Human Journey

Chicago Leads on Climate Action

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By Wendy Gordon

“While climate change is a worldwide issue, 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are generated in the world’s urban areas. Reducing energy use and emissions in cities is therefore fundamental in any effort to reverse the trajectory of global warming.” So reads page six of the Chicago Climate Action Plan, released in September 2008.

Cities, by their very nature, have great potential to be green. A compact environment means many shared services. A rich transit infrastructure results in fewer automobile miles traveled per person. Smaller dwelling units, such as apartments, especially when they are attached, result in lower energy use per person. Local governments and agencies have great influence over their city’s greenhouse gas emissions. They can enhance the energy efficiency of buildings through codes and ordinances. They own or manage landfills and waste treatment plants, a significant source of methane gas. They operate public transport and maintain its infrastructure. They often determine land use policies. City purchasing power can affect markets for vehicles, new technologies and eco-friendly equipment and practices.

When it comes to greening a city, Chicago’s Mayor Daley sets a high bar for mayors and governors around the country. In Chicago, businesses have made huge strides in energy efficiency. Unions have trained workers to install new renewable energy technologies, architects have built award-winning green buildings, environmental organizations have helped develop innovative green policies, schools and universities have incorporated environmentally friendly practices in both their facilities and their programs.

But much more is needed. Mayor Daley commissioned a multi-stakeholder task force to produce a Chicago Climate Action Plan. The plan was released September 2008. The task force looked at a variety of outcomes from several possible future greenhouse gas emission levels. For example, if current emission levels were held steady, by the end of the century, the number of days over 100 F could increase from the two days per year to as many as 31 days per year. The task force agreed that Chicago needs to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, with the sharpest reductions occurring over the next 12 years–by 2020–in order to do its part to avoid the worst global impacts of climate change.

A team of researchers analyzed Chicago’s building stock, transportation systems and energy infrastructure to identify emissions reduction actions. The task force and several hundred stakeholders reviewed all the research findings on climate impacts, greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation and adaptation strategies. After extensive analysis, the Chicago Climate Task Force settled on 26 actions for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and nine actions to prepare for climate change. They are calling upon a range of government bodies, companies, organizations and all Chicagoans to step up and be a part of the solution.

In tough economic times, cities like Chicago certainly have the will to make change. But will they find the money? I certainly hope so. The truth is, as with the Treasury’s bailout plan, the stakes are too high to stay the course. It’s time now to invest in the green economy. Let’s start with our cities.

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