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US mayors spearhead moves
to lower energy consumption

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

28 October 2010: Metropolitan areas in the US exhibit notable paradoxes: high employment and high unemployment; rapid physical growth and near-total abandonment; social connectivity and social isolation. Underlying these extremes is the energy efficiency paradox. As energy efficiency increases in the US, so does demand. As cars become more fuel efficient, for example, Americans purchase larger vehicles, and second or third vehicles, and drive more. As appliances, such as furnaces and air conditioners become more efficient, Americans build larger detached homes with larger heating and cooling demands. More energy efficiency results in more energy consumption, not less.

In American metro areas, the growth of suburbia, the decline of cities, and the related economic and social paradoxes, are enabled to a significant degree by gains in energy efficiency, which, in turn, drive up demand for mobility and luxury in the form of consumer goods and capital investments. In other words, the energy efficiency gains in transportation and housing effectively incentivize sprawling development patterns by making single-family homes on big lots in outer areas more appealing.

The paradox of energy consumption rising faster than energy efficiency is well-documented. In the 1860s, mathematician William Stanley Jevons found that coal consumption in Britain rose tenfold in the decades immediately following the invention of the steam engine because the steam engine propelled vastly greater industrial production which required more coal. In the 1980s, economists Daniel Khazzoom and Leonard Brookes noted a “rebound” effect on energy demand in the US after the OPEC oil embargo – demand dipped initially in response to high energy prices, then soared beyond previous levels as efficiency improvements reduced consumer costs. Recently, economists Jeff Rubin and Benjamin Tal demonstrated that, despite the green movement and fuel price spikes, total energy usage in the United States rose more than 40 per cent since 1975, and that “to date, there has only been one sure-fire way of reducing energy consumption – shrink the economy” -- hardly a desirable or viable policy option.

Rubin and Tal note that reducing total energy consumption in the United States is never the “final objective” of technological innovations. The fuel-efficient automobile was designed to save oil and moderate personal transportation costs; the heat pump to cool and warm a building more comfortably and cheaply with less electricity; the computer and cell phone to increase productivity and connectivity; solar and wind power to decrease dependence on petroleum, not overall demand. However, technological advances are never coordinated or regulated at a scale that could potentially reduce the nation’s total energy use.

In the United States, the most concerted attack on the rising demand for energy comes from urban mayors.

In the absence of a federal energy policy, "mayors have single-handedly taken action on climate protection efforts and in many cases, creatively launched local energy efficiency programs to help reduce our carbon footprint in American cities," says Tom Cochran, CEO and Executive Director of the US Conference of Mayors.

So far, 1044 mayors have signed a Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, adopting the Kyoto Protocol’s goal of reducing carbon emissions below 1990 levels in their cities.  While the individual efforts of each city may be modest in comparison to the size of the energy consumption problem, the cumulative effects of urban mayors’ green initiatives are potentially substantial.

The US mayors that have agreed to meet the Kyoto thresholds represent over 110 million people. A recent article by Katherine Trioslini of Loyola Law School of Los Angeles notes that local governments in the United States employ nearly 12 million workers, or about twice as many as the federal government and all 50 state governments combined. Local governments also own and operate buildings, roadways, infrastructure, utilities, airports, landfill, schools, recycling centers, and other facilities. Local governments also regulate private development, and therefore consumption patterns, through zoning standards and building and subdivision codes.

Initiatives to reduce the demand for energy adopted by US mayors and their cities include retrofitting public buildings according to tougher energy standards; requiring new and renovated private commercial and multi-family buildings to meet new energy codes; adopting green practices for purchasing; replacing street and traffic lights with energy-efficient bulbs; increasing the amount and types of materials that are recycled; converting methane to energy at landfills; providing incentives for transit oriented development; implementing road user fees; changing zoning codes to require more compact and pedestrian-friendly development; adding bicycle lanes and facilities; and many more.

The largest cities in the United States are leading the way. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – followed by scores of smaller cities -- have aggressive plans to reduce their total greenhouse emissions by 25 to 80 per cent over the next two or tree decades. Several cities, such as Seattle and Salt Lake City, already report reductions of more than 30 per cent.

The potential implications are far-reaching. Buildings – to give one example -- consume about 70 per cent of the electricity used in the US and create about 40 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions. Changes to local building and zoning regulations could significantly reduce the general demand for energy.

As Trioslini states, “Overall, the potential collective impact of local governments’ climate change activities is unlikely to be either trivial or counterproductive.”

Past energy efficiency efforts have been counterproductive because they didn’t focus on reducing total demand. If each city in the US individually reduces energy demand, and therefore consumption, the cumulative effect could be a reduction in demand at the national scale, perhaps in line with the Kyoto Protocol – something the federal government has been unable to accomplish.

• Katherine Trisolini. All Hands on Deck: Local Governments and the Potential for Bidirectional Climate Change Regulation. 62 Stanford Law Review 669 (2010).
• Jeff Rubin and Benjamin Tal. Does Energy Efficiency Save Energy? StrategEcon. (CIBC World Markets, Inc.: November 27, 2007).

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