Will U.S. Cities Deliver on Paris?

08/14/2017 05:48 pm ET

Last of three parts.

The economic, social and environmental benefits of urban forestry are almost too numerous to count. One of them is to take  c
Texas A&M Forest Service
The economic, social and environmental benefits of urban forestry are almost too numerous to count. One of them is to take carbon dioxide out of the air. Another is to reduce cooling costs and related electric generation. Urban forestry is one of many ways that American cities can help the nation contribute to the success of the Paris climaate accord.

Some of America’s great cities – Chicago, New York, Toledo, St. Louis, Philadelphia – are in poor fiscal shape relative to their peers, according to a ranking earlier this year by the Fiscal Times.

The politically independent digital news service ranked 115 U.S. cities with populations of more than 200,000, based on factors ranging from property values to the balances in their general funds.

Money is tight in many of the nation’s small and medium-size cities, too. A coalition of state and local organizations reports that the fiscal health of sub-national governments has stabilized since the Great Recession, but progress has been uneven and many fiscal officers are managing finances conservatively to prepare for the next economic downturn. With little or no money to spare and the perception of higher priorities, how will cities contribute to the success of the international Paris climate agreement?

For one thing, they can build upon progress the United States has already achieved. The commitment the federal government made in Paris, and that Donald Trump rejected, was to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions 26% or more in the next eight years, compared to 2005. The latest greenhouse gas inventory from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that our 2015 emissions of the most prominent climate-altering gas, carbon dioxide, fell more than 12% below 2005 levels.

CO2 emissions also fell in the sectors that are usually of most concern to cities. Residential emissions dropped 17%; commercial emissions fell 11%; and transportation emissions dropped 8%. The Energy Information Administration reports that CO2 missions last year dropped another 1.7% compared to 2015. One caveat: It remains to be seen what impact Trump’s policies will have on progress.

Second, cities should adopt sensible strategies for allocating their resources and take full advantage of clean energy investments that do not require money from taxpayers or the municipal treasury. One way to proceed is to develop and prioritize a list of where public and private resources are best invested. The highest priority should be assigned to measures that will deliver the biggest bang for the buck and the most improvement to community well-being.

In regard to well-being, the top priority should be to assist citizens most at risk from unaffordable energy bills and extreme weather. They typically are the very old and very young, low-income families, and businesses and homes located in the places most vulnerable to flooding, heat waves, sea level rise and other climate impacts.

The biggest financial bang will come from investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously helping cities adapt to changing weather, improve their economies and provide social benefits. For example, urban forestry — an initiative civic organizations can help implement — reduces the need for cooling during hot weather and as a result, lowers the use of fossil fuels at power plants. Shade also reduces illnesses and deaths from heat waves, the No. 1 cause of weather-related fatalities in the United States. As a bonus, trees and other vegetation often increase property values, and they naturally remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it.

Another example: Cities can convert some of their asphalt and concrete to permeable surfaces ranging from exposed soils to the variety of paving materials designed to let the ground absorb rainfall. That reduces the chance of flooding, helps prevent pollutants from being washed into waterways, cuts down on the costs of stormwater control, recharges groundwater and helps reduce inner-city temperatures.

Administratively, municipalities should check their ordinances, codes and policies and remove barriers to energy efficiency measures and the use of renewable energy systems. Localities should update their energy building codes and consider adopting net-zero energy building codes. They can implement land-use plans and zoning that encourage infill development rather than sprawl.

It’s often overlooked but important for cities to build the political sustainability of these measures to keep them from being unraveled by future leaders. Carbon-cutting goals and requirements should be incorporated into local codes and ordinances, when possible. City leaders should engage the entire community to get involved in planning and executing carbon-cutting plans. Citizen involvement promotes a sense of ownership and political support for climate action. When the time is right, citizen referenda can help send the message to elected officials that climate-action investments are untouchable.

If citizens are not motivated by climate change, a campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be framed to emphasize its co-benefits, such as keeping more energy dollars in the community and helping families pay less for energy, where savings are like an additional tax-free paycheck each month. Energy savings give businesses extra capital to make their prices more competitive, or to hire workers, or to expand their plant and equipment. Solar energy is a proven job-creator at the local level. It gives people a choice on where their energy comes from and a sense of greater control over their lives.

Getting Help: It is impossible in 1,000 words to even scratch the surface of the technologies, tools, partnerships and programs that exist in the United States to help even the most cash-stressed communities capture benefits like these. Some began in the 1980s after the Arab oil embargoes when people wanted to be less dependent on foreign oil and when we discovered that we could grow the economy without increasing energy consumption.

Today, cities can reduce operating expenses by using third-party financing. retrofitting and solarizing their buildings at no cost to taxpayers. Cities can help homeowners and businesses improve the energy efficiency of their buildings by offering PACE financing. Utilities can offer on-bill financing for their customers’ efficiency improvements.

Local banks can be rewarded credit by the federal government under the Community Reinvestment Act when they invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in low-income neighborhoods. Many lenders offer energy-efficiency loans that allow homebuyers to add money to their mortgages to pay energy improvements.

In addition to long-standing assistance for cities from organizations such as the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and the Center for Climate Strategies, cities can partner with and learn from other municipalities by joining the international C40 initiative and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100%” renewable energy initiative, the Compact of Mayors and the Compact of States and Regions.

The Association of Climate Change Officers provides education and peer exchanges for local officials with climate-related responsibilities. Cities can learn more about the costs and savings of energy efficiency from studies by the Alliance to Save Energy and its campaign to help the U.S. economy improve its energy productivity by 30%.

To assist state lawmakers, the Center for the New Energy Economy, led by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, maintains a detailed data base that allows legislators to identify gaps in their energy policies by comparing theirs with those in other states. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is creating a digital toolkit to help state political leaders pass legislation on an array of environmental issues, including climate change.

And to make sure that the contributions of the American people are counted in the Paris agreement, California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have launched an initiative called America’s Pledge to track, aggregate and quantify progress on carbon pollution reductions by U.S. cities, states and businesses.

The point is this: There is no shortage of tools, technical assistance and financing opportunities to help cities set and achieve goals to reduce their greenhouse gas pollution. What’s been missing is sustained political will. That can be fixed once the American people at the community level finally understand the many ancillary benefits of transitioning to post-carbon economies.

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