Cities play a unique and critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Half the world lives in cities and over 80% of Americans do. Cities are responsible for 70% of global carbon emissions. Hence, strategies to reduce urban emissions are essential to solving the climate crisis and cities will play a vital role in achieving the carbon reduction targets required to keep the earth at a viable temperature. In this pathway, we chronicle how American cities are reducing climate pollution by investing in energy efficiency, local distributed renewable energy, electricity grid innovation, and clean transportation.
What are the top strategies for cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Cities have policy and programmatic tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the areas of capping emissions, energy supply, building energy efficiency, and transportation. Tokyo, Japan and Shenzhen, China pioneered local systems to cap and price carbon emissions. Berlin, Germany and Minneapolis, MN are partnering with their energy utilities to clean up their electricity supplies, while Sonoma County, CA and Westchester County, NY are negotiating for cleaner, cheaper electricity on behalf of their residents.
Lancaster, CA requires that all new rooftops come equipped with solar panels or have access to solar energy. Fifteen cities and one county across the U.S. require that commercial building owners report their energy use on an annual basis, as a tool to increase market awareness and valuation of building energy performance.
Policies that encourage urban density with robust transportation options and affordable housing set the framework for low-carbon communities. Finally, electrification of vehicles, buses, trucks, and equipment – especially in regions that have low- or no-carbon electricity—can be a crucial strategy to reduce the use of oil in transportation.
What is carbon neutrality, and how do cities achieve it?
A city on the path to carbon neutrality is one that aims to power its buildings, transportation, and other energy-consuming activities without fossil fuels. In the words of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, achieving carbon neutrality “requires transformative rather than incremental approaches,” with a roadmap for long-term and deep reductions in the building, energy, and transportation sectors.
In 2011 the City of Seattle commissioned a study of potential pathways to achieve its carbon neutrality goal, and in 2015 the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance published a framework for cities on long-term deep carbon reduction planning.
It is essential that cities consider how prospective strategies add up to overall climate goals, how to achieve those goals in partnership with the private and nonprofit sector, and how to fund implementation in context of budget constraints. The Urban Clean Energy Revolution provides a detailed compendium of best practices in these areas. The climate crisis requires that urban governments and their partners embrace these actions at a greater scale and with more urgency than ever before.
Dedicated funding is a critical ingredient for urban clean energy action, but securing it is one of the most persistent challenges that local governments face today. Some leading communities are marching ahead on their own.
Leading local governments do not travel alone on the road of climate action-- they partner with other jurisdictions and networks to get deeper and faster results. These collaborations have turned low-carbon city efforts into a movement.
Urban leaders are looking beyond their typical toolbox of policies, programs, and partnerships, and experimenting with new approaches to achieve carbon reduction through cleaner energy supply, building energy efficiency, and low-carbon transportation.
In the early days of climate action, urban plans to reduce carbon frequently suffered from the laundry list syndrome: cataloguing potential strategies without any evidence of how they would meet long-term goals. Since then, cities and counties have become more sophisticated about cutting carbon, and are developing clean energy transition plans to do it.
Leading urban governments have set aggressive goals such as carbon neutrality and 80% reduction by 2050, and others have committed to sourcing 100% of their energy with renewables. These are not empty pledges, but achievable goals that local officials are already implementing.
In December 2015, international leaders will gather in Paris for what are arguably the most important global climate talks ever. Countries are updating their carbon reduction pledges, which currently fall far short of what is necessary to hold global warming at two degrees Celsius. This represents an ambition gap among national negotiators that the bold climate leadership of city officials around the world can help close.
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has issued a challenge to local businesses: join the movement for climate action, and gear your business for a sustainable, clean-energy future. Will Portland businesses accept the challenge? (Spoiler alert: Yes.)
Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson once named energy efficiency the “silent hero” in the climate crisis. Republican Governor Butch Otter of Idaho called efficiency the “low hanging fruit in the energy orchard.” We know that a key way to reduce our climate pollution is to reduce our energy demand. By reducing energy use, we also save money on our utility bills. So why are there still barriers to homeowners embracing deep energy efficiency?
Sometimes good things lurk in the FOG. In this case, FOG is a waste product—fats, oils, and grease—and it’s a major reason why the City of Gresham was able to turn its wastewater treatment plant from an energy hog into the first net zero energy plant in the Pacific Northwest.