Cities Maintain Green Momentum, Despite Shrinking Budgets, Shifting Priorities

Recession prompts change in strategies, but not sustainable ideals

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In 2005, mayors throughout the United States took a stand on climate change, signing on by the hundreds to the Kyoto Protocol, refusing to stand on the sidelines while world leaders wrangled over regulating greenhouse gases.

And they weren’t just putting pen to paper.

Cities like Miami and Baltimore, new to the idea of “green” economic development, set about drafting sustainability plans. Others, like Portland and San Francisco, which already had been leading the country on such initiatives, publicized their efforts and provided a roadmap for those just getting started.

Then the recession hit and cities had to shift their thinking away from the more innovative programs, moving instead toward practical initiatives aimed more at adapting to climate change than mitigating it.

"There are almost no local governments that haven’t been impacted by the recession," said Marty Chavez, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based ICLEI Global, an international association of local governments committed to sustainable development.

"It’s not that they’re not still committed to addressing climate change; it’s just that their attention has been re-directed, so some of the intensity has diminished," Chavez told SolveClimate.

But while the fervent announcements of ground-breaking municipal initiatives may have tapered off, cities are nonetheless moving forward with their work on climate change. Given the fact that local governments need to balance their budgets every year, they’re accustomed to making fiscal adjustments to their programs.

"The City of San Jose has been facing nine consecutive years of budget deficits, and the recession has exacerbated this problem," said Ashwini Kantak, of the city manager’s office.

The recently adopted budget for fiscal year 2010-2011 needed to address $118.5 million in deficits, she said. Consequently, San Jose has been unable to put in much money towards sustainability initiatives. "However, we have been aggressively targeting grants and pursuing innovative partnerships to help advance our sustainability initiatives."

Those initiatives were outlined as part of the San Jose Green Vision in 2007. The San Jose plan, a 15-year strategy for economic growth, environmental sustainability and an improved quality of life for the city’s residents and businesses, outlines 10 ambitious goals that address everything from the creation of cleantech jobs, energy efficiency programs, renewable energy and green buildings, to waste diversion, sustainable planning, trees, alternative fuel fleets, zero-emission street lights and interconnected trails.

Of course, not all cities have access to the kinds of creative partnerships San Jose officials might forge with their Silicon Valley neighbors. There’s a clear business interest in cleantech, and the city has endeared itself to local companies by acting as a testing ground for technologies over the years.

Cities without so many millionaire CEOs as constituents are having a tougher time keeping green initiatives alive in the face of the ongoing recession, recent hints of recovery notwithstanding.

For that reason, Chavez says, cities are getting more practical, focusing on adapting to climate change as a part of emergency services and, in some cases, avoiding labeling these programs with terms like "sustainability" or "climate change," which can sound like luxurious concerns when residents are out of work or losing their homes.

"Coastal cities have gotten much more serious about looking at what happens when the sea level goes up," Chavez said. "Whether it’s a product of climate change or just something happening in the real world, they realize they need to be ready from an emergency response perspective. And then, cities in very dry areas are doing advanced planning around what happens when it gets even drier."

Cities throughout the country also are looking at water and sewer infrastructure with an eye toward resiliency and adaptation, he said.

While the federal government may be failing to provide comprehensive climate legislation, it is helping cities in one key way: stimulus funds, going mostly to energy efficiency and weatherization programs.

But while stimulus funds are helpful, what cash-strapped cities really need to bolster their conservation initiatives, some local leaders say, is meaningful federal regulation of greenhouse gases. Given the watering-down of the legislation currently making its way through Congress, that help is not likely to come any time soon.

"It is a first step," Chavez said of the legislation. "We want to acknowledge the good that they’re doing by pushing legislation forward. But if they pass this and say "Okay, we can go home now, we’ve done our jobs, then I think they haven’t done their jobs."

"The current policies are definitely providing more funding and support for our sustainability initiatives," Kantak said. "But we would hope to see comprehensive climate and energy legislation at the federal level that creates clean energy jobs, promotes energy independence, reduces global warming pollution and accelerates the transition to a clean energy economy.”"

Rather than pushing for a better bill, Chavez said, local governments are working to ensure flawed federal legislation doesn’t curtail local efforts.

"One thing ICLEI is dedicated to doing, and one of the reasons we’ve got a presence in D.C. now, is to make sure that what they do doesn’t prevent local governments from moving forward,” Chavez said. "I’m a big believer in interstate commerce and you don’t want a patchwork of laws and regulations to stifle the economy. But at same time, we don’t want federal legislation that doesn’t get the job done to stifle innovation at the local level."

(Photo: Tyler Durden)

See also:

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