Here are 5 U.S. cities that are taking innovative action on climate change

Mayors gather in Chicago to show that some of the biggest action on climate can be local.

City contractors instal new street lights on the south side of Chicago, IL on November 1, 2017. (CREDIT: C40)
City contractors instal new street lights on the south side of Chicago, IL on November 1, 2017. (CREDIT: C40)

As the Trump administration continues to gut federal climate action in favor of the fossil fuel industry, climate activists have increasingly turned to states and cities in hopes of making progress on climate change. This week, that message got another boost as more than 50 mayors from across the United States, Canada, and Mexico gathered in Chicago for the North American Climate Summit.

As part of the summit, five cities from across the United States — as well as five other cities from around the world — were honored by the C40 Cities Bloomberg Philanthropies Awards for their work to implement progressive climate policies at a city level.

“Nowadays, our worldwide philosophy should be ‘Think local, act global,'” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who also chairs the C40, a network of cities committed to fighting climate change, said in a press statement. “These projects should be considered blueprints that other cities can adapt to accelerate their own efforts.”

In the United States, a growing number of cities have passed commitments to going 100 percent renewable in the coming years, promising to focus on deploying renewable energy while phasing out reliance on fossil fuels. Since President Trump took office, the movement has only gained speed, with mayors from 250 cities backing a resolution in June to switch to 100 percent renewable sources of energy by 2035.

But while the Trump administration has given new credence to the idea that global action can happen locally, cities have always been a major part of any comprehensive plan to fight climate change. More people live in cities than anywhere else in the world, and cities account for some 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cities also tend to be concentrated along coastlines and waterways, leaving them especially vulnerable to climate-fueled disasters from sea level rise or more intense and frequent storms.

Cities have a huge amount of autonomy over issues like municipal transportation, energy efficiency, building codes, and management systems, all of which can help make a significant dent in a city’s carbon footprint. In Chicago, which was honored with an award on Tuesday, the city has developed partnerships between environmental groups and municipal officials with an eye towards retrofitting Chicago’s existing buildings to be more energy efficient. Two-thirds of Chicago residents live in buildings that are over 50 years old, far higher than the national average — by working with city residents, businesses, and environmental groups, the city hopes to save 504,000 tons of carbon emissions and $45 million in heating and cooling costs annually. In Fort Collins, which was honored for its Climate Action Plan, efficiency programs have generated some $38 million in local benefits like lower utility bills.

Other cities are looking to make a dent in carbon pollution — and air pollution in general — by encouraging residents and businesses to switch their vehicles from traditional diesel or gasoline engines to bio-diesel and low-carbon alternative fuels. In New York City, the Hunts Point Clean Trucks Program focuses on working with private sector businesses to encourage them to switch their vehicles to lower-emission, lower-pollution vehicles by providing rebates from federal and city funds to help pay for replacing or retrofitting older, more polluting trucks. Since 2012, the program has reduced carbon pollution per truck by 13 percent, and reduced local air pollution from those same trucks by 80 to 95 percent.

In Phoenix, city officials looked to a different source of local pollution as an opportunity for both environmental and climate progress — the city’s landfills. Working through the Public Works Department, the city launched a goal of diverting 40 percent of waste away from the city’s landfills by 2020. In 2006, the city installed an advanced gas capture system on it’s active landfill, which has in turn reduced the equivalent of 2,300 metric tons of carbon pollution.

Each of the cities honored on Tuesday had one clear theme in common: climate action at the municipal level meant working with a wide-variety of stakeholders, from environmental and justice groups to private enterprise. In Washington, D.C., city officials worked with more than a dozen agencies to create the district’s climate plan, which includes making efficiency upgrades to existing buildings, construction of new climate-resilient buildings, and planning resiliency upgrades in neighborhoods throughout the city. According to the city’s awards application, by coordinating with numerous agencies — as well as soliciting private and public sector input — the district was forced to take a variety of perspectives into account, helping to develop “a high-level accountability structure.”

The C40 network was created from the idea that cities can not only be a major tool in fighting climate change, but that a network of cities could help foster innovation and share ideas for climate action — a principle that C40’s board president and U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change Michael Bloomberg reiterated in a statement about the awards.

“Cities are helping nations reach the goals they set under the Paris Agreement, including in the U.S.,” Bloomberg said. “Because cities share common challenges, each of these winning projects has the potential to improve lives around the world — while also improving our odds in the fight against climate change.”