Cities offer best hope for combating climate change
WASHINGTON -- On May 15, Richard M. Daley stepped down as mayor of Chicago. With his retirement, his city lost its chief executive of 22 years, but America also lost one of its most environment-friendly local leaders. With the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation, it is local and state governments in the United States, such as Daley’s city hall, that can play a pivotal role in fighting global warming. Europeans need to look to such local officials if transatlantic cooperation on climate change is to make progress in the years ahead.
Daley transformed Chicago from its industrial roots to a green city with more than 7 million square feet of rooftop gardens and green roofs, more than 1300 new acres of open space, more than half a million new trees planted since 1998, and 88 buildings that are LEED certified as meeting high standards for energy savings, water efficiency, and CO2 emissions reduction. In recognition of these achievements, Daley was awarded the 2010 Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Much of the local climate agenda in the United States has been driven by committed state or city leaders, such as Daley, who have made fighting global warming a goal for their administrations. Many of these local leaders have taken steps to strengthen and leverage their own efforts through bilateral and multilateral partnerships. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York chairs C40, a group of 18 large cities working together to combat climate change. Former Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle was instrumental in launching the Climate Protection Agreement, pursuant to which more than 1000 mayors have pledged to meet the standards of the Kyoto Protocol despite lack of action at the federal level. In large part due to the personal engagement of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California has led state-level action with its 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, which commits the state to return its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to reduce them to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, Currently, more than half of the U.S. states have adopted climate action plans, although none with California’s level of ambition so far, and they are joined by a large number of local governments.
Europe’s climate champions are also to be found at the local level. Mayors like Mayor Bertrand Delanoë of Paris and former Mayor Ken Livingstone of London made green urban development a main plank of their political platforms. Some smaller cities have gone further, adopting targets that far exceed national ambition. Växjö, Sweden, decided in 1996 to become free of fossil fuels and is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent below 1993 levels by 2015.
Even though such efforts depend on political entrepreneurs, they are supported and sustained by a national or EU-wide infrastructure. The EU has legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, and energy efficiency by 2020, which often translate into legislative action at the city level. The EU has also set up a highly successful “Covenant of Mayors,” under which 1,900 local authorities have committed to exceed the EU-wide target of reducing CO2 emissions by more than 20 percent by 2020. The Covenant provides targets, baselines, methodologies, and a structure of peer support to drive implementation. Campaigns like the annual European Green Capital award (won by Hamburg in 2011 for its energy savings and smart development of its industrial docklands) can build public awareness and a race to the top among municipalities.
Many European policymakers are encouraging equivalent actions at the city and state levels in the United States in lieu of federal action. Unfortunately, city and state leaders move on eventually, and even the best climate action plan and the most well-intentioned pledge, if not implemented by investment or regulation, can easily be ignored after a political transition. In the absence of a federal framework that drives local investments and regulatory changes, the U.S. climate strategy will inevitably consist of a patchwork of state and local actions — all important, but some with a longer-lasting impact than others. Large-scale investments in transit or in open space and greening — as were made by Daley’s administration — will have an impact that long outlasts the leader who championed them. Similarly, regulatory changes that promote more compact and energy-efficient development, while not irrevocable, are more difficult to undo than a plan.
With the U.S. federal government’s current retreat from the climate policy arena, European policymakers are facing a new challenge: working with many eager but diverse partners instead of one recalcitrant one. European policymakers, especially at the local level, can exchange best practices with their American counterparts. While the United States will still be left with a patchwork of climate change actions for the foreseeable future, such cooperation can help to overcome the unpredictability of political change by encouraging the implementation of measures whose success has been proven elsewhere and which will outlast their champions.
Tamar Shapiro is director of the Urban & Regional Policy Program at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. Thomas Legge is a program officer in the Climate & Energy Program at the German Marshall Fund in Washington
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.