Cities Advance on Climate Change

According to a panel of environmental officials from some of the most sustainable cities in the world, cities make up 2 percent of the world’s landmass, but account for two-thirds of the world’s energy and 70 percent of the carbon emissions. As a result, mayors play a central role in alleviating the climate crisis and leading the world to more sustainable patterns of development. In a session at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco, officials from member cities of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group — Vancouver, Melbourne, San Francisco, Tokyo — discussed how their cities are taking action now to deal with climate change, reduce energy use, and make the built environment greener.

Rohit Aggarwala, advisor to the C40 group, said a majority of the 63 cities that make up the C40 group “want to focus on green buildings.” These mayors want to “encourage green building retrofits now.” Aggarwala added that mayors, who are “managers, and by nature impatient,” are looking for “smart, pragmatic solutions.”

Sadhu Johnston, City of Vancouver (and former chief sustainability officer for Chicago), said his city’s population has grown 27 percent and jobs have grown 18 percent since 1990. However, during the same time frame, carbon levels have been reduced. “At 4.6 tons of carbon per person per year, we have the lowest emissions per capita in North America.” Vancouver’s success is in part due to programs that capture landfill gas for energy, expand public transit, and build mixed-use communities. Johnston said there has also been a focus on increasing density downtown: “There’s been a 75 percent increase in people downtown.” The city has seen a 48 percent increase in LEED-certified buildings, and now there’s now a minimum LEED gold certification level for new buildings.

Still, the big challenge is to reduce carbon emissions by 33 percent by 2020, which isn’t far off. How can the city do this? Johnston says LEED-Neighborhood Development (ND) Platinum “districts” have acted as a key catalyst, leading to a new energy system based off old infrastructure. These new super-sustainable districts are now “connected to the sewer mains” where they capture heat from the existing legacy system. “The idea is to reuse waste heat and reuse the legacy steam systems of the city.” The private-owned systems are now being connected to more and more developments. Indeed, new developments have to make a connection, while older developments can make one on a voluntary basis. Johnston said a key to the program’s success was that the Vancouver city government tested it first. “You have to lead by example. You have to do this before telling the private sector to do it. Running your own utility system, you find the issues first.”

For Krista Milne, City of Melbourne, getting to carbon neutral by 2020 will be a challenge because the city doesn’t have the power to limit carbon emissions from all sources. The city government also has to deal with the state and national governments. In Melbourne, 53 percent of emissions come from buildings, so retrofitting buildings is a key goal. Over the next 10 years, the city aims to revamp 1,200 buildings. This is expected to require some $2 billion in investment. But the program is expected to create some 8,000 new jobs.

Milne said the city has discovered an “information barrier — the business case for private property owners isn’t clear.” Banks also thought fnancing for these building retrofits was risky given many of these buildings already have large mortgages. So the city council recently created a new scheme for “environmental upgrade financing” that enables financiers to off-set the risks. Essentially, the city guarantees that the financing will be paid back, which lowers the cost of financing. Property owners are also now allowed to pass on some of the costs of upgrading buildings to tenants, as “they benefit too.”

To date, some $5.6 million in deals have been made. Just 2-3 years into the 10 year program, Milne said some 10 percent of the goals have been accomplished. But the most valuable impact may be that the governments of Sydney and New South Wales are now following Melbourne’s model. Another big push will focus on “decarbonizing the energy supply,” in the same way Vancouver has.

San Francisco has an equally as ambitious program, befitting its status as the greenest city in North America (see earlier post). This hub of new technology development on the west coast seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2017 and 80 percent by 2050. A key target in its program is greening buildings, which account for 53 percent of all emissions. The city’s new “world class green building policy,” said Melanie Nutter, San Francisco Department of the Environment, means “all new buildings will be LEED gold.” Nutter also said the “existing green building ordinances” mean property owners have to “report energy use to the city every year and audit their energy systems every 5 years.” This “transparency helps inspire the use of retrofits.” The city has a retrofit financing policy, too.

Nutter focused most of her talk on the city’s innovative zero-waste policy, which is truly one of the most ambitious in the world. Currently, the city has a 80 percent diversion rate — which means that 80 percent of trash is not going to landfill, but is being turned into compost or recycled. The city has partnered with a set of private firms to implement its programs but new policies and regulations have also helped. Plastic bags and styrofoam containers have been totally banned. All retailers have to participate in mandatory “composting and recycling programs.” Small and medium businesses now get “financial incentives” to improve their compliance with composting and recycling measures. “They can offset their garbage bills by 70 percent.” Some 65 percent of building demolition waste is also now diverted from landfills. To reach a 100 percent total diversion rate, the city needs to improve its compliance rate, Nutter said.

In Tokyo, Teruyuki Ohno, Bureau of Environment, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, said a new cap and trade system has been used to encourage the growth of green buildings. The building sector there accounts for some 48 percent of total emissions. Under the city’s cap and trade system, a 6-8 percent reduction in emissions is required by 2014, and another 17 percent of reductions are needed by 2019. Some 1,300 buildings are also now being targeted for retrofits. 

Tokyo now has a mandatory reporting system. Ohno said the system was voluntary in the past, but that proved not to be enough. So reductions — and the reporting needed to measure real reductions — are now required. “A reporting foundation was necessary. You need data.” 

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Student Collaboration Award of Excellence. Plant Lab / Rockne Hanish, Ileana Acevedo and Chris DeHenzel

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