Cities’ actions fall short of lofty climate goals

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2020

Most major American cities that have signed on to the climate fight with pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions are failing to meet their goals or haven’t even started to track local progress, according to a survey by the Brookings Institution.

The report, “Pledges and Progress,” looked for climate policy and actions in the nation’s 100 most populous cities, finding that two-thirds have made commitments to address citywide emissions.

President Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate accord after he took office sparked a strong response at the local level. Mayors joined governors, business leaders and academics in taking the “We Are Still In” pledge to help meet targets for cutting emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The pledge now lists 3,800 signers.

“At their best, the plans have exemplified the hope that ‘bottom-up’ actions could add up to a powerful approach to climate mitigation, especially given rollbacks in federal policy under the Trump administration including the government’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement,” the report said.

But the Brookings analysis found that actions taken by cities aren’t matching up with their pledges to address climate change.

Among the 100 largest cities, only 45 set specific targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions during the past decade and inventoried emissions levels within city boundaries as baselines for measuring progress.

Twenty-two more cities have made general pledges to address emissions. But the Brookings analysis found they haven’t set emissions targets or inventoried current emissions levels.

“Half the cities aren’t doing anything,” said David Victor, co-chair of the Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate.

Although there are Republican mayors in the climate action ranks, he said the split has obvious partisan roots.

Among the 45 cities fully engaged in the campaign, two-thirds are falling behind the emissions targets they set. “On average, all cities in the report need to cut their annual emissions by 64% by 2050 in order to reach their respective goals,” the authors wrote.

Mark Muro, senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, said there are some encouraging local efforts, including in San Diego; Richmond, Va.; Greensboro, N.C.; and Cincinnati. Several cities in California, including Oakland, San Francisco and Riverside, have the biggest climate gains by percentage emissions reductions.

Los Angeles is by far the pace setter in reducing carbon emissions within its boundaries. That is in large part the result of municipal ownership of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has helped speed action on closing coal-fired power plants. Greenhouse gas emissions in Los Angeles, assessed at 54 million metric tons in 1990, had dropped to 29 million metric tons in 2013.

Coronavirus impact

But roadblocks facing mayors in the climate campaign were obvious even before the coronavirus pushed the nation’s economy into a dramatic downturn.

The Brookings results point to the challenges faced by cities whose climate commitments diverge from policies at the state level. Another challenge for cities is the limits within which they operate. City governments can’t control everything that happens within their borders.

For example, when Pittsburgh inventoried greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, it estimated an annual citywide total of 4.8 million metric tons. Emissions from operations directly under City Hall control came to just 115,069 metric tons. The city government plans more reductions in part by buying refuse trucks that run on lower-emission compressed natural gas. Its Parking Authority is teaming with Duquesne Light Co. to bring 16 new electric vehicle chargers to city parking lots.

These are marginal changes in a city and county with nearly 694,000 registered passenger vehicles. Most of them run on gasoline engines that pump out carbon emissions.

So the city has to leverage policy where it can have greatest impact, Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer and climate policy planner, told E&E News. “There’s a whole other side of our work that is really about developing a comprehensive land use strategy for the city of Pittsburgh, which is, effectively, how to use land at its most effective way to reduce carbon by reducing vehicle miles traveled.”

Boston is among the major cities with climate commitments. It joined the Metro Mayors Climate Mitigation Commitment in 2016 and pledged to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050.

Last year, the Boston Green Ribbon Commission issued a blueprint for reaching the midcentury goal. “It requires an electricity grid that is powered by renewable sources of energy and a large-scale reduction in the use of oil and natural gas for transportation, space heating, and hot water,” the report said.

The Boston blueprint said the city needs more public transportation that could replace personal cars. And the remaining cars need to be battery-powered or powered by some other carbon-free source of energy. That means that Boston’s success could hinge on efforts to build wind power installations off its Atlantic coast.

One major challenge for the city of Boston is its buildings, which are responsible for two-thirds of the city’s carbon emissions. That includes the electricity they use and the oil and natural gas burned for heat and hot water.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 buildings annually will have to undergo a deep retrofit to install electric heating and hot water systems along with improvements in insulation for windows, walls and roofs. Authors of the Boston report said achieving those goals requires a large, experienced workforce that does not exist today.

“New forms of project financing will be needed to provide the upfront capital necessary for deep retrofits and enable building owners to realize future energy cost savings, health improvements, and better comfort,” the authors said.

Such solutions will have to come not only from federal incentives and energy policy, said Victor of Brookings, but also from an outpouring of experimentation and pioneering at the local and state level.

“One of the great priorities [is] to make sure there is license for the heartland to innovate and act,” he said.