What Can Cities Really Do About Climate Change?

Grand Rapids, Mich., stands as tangible evidence of what cities can do to reduce human impact on the environment. But the city’s efforts also underscore its limitations.
by | December 2014

Almost a decade ago, then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels challenged fellow mayors around the country to abide by the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that the United States refused to support when it was drafted in 1997. His goal was to sign up 141 American cities­ -- one for every nation in the protocol.

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

By 2013, the number of cities that had joined was nowhere near 141. It was over a thousand. “We hoped to send a message to places around the world that at some point the United States would rejoin the effort to protect the climate,” Nickels says. “I think we sent that message far more powerfully than we anticipated.”

With so many mayors promising to curb their cities’ emissions, the agreement evolved from a symbolic document to a potential catalyst for nationwide change. Some 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to come from urban areas, a number expected to rise as more people move into cities.

Over its 10 years, the Mayors’ Climate Protection Center has documented the efforts of cities in switching to hybrid-electric vehicle fleets, installing solar panels on rooftops and replacing streetlights with LED bulbs. But while the unexpected popularity of the mayors’ agreement created new optimism about what cities could accomplish together, it also made obvious one serious flaw: Mayors can’t say how much their combined efforts have affected the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement didn’t require that cities track their progress or use uniform measurement tools. The data that cities do report are difficult to compare or aggregate.

When the mayors’ group surveyed its members at the end of 2013, only 106 were able to say for sure that they had recorded a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Staff from the group concluded the figure was likely an underestimate because most cities participating in the agreement didn’t respond to the survey. But it’s possible that more cities didn’t respond because they didn’t have progress to report. Either way, the exercise illustrates just how difficult it is to know if the climate pledges have translated into results.

One way to measure the impact of the climate agreement is to look at cities that have made measurable policy changes in compliance with the national initiative. One such place is Grand Rapids, Mich., where Mayor George Heartwell has used the agreement to drive a full-fledged environmental agenda. Unlike many of the original mayors who signed the agreement in 2005, Heartwell remains in office. Midway through his third term, he has overseen an expansion of renewable energy usage, transit ridership and city parks, among other projects. Grand Rapids offers tangible evidence of what cities can do to reduce human impact on the environment. But it also underscores the limitations that mayors face when trying to influence systems outside their direct control.

Grand Rapids maintains a meticulous system for setting goals and tracking progress toward sustainability. Every year since 2009, the city has conducted an inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions. In that time, the city government has cut its emissions by 20,098 metric tons, a 23 percent reduction. Aside from the broad goal of bringing down emissions, the city’s sustainability plan includes dozens of related objectives, such as planting trees, adding bike lanes and buying vehicles that run on alternative fuels -- each with its own deadlines and numerical targets.

Most of the city’s reductions in emissions so far have come from greater reliance on renewable energy by government agencies. Grand Rapids has begun to generate its own electricity by installing solar panels on a water services facility and geothermal wells in several fire stations. The city commission decided to buy slightly more expensive electricity generated from biomass and wind

to meet its 20 percent renewable energy goal. Now Heartwell has set a new goal of making the municipal government 100 percent reliant on renewable energy by 2020.

The data from Grand Rapids sound impressive, and they reflect a great deal of effort. But it’s important not to overstate their impact. Only a small portion of the city’s overall emissions come from government activity. When the city conducted an inventory of emissions in 2009, it found that municipal operations accounted for about 5 percent of the community’s overall output.

That raises an important question for the climate agreement and the cities seeking to honor it: If mayors have direct control over just a small slice of emissions, can their combined efforts ever serve as a substitute for federal action on climate change? Since the agreement was drawn up in 2005, total emissions in the country have declined over several years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the EPA credits those reductions to factors that were not the result of municipal policy, such as increased fuel prices, lower natural gas prices and moderate seasonal weather that resulted in less home energy use.

If mayors want to have a substantial impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they have to engage the entire community. That’s difficult because mayors cannot realistically mandate fewer emissions from private citizens. They have to persuade residents and business owners to become willing partners. Grand Rapids has sought to build popular enthusiasm for its climate change efforts by publishing annual progress reports pointing to the city government’s incremental successes in conserving energy and reducing air pollution.

“The well-defined policy goals have been crucial at the political level,” says Nicholas Occhipinti, policy director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. “All of that is used constantly in speeches, in messaging and in materials to the voters.”

And there are signs that it has paid off. When the city sought to expand its single-stream recycling program in 2010, it saw voluntary participation increase by 80 percent, with more than half of Grand Rapids households recycling by 2013. After six years of promoting transit as a cleaner alternative to commuting by car, the average number of weekday bus trips had increased by 44 percent. When the city won a grant two years ago for home energy audits and the installation of energy-saving devices, roughly 2,500 private households signed up.

“Sustainability has weaved into the basic culture of the community,” says Daniel Schoonmaker, director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. When residents think of their city, he says, they think of “sustainability, beer and maybe office furniture.” (The Grand Rapids metro area is home to several breweries and five of the world’s largest office furniture companies.)

“A lot of companies see it as a priority,” says Joshua Lunger of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. He touts the fact that Grand Rapids ranks fifth in the country in LEED-certified buildings per capita, and first for a midsize city. Businesses see economic value in maintaining the community’s environmental reputation. “We can’t have a sludgy river when attracting people to our city,” Lunger says.

The transformation of Grand Rapids into a green city is part of the larger story of how places that didn’t used to be leaders in environmentalism have moved in that direction under the mayors’ climate agreement. Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, recalls a time when a handful of liberal bastions such as Minneapolis, Seattle and Boulder, Colo., were about the only places experimenting with new approaches to energy conservation and environmental preservation. That’s no longer true. Two Republican mayors, Jim Brainard of Carmel, Ind., and Shane Bemis of Gresham, Ore., are among the leading advocates for environmental stewardship and energy efficiency.

Western Michigan in general is a conservative part of the state. Eighteen of the region’s 21 state legislators are Republicans. Grand Rapids is more moderate, but it’s hardly an outpost of left-leaning progressivism. When Heartwell, who is politically an independent, became one of the first mayors to sign the climate agreement in 2005, he didn’t have a reliable liberal constituency at home that would automatically approve initiatives aimed at reversing the effects of climate change.

Instead, he framed his environmental goals as smart financial decisions, a strategy that has worked for mayors across the country. “For whatever reason,” says Nickels, “that long-term view of making the planet more livable down the road is not as compelling as saving a buck.”

Heartwell, an ordained minister, also works to portray environmentalism in moral terms. “I cannot live in the world without doing harm to God’s creation,” he told an interviewer for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “I need electric lights to work here, I need transportation to get to work, what I do in the morning in my warm house, all of it is contributing to this immense problem. So I am complicit.”

Local churches have been crucial in making climate protection a nonpartisan, communitywide priority, says Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “You can’t be successful in a city like Grand Rapids without being fully aware of the power of faith,” she says. “Mayor Heartwell, coming out of an ecumenical position, understood that.”

Grand Rapids and several other cities offer evidence that local government can have a significant impact on climate change. But for the most part, it is anecdotal evidence; the data simply aren’t there. For the country as a whole, the climate agreement’s record is restricted to fragmented information from individual cities. “This phenomenal effort still remains somewhat invisible,” Heartwell says, “because no central agency has collected data from all of us.”

That situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. In June, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, current president of the Conference of Mayors, announced a renewed climate agreement for today’s mayors to sign. As with the old agreement, mayors are encouraged to conduct inventories and measure progress, but aren’t offered tools to do so. The position of the conference is that centralized data collection should be the responsibility of the EPA, not the cities that subscribe to the agreement.

But new methods of data collection appear to be on the horizon. C40, an international network of mayors from some of the world’s largest cities, has developed a standard way of collecting communitywide data on greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike the inventories that most American cities currently maintain, data collected under the C40 system could be compared against numbers from other cities and aggregated to arrive at a sum total of urban emissions each year. C40 is scheduled to make the new auditing methodology available at a December climate conference in Lima, Peru.

C40 Research Director Seth Schultz says it may take some time before American cities decide to join the international effort, especially in places that already have their own measurement approach. “Cities that are recognized as leaders in this space are also very wedded to an existing process,” he says. “Their policies and reduction goals are connected to it.”

The C40 auditing tool would look at all emissions from a city, not just those generated by government. The more comprehensive picture would include important sources of emissions that cities often ignore, such as fuel combustion from flights departing at local airports. It would also include six types of greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, in addition to the greenhouse gas that mayors discuss most often, carbon dioxide.

Expanding the definition of each city’s climate impact could prompt resistance by mayors whose environmental work looks less impressive when considered in the broader context of communitywide emissions. Switching to a more accurate but less flattering measurement tool, Schultz says, “is an extremely hard issue to convey to the public.”

Nonetheless, it may be time for American cities to consider using a universal measurement tool. Ten years ago, the agreement’s initial aspirations were mostly symbolic: 141 signatories to send a political message. At that level of participation, the combined impact on national emissions might not have been worth reporting. “There was no way to know that we would have so many cities,” Nickels says. “Now we need a level playing field where everyone can measure where they are and what impacts their efforts are having.”