It’s been a banner year for cities in the fight against climate change. This week, more than 50 mayors gathered in Chicago this week for North American Climate Summit. Each signed a charter calling on mayors to make specific plans to cut carbon pollution in line with national commitments under the Paris Agreement. Over the last year, hundreds of U.S. cities have pledged to fulfill the terms of landmark accord. As of last week, 50 have vowed to generate 100 percent of their power from renewables.
Plans and pledges are one thing. Action is something entirely different. While it remains unclear how cities might quickly and cheaply achieve these goals, a new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean-energy think tank, lists 22 policies that could help get the job done.
“Cities should no longer focus first on making plans and lots of analysis and then taking action. We don’t have time for that,” said Jacob Corvidae, a manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute and coauthor of the report. “Great to make commitments. But cities need to be acting now.”
The report looks at cities that have made big strides cutting carbon pollution and highlights the policies that made those successes possible, focusing on measures that are easy to implement and will have a big impact right away. It lists the usual suspects — municipal solar projects, LED streetlights — but it also examines several high-impact policies that typically get little mention at city halls. Corvidae zeroed in on five such measures that would rapidly cut carbon pollution and improve quality of life.
1. Net-zero buildings
One big step cities can take is to demand that all new buildings produce more energy than they consume. Construction companies could achieve this feat by fitting new buildings with technologies that cut energy use — energy-efficient lights, energy-efficient heating and air conditioning, double-paned windows — as well as technologies that generate and store power — solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, for example.
“It’s already cost-effective in many places now to make buildings, especially residences, net-zero-energy ready or, if the solar conditions work in their place, to make them net-zero-energy now,” Corvidae said.
2. Car-free city centers
When it comes to low-carbon transportation, the big-ticket policies for most city leaders are things like electric busses, charging stations for electric vehicles and more extensive public transit. But there is something cities can do that is just as effective and much easier than those measures — ban cars from city centers.
City centers are often densely built and, as a result, imminently walkable. When cities limit the number of cars and trucks allowed in city centers, it forces would-be drivers to carpool, take the bus or walk, cutting air pollution. The report notes that, as a bonus, businesses along car-free streets tend to see their incomes rise as foot traffic grows. “People are talking about cities having to do their part. I think that’s all wrong,” Corvidae said. “Cities should be doing this because it’s going to make them a better city.”
3. All-electric homes
Cities have a lot of latitude when it comes to buying power, opting for electricity from solar and wind instead of coal and gas, for example. But that’s not the only way that cities generate carbon pollution. Another is from burning natural gas to heat homes, ignite stoves and warm water for cooking and bathing.
“One big one we’re looking at there is making sure that when cities are doing new developments, that they do not build in fossil fuel infrastructure, because if they do it’s going to be obsolete in a number of years anyway,” Corvidae said. Cities can require that new neighborhoods be built without natural-gas infrastructure, meaning homeowners would use electric stoves and water heaters instead of conventional appliances, which can leak gas, starting fires. Ideally, the electricity used to power those plug-in appliances would come from wind, solar or another low-carbon form of power.
4. Efficient factories
Industry can be a sizable source of carbon pollution. That is in part because factories use electric motors to drive the manufacturing equipment. Those motors use a lot of power — around 70 percent of electricty consumed by the industrial and service sectors, according to the report. Cities can put a big dent in energy use by incentivizing manufacturers to replace energy-intensive motors with more efficient models, cutting down on pollution and shrinking power bills.
“We’re looking at a number of things that cities can do to help the industry in their region tackle things like making more efficient motors,” Corvidae said. “Huge impact. Relatively small intervention.”
5. Organic waste
It’s not sexy, but it’s essential. Organic waste such as paper, cardboard and leftover food is a sizable source of carbon pollution. That’s because when your banana peels and apple cores end up in a landfill, they are gobbled up by microorganisms that produce methane, a potent heat-trapping gas.
“Cities should look at making sure they’re diverting organic waste. All waste is good to tackle, but organic waste is where the big emissions come from,” Corvidae said. Cities can cut carbon pollution by composting organic waste, turning uneaten food into a fertilizer. They also could separate out organic waste and burn the methane produced to generate power.
Officials can find examples of this and other policies online, which can be used as a starting point in crafting new plans, ordinances and building codes. Corvidae sees cities as a smorgasbord of smart climate policy, and he’s eager to serve up what works.
“On the ground, people recognize that climate change is happening. Not everybody, but most people,” Corvidae said. “I think it’s beautiful that people are realizing it’s not up to somebody else. It’s up to us.”