While Congress goes back and forth on the details of climate legislation, U.S. cities are already finding ways to cut their emissions and get a better handle on their carbon footprints.
The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) recently conducted a pilot study with ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA in which 18 city governments reported their municipal emissions and, perhaps more importantly, their climate change strategies.
CDP is best known for pressuring businesses worldwide to release their carbon data, with more than 1,500 responses to its latest business survey. Now, it hopes to be similarly successful with city governments by encouraging them to measure their carbon footprints and share their experiences as they pioneer innovative programs to cut emissions.
With the pilot project complete, the non-profit plans to launch a full CDP Cities Program, opening up enrollment to all cities.
The recent pilot project sparked interest from several other cities and revealed that, while cities tend to be further along than the federal government in terms of embracing environmental initiatives, few have solid climate change adaptation plans in place.
Tom Carnac, CDP's head of public sector, says the effort is encouraging not only reporting but also risk assessments associated with climate change.
"Investment in cities is very much dependent on them proving that they have taken precautions to protect themselves from climate change," he says. "As a concept, this is going to get bigger and bigger in the years ahead, and stakeholders, from property developers to insurers and re-insurers, are very interested in this."
And cities should be interested. The risks they face are serious: severe weather; sea level rise for cities like Annapolis, New York and New Orleans; trouble with water supplies in the Southwest and agriculture in the Midwest; potential losses of hydropower in the Northwest; wildfire risks in the West; and rising costs for public health.
The cities' strategies and even their levels of emissions reporting vary greatly. Park City, Utah, for example, which relies on the region's snow-covered ski resorts to draw tourists, allows an additional 4 percent increase in building construction and remodeling costs to pay for eco-friendly designs and equipment. It also invested $1.4 million in an energy and water efficiency project that it hopes will reduce municipal emissions by 13.5 percent.
Denver modernized its vehicle fleet with dozens of hybrids to lower its emissions. Fairfield, Iowa, is shooting for energy independence. In Rohnert Park, Calif.,where the city is aiming for a 20 percent drop in emissions from 2000 levels by 2010, the 200-acre Sonoma Mountain Village is being developed as the nation's first one-planet living community with net-zero energy, water and waste.
Above and beyond the long-term benefits of being prepared for pending changes, cities have a more direct financial benefit from improving their environmental performance.
"Cities own and operate their own facilities, which mean that they see more of a direct financial benefit to things like reducing their energy consumption," explains John Clark, director of climate change solutions for Tririga, a software company that helps cities gather, track, analyze and report their environmental data.
Denver's LED traffic signals, for example, save the city more than $800,000 a year in energy and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2,937 tons – equal to taking 374 cars off the road.
Most cities realize that formulating a climate change strategy is beneficial in multiple ways. In addition to saving on energy and water bills, they can get money from state and federal governments for improvements, and they often are getting pressure from their residents to take action.
"It seems that the discussion at the municipal level is much further advanced than the one at a federal level in the US," Carnac says.
"Cities are interested in doing much more than companies. They not only want to see what they're doing so they can report it, they want to use that data to formulate strategies to improve their performance, and to analyze those strategies to ensure they're achieving the greatest possible impact."