency, improving public transportation systems, curbing sprawl, and encouraging walking and cycling. The plans emphasize using and generating electricity more efficiently, with renewable energy sources playing a prominent role.
Seattle's pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions translates into an annual cut of 683,000 tons, the equivalent of retiring some 148,000 cars each year. In March 2006, the Mayor's Green Ribbon Commission made numerous recommendations on how to achieve this goal. The local role model is the municipal government, which has already slashed carbon emissions from city operations to more than 60 percent below 1990 levels. This was achieved in part by switching a share of the government fleet to hybrid-electric vehicles. By cutting fleet fuel use by 7 percent between 1999 and 2005, the city saved at least $300,000 a year.
Seattle City Light became the nation's first major electric utility to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 through a combination of energy conservation, renewable energy (principally hydropower), and offsets for the remaining emissions. To capitalize on this success, the Green Ribbon Commission recommends improving energy efficiency in buildings and requiring new housing to be energy-efficient.
For Seattle as a whole, the city's 400,000 registered vehicles are the number one local producer of greenhouse gases. The commission suggests a number of ways to reduce automobile dependence: Broaden the availability of "frequent, reliable, and convenient public transportation," which could be funded in part by new regional toll roads and a new commercial parking tax. Encourage car sharing. Add bike lanes and trails, improve sidewalks and crossings, and develop "compact, green, urban neighborhoods" built for people, not cars. With the average Seattleite spending more than one work week sitting in traffic each year, such measures have the benefit of greatly enhancing residents' quality of life.
To reduce carbon emissions from vehicles still on the road, the commission supports tailpipe limits on car pollution (as now required under the California "clean car standards" adopted by Washington State in 2005) and greater use of biofuels. Cutting emissions from diesel trucks, trains, and ships also improves local air quality, leading to fewer cases of asthma and respiratory disease.
Suggestions to move beyond the Kyoto goals include using rooftop solar energy systems and heat pump water heaters. Other innovations that make the Seattle commission's list are pay-as-you-drive insurance to discourage unnecessary driving, and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles that for short trips can run on electricity, preferably produced by renewable sources-virtually an 80+ mile-per-gallon car.
Of the other cities signed on to the Mayors Agreement, Portland, Oregon, has one of the most advanced plans for change. In 1993 Portland became the first U.S. city to develop a global warming action plan. Now, together with the rest of Multnomah County, Portland aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. Had Multnomah County continued with business as usual, today it would be emitting more than 12 million tons of carbon dioxide; because of its deliberate action to reduce greenhouse gases, however, the latest tally shows emissions have fallen to 9.7 million tons-just 1 percent above 1990 levels.
Portland has managed to increase public transit use by 75 percent since 1990. This was aided in part by the addition of new major light rail lines and the 2001 reinstatement of a central city streetcar, a throwback to the old trolley system that had been supplanted by polluting diesel buses and personal automobiles. City workers receive monthly bus passes or free car pool parking, and businesses that subsidize employee parking are encouraged to subsidize public transit commutes as well. Portland also has 267 miles (430 kilometers) of bikeways, which it hopes to double within 10 years.
In 2002, Multnomah County established energy efficiency standards for "lighting, heating and cooling, appliances, and personal computers." Throughout Portland, traffic signals have been converted to LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs that cut energy use by a whopping 80 percent, saving the city more than $500,000 each year in energy and maintenance costs. And the city is investigating the possibility of powering all its facilities completely with wind energy.
Elsewhere, city and county office buildings in Salt Lake City, Utah, have removed inefficient incandescent light bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents that use a third of the energy and last up to 10 times longer. In chilly St. Paul, Minnesota, an efficient combined heat and power system warms most downtown buildings. In Washington, DC, 414 diesel buses have been replaced with ones that burn cleaner compressed natural gas. And Austin, Texas, is quickly turning to wind and solar power to reach its goal of meeting 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources and 15 percent through energy efficiency improvements by 2020.
Response to the Washington climate action void is not limited to cities. States and businesses also are taking part. The challenge now is to multiply these initiatives and take them farther. With the U.S. making up 5 percent of the global population but responsible for a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, there is no substitute for leadership from the top.
Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute