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December 21, 2015 | Cities: The Case for Hope after a Non-Binding Agreement in Paris

In the wake of the COP21 climate talks in Paris that ended last week, the conversations I’m hearing about climate change on my campus and social media ring stoutly pessimistic.

But I’m not buying the doom and gloom.

The non-binding nature of the agreement between 195 countries to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius weighs heavily on many Americans’ shoulders, and rightly so. When the negotiations began in Paris on November 30th, President Obama had already made crystal clear that any climate agreement reached couldn’t be binding, because the Republican-led Senate would have had to ratify anything that qualified as a treaty — and they had promised not to.  

So yes, unfortunately, one must conclude that it’s the fault of the United States government that an agreement stronger than a finger-wagging suggestion didn’t come out of the historic gathering in Paris.

As an environmentalist and admitted cynic, I briefly wallowed in this same sense of complicit failure. But all cynics are also pragmatists, so my wallowing stopped abruptly when I realized that in order to have effective climate action, we must take the lack of a binding international agreement in stride, and assess the importance of policy successes at different levels.

Federal governments are simply not the end-all, be-all of economic transformation. And the lower you go, the more hopeful the picture.

It turns out that action at the local level is already causing significant change. I see a strong case for optimism after COP21, and I see it right here in my coal-shadowed hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh was one of 12 U.S. mayors who travelled to Paris earlier this month to share transformative action strategies with city leaders from around the world. The 12 mayors constitute the Local Climate Leaders Circle, who are all signatories to the 200-strong Compact of Mayors, an initiative of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability – which provides uniform standards and publicly tracks local GHG emissions and climate risk.

Organizations like ICLEI collaborated at COP21 to spotlight successes at the local level, like those in Pittsburgh.

In the city that has been called both “the Paris of Appalachia” and “the Smoky City” for its coal-fueled rise to 20th century power and the consequences for air quality, progressive targets on emissions reductions and clean energy development have the ring of a Cinderella story.

Yet those changes are exactly what Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is gunning for.

He explained that from the perspective of city governments, the Compact of Mayors “gives us a game plan.” And in Pittsburgh, that game plan is on a roll.

Under Peduto’s guidance, the City is in the process of developing a Sustainable and Resilient Energy Plan for Pittsburgh, with a goal of 100% renewable-energy consumption by 2030 and LEED certification for the City-County Building. The plan involves dramatically increasing City purchases from Pittsburgh-based renewable-energy companies.

The City is also working with the Department of Energy to develop district energy production, which will incorporate local clean-energy sources into centralized production for the region rather than relying on the electricity grid-model that sources energy from power plants far away.

Pittsburgh is essentially trying to make a 21st-century microgrid that, according to Peduto, will exemplify how other cities “can create their own energy model of the future.”

Pittsburgh is a logical poster-child for ICLEI, because in the broader picture of American environmentalism, the Steel City is the comeback kid.

“It’s a compelling story,” Peduto says, reminiscing on the 50-year plan former Mayor David Lawrence began in 1946 to clean up the air.

During the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh paid the externalized costs of its companies’ industrial riches. Coal dust from steel mills coated buildings, and — as the elderly Yinzers in my South Hills suburb claim — white-collar workers in downtown Pittsburgh brought a change of clothes to switch into at lunch after the first was sheathed in soot. During World War II, the smoke was so dense that streetlights and headlights glowed at noon. Charles Dickens called Pittsburgh “hell with the lid lifted.”


This photo originally appeared in The Atlantic

The pollution controls Mayor Lawrence enacted in 1946 actually constituted “the first clean air plan in the country,” Peduto explains.

As current Mayor of Pittsburgh, Peduto sees his role in building out clean-energy markets in Pittsburgh as part of a longer legacy, demonstrating “how far a city can take an initiative to clean the air.”

The many-pronged efforts Pittsburgh is undertaking — the creation of green infrastructure, investments in environmentally sound development, and a clean-energy revolution that is both profitable and eco-friendly — are emblematic of the strides being made by cities all around the world that have signed onto ICLEI’s Compact of Mayors.

Just days ago, San Diego, another signatory to the Compact of Mayors, became the biggest American city to commit legally to 100% renewable energy by 2035.

There are at least 86 other cities worldwide that have committed to going 100% renewable by various set dates including Vancouver and Copenhagen, and even a few that have already achieved the 100% renewable energy target, like Fukushima, Japan, and Burlington, Vermont.

That’s all great, you say.  

But why should we take heart from the successes of cities when only national governments can regulate entire industries — like agricultural sectors — that are the top-tier contributors to total GHG emissions?

As it turns out, the contribution cities can make is by no means small potatoes. The UN estimates that CO2 emissions will need to be reduced by 8 to 13 gigatons to keep below the 2-degree warming limit.

For its part, ICLEI asserts that “altogether [cities] have committed to reducing greenhouse gases up to one gigaton by 2020.”

That’s big potatoes, and that’s fast action.

Better yet, those reductions won’t occur in a vacuum. When cities drive uptake for renewable energy in communities, they build investor confidence and strengthen markets. That sort of economic and political traction builds.

Strong policy action on building clean-energy economies at the local level is already spreading horizontally. It’s just a matter of time before that influence goes vertical.

 

Caroline Saunders is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Caroline is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, studying Creative Writing and Environmental Studies.