Despite environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration, the largest number of cities on CDP's climate A list hail from the US. Diana Rojas profiles Washington DC, Park City, Utah, and a trio of Ohio cities: Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus
With two-thirds of the global population expected to live in cities by 2050, and 70 million more people migrating from the countryside to urban habitats every year, cities are growing in importance as climate actors, according to climate action disclosure platform CDP.
The extent to which cities are rising to this challenge, even where national government may be failing to grasp the nettle, is seen nowhere more clearly than in the United States.
Despite persistent federal rollbacks of environmental and clean energy regulations since 2016, the biggest number of cities worldwide on CDP’s climate change A-list for cities this year were in the US.
It’s the second year that CDP has scored cities on their performance on climate change, and of 850 cities that reported, 105 were given the highest ranking for their transparency and action on climate change. Among them were 34 US cities, a substantial slice of the 200 that report to CDP.
“To the effect that the US cities are saying ‘we are still in’, they’re setting clear goals and working with the businesses within their cities to support the cities’ goals,” said Katie Walsh, CDP head of cities, states and regions in North America. She noted that winning cities, on average, took double the number of actions related to adaptation and five times the mitigation action compared with other cities.
In North America, there have been 371 city-based overall climate projects worth some $32.9bn, said Walsh, adding that there is high investor appetite for projects, with green bonds over-subscribed.
To qualify for the A-list, municipalities need to disclose publicly, have a city-wide emissions inventory (and not just of municipal fleets and buildings), set an emissions reduction target and have a climate action plan.
US cities must drive action on the environment and climate change. The best time for action is long before the crisis hits
In this presidential election year, a snapshot of A-list American cities shows that they are in both “red” and “blue” states, shorthand for states whose voters historically back Democratic (blue) or Republican (red) presidential candidates. “I think what we’re finding is that cities are taking action and they’re not waiting for the federal government,” said Walsh.
She added that their task has recently been made much harder because they are having to manage the spread of the coronavirus. “Mayors along the Mississippi river are already grappling with how to plan for what will likely be yet-again historic floods, alongside the financial and human health costs of coronavirus, and all our US cities that face high summer temperatures will soon have to consider how to plan for cooling centres for elderly, vulnerable populations with massive stay-at-home orders in place.”
She said climate change is a threat multiplier for the spread of infectious diseases such as the coronavirus. “US cities must keep the wheels in motion to continue to drive action on the environment and climate change. The best time for action is long before the crisis hits.”
Here we profile some of the US cities who are leading the charge:
Home to a federal administration openly hostile to environmental and climate mitigation measures, the city has 633,000 residents and a progressive municipal government that, in sharp contrast to its federal counterpart, is racking up accolades. Along with being on CDP’s A-list it is a Tree City of the World, first LEED Platinum City of the World, and the first US city to establish a Green Bank, to name a few. Its goal is to make the capital city 100% renewable by 2032 and carbon-neutral by 2050.
Since its first Sustainable DC plan in 2008, the city has reduced its emissions by 29%, mainly because the local energy distributer switched from coal to natural gas. “Now it gets hard,” said Tommy Wells, director of the DC Department of Energy & Environment.
With buildings responsible for 76% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the sector is a priority. A new building code requires net-zero for buildings over 50,000 square feet, but will be widened to include those of more than 10,000 square feet and then 5,000 square feet by 2050.
There are a lot of cities constrained by state leaders who don’t believe humans are causing climate change
Finance will come through the $100 million DC Green Bank, which will harness public money to attract private investment for green energy and mitigation. Meanwhile, the DC Sustainable Energy Utility is retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency (funded through a surcharge on energy and gas bills), while the DC Property Assessed Clean Energy Program (PACE) offers long-interest loans to finance energy-efficient building and upgrades, payable by an incremental increase in the property’s taxes.
Wells said that the city has set a goal for how much electricity the power distributor must purchase from solar panels installed throughout the city. If there’s not enough, then it must offer an alternative compliance payment, which will be used to fund more solar power in the city.
Washington, DC also aims to achieve 40% tree coverage by 2032 to cool down the city and mitigate the climate change threat of flooding, and has partnered with the non-profit Casey Trees.
DC was one of the first cities in the country to institute a five-cent tax on single-use plastic and paper bags in 2010, and uses the $2.5m raised each year to fund its RiverSmart programme, which provides financial assistance and rebates to homeowners who plant rain gardens or replace impermeable surfaces with permeable alternatives, or who plant shade trees.
“No one has ever run for office saying they want to repeal the bag tax,” Wells said. “But there are a lot of cities that are constrained by state leaders who don’t believe humans are causing climate change.”
Park City, Utah
Enter Park City, a “blue” enclave in a deep “red” western state whose official state rock is coal. Most famous for its skiing and the Sundance Film Festival, Park City also has the most ambitious climate plan in North America: net-zero and 100% renewable energy by 2022 for city operations, and 2030 community-wide.
Before it could commit to such aggressive goals, Park City spent three years convincing the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature to loosen centralised control of the energy code to allow individual communities to opt for renewable energy. The Community Renewable Energy Act finally passed in 2019 (individual customers can opt out).
“I can’t vilify folks here. Sure, coal has major impacts, but I have nothing against the coal communities out there. These are good, hard-working people who see the end of times coming for coal,” said Luke Cartin, environmental sustainability manager of the Park City Municipal Corporation. Indeed, the Utah power utility is switching from 60% coal to 60% renewable by 2030 because solar and wind is cheaper than coal, he said.
Park City’s building code requires net-zero power on all new and renovated buildings that use city funds; its bus fleet is electric, while rooftop solar is expanding.
But for all the emissions the city cannot eliminate, it is turning to regenerative agriculture for carbon sequestration.
We are small, but we can figure this out faster than anyone else because no one else is. We can be these proofs of concepts
In 2018, the city introduced cattle on the 10,000 acres surrounding it, herding them strategically to force them to eat the noxious weeds and thatch that forms when grass mats don’t properly decompose. The disturbance caused by their hooves and introduction of cow manure accelerates decomposition, allowing more microbiota to sequester more carbon, and better retain water. It also encourages native species to grow instead of weeds.
Park City paid for fences, an irrigation ditch and seed planting (clover, radishes and beets). A local farmer and restaurateur, Bill White, owns the cows. The cows work for the city; White uses the meat and dairy products in his nine restaurants and donates to food banks. A third partner, a nature conservancy, keeps tabs on the conservation easement.
Rangeland, a term used to describe extensive areas from desert to wetland in the western half of the United States, is the largest land use in the United States, and Cartin said measures like this engage large landowners, making them stakeholders in decarbonisation. And the idea brings carbon offsetting to a local level: entities that need to offset carbon emissions could pay into a fund that helps a rancher 30 miles away and supports the regional local economy. That financial mechanism could, in turn, encourage a rancher to make tweaks that they will be compensated for, which will benefit carbon sequestration on all the land.
“The marketing side is huge. This is something people can see, touch and feel … this is a beautiful, verdant pasture,” he said. “If our largest land use is ranching, then let’s engage these folks.”
With a year-round population of 8,200, Park City maintains infrastructure for some 80,000 because of the film festival and ski resorts. Given its small size, a carbon-neutral Park City wouldn’t be too impactful to the overall climate crisis, but Cartin said it can be a “the lab for so many cities”.
“We are small, but we can figure this out faster than anyone else because no one else is,” he said. “How can we expand this impact? We can be these proofs of concepts.”
Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio
Traditionally the country’s bellwether state in presidential elections, Ohio saw a trio of cities win A-list certification by CDP.
All are independently working on a specific set of climate goals, and although none has historically been regarded as a sustainability standout, by exchanging best practice they are “speeding things up”, Walsh of CDP said.
Oliver Kroner, sustainability coordinator in Cincinnati’s Office of Environment & Sustainability, said that since the three cities share regulatory and political context, they’ve made their solutions open source and exchange ideas and lessons learned.
“When it comes to addressing climate change, it isn’t a competition, we are all in this together,” said Kroner. “Cities are working to learn from each other about what is working and where we have roadblocks.”
Cincinnati, in the southwest near the Kentucky border, plans to reduce emissions 80% by 2050, and make all of its operations and fleets carbon-neutral by 2035 by building the country’s largest city-owned 100MW solar farm, which will also feed renewable energy to homes. There is also a Green Cincinnati Plan, which aims to expand the current 39% tree canopy to communities with a skimpier cover, and to reduce acreage of mowed grass and replace it with bushes and trees.
Importantly, the city is dedicating attention (and money) to educating its populace on its climate action plan. Examples include putting solar panels on schools, getting a 10% increase in residents able to list three things they are doing to improve sustainability, and even marketing 80 strategies to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. The goal is to get the community to “consider the environmental impacts of their lifestyles and choices”, Kroner says, adding: “Many sustainability efforts are fundamentally about behaviour change.”
Diana Rojas is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC, and a regular contributor to the Ethical Corporation, focusing on environmental policy and sustainability issues. Diana is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.
This article is part of our in-depth Climate-resilient cities briefing. See also:
CDP Washington DC climate change LEED Platinum City greenhouse gas emissions Park City renewable energy regenerative agriculture Cincinnati solar power