The real action on climate change isn't in Congress or UN meetings.
It's in places like Chula Vista, Calif., where the city's offer to provide free energy evaluations identified over 5 million kWh in savings in municipal and private buildings over two years — and saw about 3.8 million kWh of savings implemented.
And Denver, where a decision to replace more than 48,000 traffic light bulbs and pedestrian signals with LEDs is saving more than $800,000 per year in energy, labor and material costs.
And Boston, the first major U.S. city to change its zoning code to require all construction of large private buildings to meet high LEED standards for energy efficiency. By one projection, the first 48 building projects under review could eventually see $4 billion a year in energy savings.
The key selling point in all of these cities — for the mayors and residents alike — is just how much money they can save with innovative energy and resource efficiency steps that limit their impact on climate change at the same time.
Martin Chavez saw first hand the benefits and challenges of turning a city green during 16 years as mayor of Albuquerque, N.M. He led the city as it cut its water use by one-third to avoid with the danger of its aquifer running dry and as it implemented green building standards and targets for energy efficiency.
He also butted heads with the federal government, particularly when parts of the city's green building code were put on hold by a federal district judge in late 2008, in part because they were preempted by federal law.
With that experience fresh in his mind, Chavez takes over today as the new executive director of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, a 20-year-old network of more than 600 local governments in the United States focused on sustainability. The U.S. arm of the international organization is based in Boston, but Chavez will be spending most of his time in Washington, D.C., with a goal of making sure the federal government supports cities rather than getting in their way.
"When it comes to addressing climate change, ICLEI is the most important environmental organization in the country because local governments are leading the fight," Chavez says. "We want to make sure the local governments are at the table as federal legislation is crafted — make sure we're calling the shots, or it's a chunk out of our hides."
Chavez is already working with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, to ensure that any climate and energy legislation will increase standards for efficiency but also allow for more experimentation at the local level — including higher standards like Albuquerque's building codes.
The former mayor comes from a perspective that the marketplace is the strongest agent of change, and the marketplace in this case is the cities where innovation is already under way.
"The government ought not to be dictating the technology but dictating the outcome and letting the market determine the technology," he says. "If legislation discourages innovation, that's short-sighted."
It's All About the Benjamins
Chavez says he came to sustainability because it made fiscal sense for Albuquerque. Innovations in energy efficient lighting and fuel-efficient vehicle fleets that save money are appealing to many cities, particularly those already aware that climate change has passed the point of simply mitigating the damage and reached a stage of adaptation.
"At every level of government, we all got thrown a real curve with the recession," he says. "That's had a tremendous adverse impact on progress in these areas. It's certainly diverted national attention. Environmentalism is just not up there right now.
"But the innovative elected officials are finding the financial models of sustainability. Yes, some cost more upfront — converting traffic signals to led — but the payback is there. You end up saving money.
"It's incredibly palatable to a public whose pocket books are at the forefront."
ICLEI assists local governments as an advisor on energy and climate change with knowledge of the latest research, technology and adaptable tools, such as emissions inventories and program structures for climate action plans that can help local governments realize those savings.
The organization was looking for a leader with a strong record in environment, social justice and economic development, and found that in Chavez, says North Little Rock, Ark., Mayor Patrick Hays, the president and board chairman of ICLEI USA.
Lessons in Sustainability
Chavez has learned some valuable lessons about improving energy efficiency and lowering emissions over his 16 years as a mayor at the forefront of sustainability efforts. Like this one: "Always crunch your numbers and substantiate every single number you put out." In one case, his staff discovered that the outcomes estimated by an equipment manufacturer were very different in a city a mile high, like Albuquerque, as opposed to one at sea level.
Another lesson: Saving money isn't difficult, but hitting emissions targets can be. Albuquerque is about a year and half behind schedule on its emissions goal. It aimed for 20 percent below 2000 levels by 2010 and 30 percent by 2020.
So what should cities be doing now?
Buildings codes. Immediately, Chavez says. Cities also need to launch reviews of how their energy is acquired and used.
The most important step is for the local governments themselves — starting with their government buildings and vehicle fleets — to lead by example, he says. As that happens, the debate over the details is played out in public, so the public learns and sees the savings. They see that buses are hybrid electric and realize that what can work for buses can easily work for cars.
"I don't get into the debate over whether climate change is real or not," Chavez says. "There's not time for that. They all realize the value of creating wealth in the community and weaning the nation off foreign oil."