In emissions battle, US cities vie to be 'greenest'

More than 300 mayors pledge to reduce greenhouse gases.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Cities often compete against one another: in the World Series, the right to host the Olympics, the battle to attract employers.

Now, some urban areas are starting a new race: to lead the nation in reducing greenhouse gases. In Massachusetts, the mayors of Salem and Worcester are competing to see who can sign up more customers for green power.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says he wants to make his city the greenest in America, and to back that up, the Windy City is planting trees, creating more rooftop gardens, and fast-tracking green buildings.

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Wait a New York minute, Chicago. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced intentions to make the Big Apple the leader in reducing greenhouse gases.

The concept is relatively simple: act locally to reduce global warming. This means city councils from Cambridge, Mass., to Seattle are changing building codes, beginning to encourage nonautomobile transport, and setting targets for carbon-dioxide reduction. The potential for greenhouse-gas reductions could eventually become significant, since cities are some of the major producers of greenhouse gases.

In all, some 319 mayors representing more than 51.4 million Americans have pledged they will attain the goals of the 1997 Kyoto agreement in their cities, even though the United States has not ratified the protocol. "The cities can do a lot to lead by example," says Andrew Shapiro, founder of GreenOrder, a sustainability strategy and marketing firm in New York. "Cities are where the majority of influencers are, such as the press, financiers, big company headquarters."

One organization that green-conscious cities can join is ICLEI, an international sustainable-development clearinghouse. Last year, half of the 212 member cities reported reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by a total of 23 million tons. (Cities are not obligated to report reductions.) This resulted in a savings of $550 million, due largely to increased energy efficiency.

ICLEI is providing members with computer software to help identify potential improvements. "It shows them how to start with the lowest hanging fruit and then move on to the more substantial changes," says Michelle Wyman, the Oakland, Calif.-based executive director.

Some cities have been actively involved in the process of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions for some time. That's the case with Seattle, which last month announced a plan by 2012 to reduce emissions by 7 percent, enough to meet the goal of the Kyoto Protocol.

Some solutions in Seattle involve shifting the entire municipal fleet to biodiesel, getting cruise ships to plug into the electrical system instead of running their engines when in port, and passing a green building code.

"We're also planning to launch a drive-smart campaign that examines your driving choices from operating the car to tire inflation," says Steve Nicholas, the city's director of the Office of Sustainability.

Next month, ICLEI will try to persuade yet more mayors to join. It expects to host 50 mayors at Robert Redford's Sundance resort in Utah. Two-thirds of them are known to be skeptics. However, "Some of the skeptics in the past are now our strongest supporters," says Ms. Wyman.

Achieving significant reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions will be a challenge for some cities. New York City currently represents about 2 percent of the nation's entire CO2 emissions. Most of its buildings are old and would require a significant investment to make them more energy-efficient.

"How many people regulate their heat in the winter by just opening their window?" asks Marc Brammer, executive director of New York Climate Rescue, a volunteer organization.

On a walk around midtown New York, Mr. Brammer stops outside a large condominium. There are no solar panels and no indications of any green technology. Like those in many New York buildings, he points out the boiler is likely to be 40 years old. "When will the city take on the real estate industry, the biggest political player, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and tell them what they have to do?" he asks.

But Brammer also points out that the city is full of opportunities. There are enormous diesel fleets in New York, ranging from sanitation trucks to delivery trucks to Con Edison vehicles. And most of the city's ferries run on oil. "Right now, there is no biodiesel sold in the Tri-State area," he says. "Look at all the restaurants that fry food. With the old grease, we could run fleets of garbage and delivery trucks, and it would all be locally produced."

New York is still in the planning process for how it will implement the mayor's contention that the city will lead the nation in emission reductions. The heads of all the major city agencies are part of a committee studying the issue.

"The mayor has convened this group to thoroughly map out and do a community-wide assessment, not just a reduction in municipal emissions," says Michael Northrop, program director for Sustainable Development at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He says the report should be issued in the next two months.

While the city works on its report, the City Council is debating a proposal to commit the city to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent by 2009 and 30 percent by 2020. "In the last 10 years, the city has been doing things that give us optimism in the direction we are going," says Ashok Gupta, director of air and energy programs at the Natural Resource Defense Council in New York.

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