US cities fighting climate change
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limit US cities’ efforts
to conserve energy
August 2020: US mayors and cities lead government efforts to mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change, filling a vacuum left by a lack of leadership at the federal level. However, most local governments focus their efforts on city-owned buildings and public spaces. Cities are reluctant to impose regulations on privately-owned properties for fear of legal challenges, and thus rarely take advantage of significant opportunities to reduce the cities’ overall carbon footprints.
For example, private residential and commercial buildings account for 40 per cent of total energy consumption and significant greenhouse gas emissions in cities, but these private properties are not included in most municipalities’ environmental and energy initiatives. Exceptions are 33 US cities with mandatory energy benchmarking ordinances for privately-owned buildings. These ordinances are associated with annual building energy consumption reductions of up to 14 per cent. They can serve as a model for other American municipalities for accruing public benefits while respecting private property rights.
Washington dithers, cities act
The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing governments at all levels in the US to reassess their needs and capacities. Millions are unemployed, and infrastructure investment is likely to be part of a federal stimulus to get people back to work. Democrats propose investment in green infrastructure, using the pandemic as an opportunity to invest public dollars in programs that pivot away from a fossil fuel based economy, create green jobs, and build more sustainable and resilient infrastructure. Not surprisingly, such proposals lack bipartisan support, as Republicans argue that environmental policies, programs, and regulations impede their priority of getting money into the pandemic-ravished economy quickly.
In fact, federal support for clean energy and enlightened environmental stewardship has stalled at the federal level for over a decade due to lack of agreement between Democrat and Republican lawmakers. American mayors and elected officials of both parties have stepped up and taken actions to reduce waste and pollution and conserve energy and resources in their cities. When US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017, mayors brought their commitment to a new level. Under the leadership of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, 540 American cities pledged to work to achieve the goals of the Paris accords .
Cities have assumed leadership in addressing the impacts of climate change through operations, procurement, policies, ordinances, and public engagement.
Most US cities focus on public spaces
In January 2020, the US Conference of Mayors surveyed American cities about their programs to reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainable development. Most of the 182 cities that responded to the survey added alternative fuel vehicles to their municipal fleets, built bike lanes, purchased renewable electricity, and took measures to reduce the energy consumption of municipal buildings. Larger cities had bike- and scooter-sharing programs. Most cities of all sizes partnered with private businesses to implement these actions, and most cities engaged in significant public outreach. The cities’ focus was on improving the carbon footprint of public assets and public spaces. Relatively few programs or policies affected privately-owned buildings, where most energy is used .
A notable exception is 33 cities in the US with mandatory energy benchmarking ordinances. Such ordinances require private residential and commercial buildings to track their energy consumption, comply with energy standards, and, often, publicly disclose their energy performance rankings. All benchmarking laws require buildings to track and report energy consumption by using an online tool created by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Benchmarking is credited with prompting annual building energy savings of 2-14 per cent .
Residential and commercial building energy use - primarily electricity and natural gas - accounts for 28 per cent of US end-use energy consumption and 39 per cent of total energy consumption (combined end use and utility system losses), as well as 12 per cent of total US greenhouse gas emissions .
The importance of building energy efficiency is, therefore, highly significant. Making new and existing privately-owned buildings more energy efficient reduces energy use and costs and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that if Cambridge, Massachusetts, the city in which MIT is located, were to retrofit 16 per cent of its buildings, it would see a 40 per cent reduction in natural gas consumption .
Building energy efficiency can also bring such benefits as greater energy security and healthier living and working. It can also lead to new jobs. Owners, managers, and developers of private buildings can tap into federal and state weatherization and housing programs and utility rebates to help finance the materials and, especially, labor for energy efficient construction.
Adopting a municipal ordinance, such as an energy benchmarking ordinance for private buildings, has fewer financial costs for taxpayers than, for example, adding electric vehicles to a municipal fleet or building bike lanes. It also brings substantial benefits by reducing energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. It can bring federal and state dollars to a community and create jobs. Why, then, do only 33 American cities of the more than 1,800 US cities with 20,000 or more residents mandate energy benchmarking for privately-owned buildings?
Private property rights:
US cities fear legal challenges
There are Constitutional and legal implications to municipalities for regulating private property. The US Constitution identified the right to own property as an individual right and thus established a relationship between private property and democracy in America. Americans historically value private property and are skeptical of government regulation of that property. Over the years, Americans have allowed, and the courts have approved, regulations to protect public safety and public health, quality of life, and the economic value of property.
Examples of these public regulations applied to private property include municipal zoning; local regulations of noise, litter, and other nuisances; state protections of local drinking water sources; and federal standards to ensure access for the disabled. Expanding the scope of these rights is always contentious, and has usually been in response to unchecked market activity, which generated disasters in urbanization, industrialization, and pollution, as well as threats to property values, a major source of financial wealth for American families. Municipalities control local land use regulations and, by law, must find a reasonable balance between private and public rights in property .
It’s not clear that most Americans have accepted climate change as an appropriate reason for government management of private property, nor how courts will react, and many cities are reluctant to extend their regulatory reach for fear of being sued by private property interests.
33 cities lead the way
The main goal of any meaningful climate initiative must be to find ways to reduce carbon emissions by reducing energy consumption and switching to cleaner forms of energy. Achieving that goal means new technologies and new practices and behaviors, but also putting in place new regulations.
For local governments in the US committed to addressing climate change and reeling from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, requiring energy benchmarking for all buildings promises significant environmental benefits at little financial cost to the municipality. The challenge is managing political fallout. Thirty-three American cities, ranging in population from 20,000 to eight million, have adopted mandatory energy benchmarking ordinances, with demonstrated reductions in annual building energy consumption. They provide a model for other American municipalities.
US cities with mandatory energy benchmarking ordinances
(Cities listed in alphabetical order)
US Environmental Protection Agency. 2019. Benchmarking Programs and Policies Leveraging Energy Star.
 The America’s Pledge Initiative on Climate Change. 2019. Accelerating America’s Pledge: Going All-In to Build a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Economy for the United States.
 U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. 2020. Mayors Leading the Way on Climate: How Cities Large and Small are Taking Action.
 American City & County. 2019. Energy Efficiency Programs for Job Creation.
 US Energy Information Administration. 2020. Frequently Asked Questions: How Much Energy is Consumed in U.S. Buildings?
US Environmental Protection Agency. 2020. Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
 Massachusetts Institute of Technology CS Hub. 2019. Minimizing HVAC Consumption through Urban Retrofits.
 Progress in Disaster Science. 2020. 20th Century Regulation of Private Property in the United States: Disasters, Institutional Evolution, and Social Conflict.
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