US cities could help meet 10% of Kyoto targets

Greenhouse gas emissions reduction programmes run by US cities could contribute 10% of the reductions needed for the US to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets. US urban planners believe that municipalities' increasing enthusiasm for such programmes could influence federal attitudes toward ratification of the Treaty.

While the US Government delays ratification of the Protocol, an article published by the American Planning Association shows that US town planners, like insurance companies, are beginning to wake up to the reality of climate change.

The article quotes Abby Young, the director of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) as saying that 66 municipalities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, are now working with the ICLEI to analyse greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, adopt reduction targets and draft plans to meet those goals.

Young estimates that local communities could contribute up to 10% of the reductions needed for the US to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets of an eight percent reduction of its GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2008 – 2012.

“ICLEI’s US Cities for Climate Protection communities represent about 10% – probably nearly 11% by now – of US per capita CO2 emissions,” ICLEI’s director Abby Young told edie. “Since the vast majority of these communities are adopting GHG reduction targets that exceed the US Kyoto commitment, it is conceivable that their reductions could have a larger than 10% overall contribution to the US Kyoto target.”

Young believes that as municipalities embrace the idea of GHG reduction, the US Government will have to sit up and take notice. “Significant action at the local level could motivate action at the state and national levels, as it has in the past with issues such as recycling. I think any time you have a ground swelling of public sentiment on an issue, as the local governments in the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign are showing with respect to global warming, entities and individuals working at the national level do take notice. The most important result we have seen so far from these local governments is that reducing GHG emissions at home does not cripple local economies – rather, it reduces energy and fuel expenditures, improves local air quality, and increases the livability of our communities.”

Climate change raises a number of problems for US city planners. Increased flooding

could make water, sewage, and storm water systems obsolete, according to the EPA. The EPA also predicts that a 3°F (1.6°C) rise in average temperature could double heat related deaths in Chicago and Los Angeles. By 2050, heat could claim thousands more lives across the US as it exacerbates respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

In a 1998 paper in the research journal Nature, climatologist Martin Parry argued that communities need to begin adapting for the inevitable. Towns where drinking water could become scarce should consider storing water underground instead of in open reservoirs that lose moisture to evaporation. Conservation efforts should be dramatically increased. Coastal communities should think about protecting their shorelines, or moving populations to less vulnerable areas.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles has one of the US’ most successful GHG reduction programmes.

Having cut emissions eight percent, the city’s $40 million programme has almost reached its 10% target and saved 434,000 tons of GHGs since 1992.

Driven by federal government regulations to cut air pollution, the city has implemented a system of aggressive traffic monitoring and control, installed almost 250,000 highly efficient street and traffic lights and retrofitted 800 city buildings to make them more energy efficient.

Over the past four years, Los Angeles has also planted 16,000 trees in the city and in nearby Angeles National Forest. The inner city trees help keep the city cool, reducing air conditioning needs.

The city’s air quality director, Gary Gero, says Los Angeles will continue to push toward its goal. “We don’t know where the other two percent will come from, but we’re looking,” he says.


The Rebuild Chicago programme offers free energy audits to commercial and industrial businesses. It also provides grants to companies covering up to 25% of the cost of installing energy efficient lighting and as much as 50% of other energy efficient improvements. In addition, the city has retrofitted 20 of its own buildings, saving $1 million a year in energy bills and cutting greenhouse gase emissions by over 7,600 tons.

Another programme, the Urban Heat Island Initiative is aimed at keeping downtown Chicago cooler. This pilot project is a combination of rooftop gardens (including one on city hall), median planting, and light coloured roofing. The city has also revised its landscape ordinance to increase the amount of green space built into parking lots and major developments, eliminating as much dark asphalt as possible.

The city, working with local utility Commonwealth Edison (Com Ed), has pledged to buy $8 million worth of solar panels. After installation, those panels will produce 22 million KW of power and stop the release of 25 million pounds of carbon dioxide over five years. Most of Chicago’s programmes are funded by a $1 billion settlement with Com Ed that includes $100 million for green energy programmes.

Planner Gretchen Newman of the Chicago Department of the Environment says she spends a lot of time educating people about the importance of cutting GHGs. But she admits that in her presentations, she doesn’t necessarily pitch the global warming angle because of perceptions that environmental improvements cost money. “If we say global warming, we scare people off,” she says.

Portland, Oregon

In 1993, Portland, Oregon (pop. 500,000) became the first American city to adopt a local strategy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Susan Anderson, a former planner and currently head of the city’s energy office says the city council recognised the importance of the issue and that “nothing was happening on the federal level.” The city therefore made a commitment to cut emissions 20% by 2010.

Portland’s main worry is water. Mountain runoff supplies the city’s drinking water. The EPA predicts that just a little warming could speed the melting snow and cause water shortages in the late summer and early autumn.

Portland is attempting to save energy by making buildings more airtight. The city has launched projects like the ‘Block by Block Low Income Weatherization’ programme to provide free insulation and other weather proofing to low-income residents. As a result, power usage in the government, commercial, and residential sectors has been cut by 80MW, enough for 50,000 homes. Awareness raising campaigns have also helped convinced landlords to insulate 20,000 rental units at their own expense.

But there are limits to this success. “We have been doing this longer than anyone else, and we have only scratched the surface,” says Anderson. The region’s economic boom has eaten away at emissions reductions, making it harder for Portland to reach its goal.

Burlington, Vermont

In 1990, Burlington (pop. 40,000) was responsible for 509,000 tons of carbon dioxide. In 1997, that amount jumped to 624,000 tons, and, if left unchecked, the emissions will climb to 716,000 tons in 2005, according to the city’s climate change task force.

In the draft of a recently released proposal, Burlington has committed to a six percent reduction in GHG emissions. The action plan calls for more energy efficiency in municipal buildings, a greater reliance on biomass fueled energy plants, and a public education effort called the Ten Percent Climate Challenge Campaign, which encourages businesses and homeowners to cut their own GHG emissions.

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