Nation states' failure to reach far-reaching accord at the Copenhagen summit may have dashed — for now — hopes of unified global action on climate change.
So who must now step forward to face the 21st century's gravest problem? Clearly, it's cities and metropolitan regions, home now to a majority of mankind, generators of 80 percent of the world's carbon emissions.
And there's a surprise leader — Chicago, once a smoke-laden industrial hub, then home to political bossism and the notorious American gangster Al Capone. Chicago is now pushing, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, one of the world's most far-reaching city plans to reduce carbon emissions and to deal with the inevitable consequences of global warming already underway.
Warming up to greening up
For the past decade, Chicago has been earning an increasingly "green" reputation, highlighted by Daley's pioneering "green" roof for City Hall, the widely heralded Millennium Park built atop a railroad, the planting of more than 600,000 trees and green street medians spanning out from center city into neighborhoods.
But in 2007 the city got really busy on the larger carbon reduction and climate futures front. It supported a vigorous round of scientific research to gauge climate change's present and future impact on the city.
The resulting Chicago Climate Action Plan has 452 steps cross-cutting major segments of Chicago's geography, economy and living patterns. The city enlisted a startling array of players — business, scientists, civic institutions, neighborhood associations, citizens — to work with government in meeting ambitious goals.
The plan's major goal: to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels in a just 10 years — and to achieve an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
Chicago was ready, a city acutely aware of the dangers of hot weather: a four-day heat wave in July 1995 killed 600 of its people. So it was a sobering moment when scientists concluded that if present trends continue, Chicago will endure 31 one-hundred degree days (38 degrees C) a year by the end of the century (up from an average of 2 in 1990), along with much heavier rains and snowfall.
The corresponding good news was that city residents will need to cope with just eight of these scorching days if global greenhouse emissions are cut back to the levels envisioned in the Chicago plan.
Facts fuel a sweeping agenda
The scientific findings formed the basis for Chicago's far-reaching agenda to curb climate change — from solar power to green construction to bike paths to energy conservation to the little recognized importance of improving freight train efficiency (which means fewer goods moving in polluting trucks). The Action Plan has been described as "silver buckshot" because of its comprehensive approach to this complex issue, in contrast to the typical "silver bullet" strategy that concentrates all energies on just one solution.
For example — the startling research finding that heating, cooling and powering buildings accounts for an overwhelming 70 percent of Chicago's carbon emissions. Transportation accounts for most of the rest. The wide-ranging plan calls for streamlining the permit process for green buildings, undertaking large-scale weatherization and energy conservation programs, highlighting simple ways households can save on energy bills, launching an initiative to make hotels greener, updating the city's energy code, promoting solar water heaters and concentrating new development around transit stops.
Smart move: engaging citizenry
The Chicago climate planning process, in search of ideas and cross-cutting solutions, was in itself innovative, extending far beyond City Hall to include convening climate change summits in neighborhoods across the city and setting up a "wiki" to generate further ideas.
"We met with more than 100 different groups, everyone from the Field Museum of Natural History to labor unions," notes the plan's co-chair Adele Simmons, former president of the MacArthur Foundation. "I will never forget a plumber talking about how painful it was for him to install pipes that were not insulated because a contractor said it was not important."
This broad-based approach enabled the city to tap foundations for almost $1.8 million in research grants, and gain $10.9 million in pro-bono services from local consulting firms. City officials even handed over responsibility for evaluating the project to a Green Ribbon panel of authorities spanning many fields, from baking to education to housing to social services.
A promising start
The plan swung into full-scale implementation in October 2008, and it's already showing positive signs.
Goals have been exceeded for retrofitting buildings with energy conservation measures — 13,000 residences and 252 commercial/industrial structures, according to Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Chicago's commissioner of environment. She also heralds the success of a pioneering "waste to profit" network, where 175 businesses have found valuable uses for each others' wastes, a process that's so far reduced 74,000 tons of greenhouses gases and saved the businesses some $17 million.
"Just as we have borrowed ideas from London, Seattle, and the corporate sector," Malec-McKenna explains, "what we are doing is really applicable to the whole Chicago region and the world. I just met with people from London, San Francisco, Gainesville (Fla.) and Burlington (Vermont.), and we discussed how things are really quite the same in our cities."
Cool ideas, cool solutions
One Chicago innovation — the Green Office Challenge, a city sponsored program helping large organizations cut costs through energy efficiency, water conservation and waste reduction — has been championed by the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability network, which is sponsoring pilot projects in four communities around the U.S. Chicago's program utilizes friendly competitions and prizes as well as practical advice to encourage firms to save money and the environment.
Other approaches have included a targeting of tree plantings to identified heat island areas, promoting the idea of new building facades to withstand 100-degree (38-degree Centigrade) heat, and providing expedited building permits for "green" structures.
And the city convinced the Merchandise Mart (the biggest privately owned building in the world) to revamp to LEED standards — becoming the world's largest LEED building in the process.
Meanwhile, the city scours for technological solutions that address multiple problems — testing photo-catalytic cement that stays super-white, for example, so that light is reflected up during daylight hours (reducing carbon accumulation) but while the power for nighttime illumination can be cut 40 percent.
In terms of implementing the Climate Action Plan, there's an effort to overcome "silos" in a city government of 50 departments, each with its own mission and agenda when it comes to making changes.
Daley's office has brought together commissioners of key departments asking each to develop its own implementation strategy of the Climate Action Plan — and to report back quarterly on their progress.
One problem is that the plan applies only to the city of Chicago — home to 2.9 million people in a metropolitan region of 9.6 million. But Daley, founder of the 273-member Chicago Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, did order climate baseline study for the entire region and created a "Greenest Region Compact" asking other municipalities to join. In a 2007 meeting of the Caucus, suburban mayors voted unanimously to recommend that the region's 9 Councils of Government approve the green compact. Malec-McKenna confirms that the region's other communities are closely tracking the city's climate efforts.
A better city
David Orr, a leading environmental author and professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, was invited to Chicago to assess the Climate Action Plan. His judgment: "It's a savvy, practical plan to get things done. It's as good as it gets for urban planning on climate issues," although he adds that the program should be expanded to involve more local school children. "The effect on Chicago would be just spectacular."
Suzanne Malec-McKenna agrees that the educational dimension is important, not just for kids but everyone. "If you talk about the polar ice caps melting, that's not as effective as talking about the growing incidence of asthma and the overall quality of life here in Chicago."
Indeed Jen McGraw, climate change program manager for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, who participated in the plan's research, says one of the most important breakthroughs is the way the plan frames the entire subject of climate change.
"This is not just saving the environment, it's also about making a better city," he said, " — one that's more efficient, greener, more economically competitive, more livable. For people, these programs to lower utility bills and offer more alternatives to driving actually saves a lot of money."
Jay Walljasper, senior Citiscope Editor; writer and speaker; former editor of the Utne Reader and Ode Magazine