Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

As the leaders, and eyes, of the world converge on Copenhagen, questions are swirling like storm clouds. Will developed countries agree and commit to a meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reduction target? Will Those Most Responsible pony up some serious dough for a “Green Fund” to help those most affected develop clean energy supplies and climate adaptation strategies? Will Sen. Inhofe (R-Okla.) challenge Al Gore to an arm-wrestling match in the middle of Rådhuspladsen, the Danish capital’s gorgeous City Hall Square?

Most important, will the 115 or so world leaders gathered this week in the Danish capital come to some kind of substantive agreement, or at least an agreement to agree in the not-too-distant future? Will anything come out of these talks other than talk?

Climate leaders in cities and metropolitan areas across the U.S. aren’t holding their breath. Sure, they’ve got one eye on Denmark, but the other is focused on a much more local (and palpable) prize: Significantly reducing their own carbon footprints — and working to create good, green jobs and a vibrant, low-carbon economy along the way.

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To these folks, “Climategate” is nothing more than the predictable (and yet still quite annoying) chatter from the cheap seats. They know that climate change is real, not because they’ve read about it in some report or science magazine, but because they see it unfolding before their eyes, in the form of dwindling water supplies, more frequent heat waves, overtaxed drainage systems, and a dizzying (and frightening) array of other impacts already wreaking havoc on their people and their economies. So they’re not watching from the bleachers, sipping Carlsberg, and hoping for the best. They’re down on the field, advancing the ball against fourth-and-long odds.

Sign Up for More News from GristTake Kansas City, for example, where the city government and its partners are busy creating a “Green Impact Zone” aimed at transforming a blighted, 25-acre section of the community into a model of sustainable, energy-efficient and equitable urban redevelopment. The Zone is a distressed and historically underserved 150-block area within Kansas City’s urban core that’s been officially designated for coordinated reinvestment and revitalization. The city is collaborating with the Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City Power & Light, the University of Missouri, and a host of other nonprofit, business, and neighborhood organizations; they are combining several different heretofore uncoordinated streams of federal stimulus money to fund the project, which will include weatherizing every home within the Zone that needs it, installing a smart grid system, building a bus rapid transit network, and providing comprehensive job training and placement services to unemployed people living within the Zone, so that they can do much of the work generated by the project.

Portland’s Clean Energy Works is another great example of an innovative and integrated approach to increasing energy efficiency, saving money, reducing climate pollution, and creating good, green jobs. Like many cities, Portland is ramping up its efforts to significantly increase the energy efficiency of their residential and commercial buildings, which nation-wide use about 70 percent of the electricity load and produce more than 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Using federal stimulus money as seed funding, the City of Portland and its key partners — Multnomah County, Portland General Electric, Shorebank Enterprise Cascadia, the Energy Trust of Oregon, and the nonprofit Green for All — have established a revolving loan fund that will provide low-interest loans to homeowners to finance energy efficiency audits and measures such as new insulation or the installation of a high-efficiency furnace or water heater. Participants will pay off the loans over time, via their utility bills. The initial goal of the pilot program is to retrofit 500 homes, but the longer-term target is 100,000. To ensure a coherent and equitable approach to the job creation and workforce development elements of the program, the Portland City Council recently approved a Community Workforce Agreement signed by local businesses and labor unions. Among other things, the agreement requires that 80 percent of the workers come from the local workforce, and that 30 percent are people of color, women, or low-income residents.

Other cities are experimenting with a different approach to helping property owners overcome one of the major barriers to retrofitting their homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency and save money: lack of funding for the up-front costs of efficiency measures such as insulation and window replacement, even in cases where the payback period is relatively short. Several cities are creating clean energy financing districts to help homeowners overcome that barrier. These programs give property owners an opportunity to borrow money to increase the energy efficiency of their buildings, or to install clean energy systems such as solar panels, and to repay the loan over 20 years via their property tax bills. Property owners opt in voluntarily and pay little if any up-front cost. And since the energy improvement stays with the property, the tax obligation does as well. This model, called Property Assessed Clean Energy was first piloted by the City of Berkeley to finance the installation of solar panels on homes. Now it’s being replicated or considered by many other cities across the country — from San Francisco, Calif. to Annapolis, Md. — to finance energy efficiency as well as small renewable energy retrofit projects.

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Along with buildings, transportation sources — cars, trucks, buses, and the like — are one of the top two sources of climate pollution in most U.S. cities, and in the nation as a whole. Many metropolitan regions around the country are working hard to shrink this segment of their carbon footprints, as well, for example by shifting land-use policies and major infrastructure investments to discourage sprawl and encourage the development of compact and relatively climate-friendly urban communities, in which walking, biking, and public transportation is easier, safer, and cheaper. The Sacramento Blueprint is one of the best examples. The six-county Sacramento Council of Governments (SACOG) led an intensive, three-year process to develop the Blueprint, using state-of-the-art GIS-based data analysis and mapping to help the region visualize the myriad costs (economic, environmental, and social) of sprawl and rally around a “smart growth” vision and strategy. The goal of the Blueprint, adopted by the SACOG Board of Directors in 2004, is to reduce the amount of driving per household by 8 percent compared to 2005 levels, which will translate into a per-household reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of about 12 percent. And it appears to be working. Between 2004 and 2007, the number of multi-family housing projects increased by more than 500 percent, while the number of single-family houses on lots of 5,500 square feet or more decreased by more than 20 percent. The Blueprint has become a model for other metropolitan areas, and inspired pioneering state legislation in California that requires Metropolitan Planning Organizations to set greenhouse gas emissions targets and develop a Sustainable Community Strategy to meet them.

Atlanta is another example of a fast-growing region that is making great strides to rein in sprawl and develop more climate-friendly land-use and transportation systems. Just last year, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved Connect Atlanta, the city’s first comprehensive transportation plan. The goal is nothing short of transforming their historically highway-dominated transportation system, designed mostly to facilitate the flow of motor vehicles between the city and its suburbs, into a more diverse network of roads that also serves the mobility needs of people within the city, for example by better-connecting the urban core with the neighborhoods that surround it. A series of seven community visioning workshops held throughout that guided the development of Connect Atlanta which calls for downsizing some streets so that they are more conducive to neighborhood quality-of-life, building 200 miles of bike lanes, and adding 95 miles of rail and high-frequency bus transit. The Livable Cities Initiative, administered by the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission, promotes implementation of Connect Atlanta by providing community planning grants and allocating federal transportation funding to redevelopment projects that channel growth into the urban centers and away from undeveloped areas.

Local leaders and practitioners recognize that solving the global climate crisis will require not just government action, but the ultimate team effort. So many cities and towns across the country are coming up with creative, effective, and fun ways to engage their homeowners and businesses in the climate challenge. The Energy Smackdown is a great example. The brainchild of the Boston-based BrainShift Foundation, the Energy Smackdown is a sort of green edition of the reality TV show “The Biggest Loser.” It pits teams of households in three Massachusetts communities (Arlington, Cambridge, and Medford) against each other in a friendly competition to see which town can make the biggest energy reduction over a 12-month period. Participants get free advice from energy experts, including a comprehensive home energy and lifestyle evaluation. Events include a Light Bulb Challenge, a Smart Transit Challenge, and a “Locavore Banquet,” in which the teams prepare and serve climate-friendly, full-course meals using only locally sourced ingredients.

The 30 households participating in the recently completed second season of Energy Smackdown reduced their electricity use by an average of 14 percent. The top three households reduced electricity usage  73 percent, 37 percent, and 28 percent over the 12 months. Local, regional, and national media published or broadcast a total of 22 stories about the Energy Smackdown, and a seven-part video series now in production will be distributed via community access television as well as on the Internet. In addition to notoriety, cost savings, and the warm feeling that comes from doing the right thing and inspiring neighbors to do the same, the winners get great prizes provided by local businesses.

These are just a few of the climate innovations underway in cities, towns, and metropolitan areas across America. Do we need a new international agreement that commits nations to work together to solve the global climate crisis? No question. Do we need strong national climate protection policies and programs, especially in high-emitting countries such as China, the U.S., and India? Absolutely. But local climate action is an essential ingredient, as well. Cities and towns consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and produce more than 70 percent of its climate pollution, according to the International Energy Agency. So it’s easy to do the math: we don’t meet the global climate challenge without creating dramatically more energy-efficient and less carbon-intensive cities.

The good news is that a growing number of U.S. cities get it; more than 1,000 mayors are participating in the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, initiated by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels back on Kyoto Protocol enactment day (Feb. 15, 2005). They get that, while climate disruption is a global phenomenon, its impacts are local. They get that local solutions — from building codes that require more energy-efficient buildings to land-use policies that increase reliance on public transportation, biking, and walking — are not only readily available, but highly attractive on a many levels. They get that the opportunities for their communities are perhaps as great as the stakes are high.

So, while the ears of local climate practitioners may be half-listening for a promising peep or two out of the Bella Center this week, they’re keeping their noses exactly where they need to be: to the grindstone. They aren’t waiting for hope — they’re creating it.

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