An interview with Salt Lake City mayor and green innovator Rocky Anderson
Photo: Kate Sheppard
As mayor of his city, Rocky Anderson has been unapologetically liberal. He’s pushed through aggressive sustainability measures and energetically championed affirmative action, gay rights, and reform of the penalty-heavy justice system. He’s also been a fierce and vocal critic of the Bush administration in general and the war in Iraq in particular.
His city? Salt Lake City, Utah, square in the middle of the reddest state in the Union — the state with the highest percentage of Bush votes in 2000, a number that increased in 2004.
The real trick is, he’s done all this while remaining extraordinarily popular; he was reelected in 2003 by a wide margin. He’s even won over the business community, which was skeptical if not hostile at the start of his first term.
Anderson’s internationally acclaimed Salt Lake City Green program has slashed the city government’s greenhouse-gas emissions, built popular support for public transit, enticed private businesses to go greener, and made Salt Lake more friendly for walkers and cyclists. Over a long conversation, I asked him how he’s pulled it all off, and why, after seven successful years, he’s planning to quit government.
Your Salt Lake City Green program aimed to reduce the city government’s greenhouse-gas emissions 21 percent below 2001 levels by 2012 — the equivalent of Kyoto. How’s that going?
We have far exceeded that goal, six years early. We’re at 148 percent of our goal — a 31 percent reduction below 2001 levels.
Have you set new targets?
See photos of Anderson showing off green features of his home and city.
I want to set some 5-, 10-, and 20-year goals. Although I won’t be mayor after this year, having those goals makes certain that my successors either expressly repudiate it or do what they can to live by it.
Which strategies paid off?
The goals were for our city operations, our municipal operations; it’s not a city-wide figure. The way we accomplished our reductions was primarily through lighting retrofits in public buildings. In our city and county buildings alone, replacing our incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs saved $33,000 a year in electricity. Then we used some of those cost savings to become the state’s largest purchaser of wind power.
By doing just those two things alone, we not only saved taxpayers money — over the long term it will be millions of dollars — but reduced carbon dioxide emissions by over 1,100 tons. That’s because almost all the energy in this area comes from coal-burning power plants.
We retrofitted all of our traffic lights with LED lights. We’re constantly converting our diesel fleet over to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and utilizing alternative fuels whenever possible.
Probably the least sexy and photogenic thing you’ve done is put in methane-capture plants.
Yeah, the capture and utilization of methane at our wastewater-treatment plant and our landfill have had by far the greatest impact in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. At our landfill, we used to capture the methane and then just flare it off. Now we use it to generate electricity — that accomplishes a reduction of 17,600 tons of equivalent carbon dioxide a year. We do the same thing at our wastewater-treatment plant through the utilization of a cogeneration plant. There we provide about half the electrical needs of our wastewater-treatment facility.
We’re still taking a look at things like groundwater heat transfer, or geothermal heating sources. The more you get into this, the more you realize we really do have the technologies available to make an enormous difference.
It’s manageable to get at things the city directly manages or owns. If you take the area’s total emissions, though, aren’t city government emissions a relatively low percentage of the total?
It’s pretty significant. We’ve reduced emissions in our operations by 36,200 tons.
How do you get from stuff the city controls to affecting the behavior of private actors?
That’s a great question.
Photo: Kate Sheppard
One example is LEED certification. We have built an intermodal hub here where commuter rail, light rail, all modes of transportation come together at one place in the city. That’s the first LEED-certified city-owned building.
We went from that experience to me requiring by executive order that all buildings owned or managed by the city will be constructed or renovated according to at least LEED silver guidelines. Then we went from there to an ordinance that would require all buildings using city funds to be certified. The next step will be — and I intend to propose this — an ordinance that will provide incentives for private developers to construct according to high-performance standards. I hope also to propose an ordinance that over time will require high-performance building.
People are finally understanding that just as with other building-code requirements, requiring greater energy efficiency and high performance is a legitimate role [for city government].
After we did our municipal operations — and again, we did this very consciously, we wanted to be able to say we’re walking the talk — we went to the business community and we set up the E2 Business program. E2 stands for economically and environmentally sustainable. We now have 42 E2 businesses.
We proceeded with the recognition that business owners and managers are focused on their business, not on energy efficiency, recycling, transportation options, all the rest. So we send trained staff or volunteers to these businesses, we inventory what they’re doing just like we inventoried our own departments, and we make recommendations for changes they can make, just like we made in our municipal operations. When they agree to a certain level of these changes, they become a recognized E2 business. They get a lot of good publicity out of that. We hear back from a lot of their customers who are very supportive. A lot of them report back that it’s good for employee morale — that employees are really proud to be working for businesses that are engaged in more responsible and sustainable practice.
After we implemented that program with great success, we moved to the next stage, with an E2 Citizen program. We help people recognize their personal carbon footprints, their own impacts on global warming as well as local air-quality issues. There are dozens of suggestions that will achieve reductions in carbon emissions, and emissions of criteria pollutants as well. If they commit to five or more of those, they become E2 citizens.
So a lot of it is education. A lot of it is getting people to recognize that we can all engage in so much more responsible and sustainable practice in our lives and in our businesses as well as in government — together making a very significant difference, and at the same time saving money in most instances.
You’re vocal in support of new urbanist principles of dense, walkable community. I joke that two things are most striking about new urbanism: one, how good it sounds, and two, how little of it actually exists. How have you persuaded people to buy in?
We have a corresponding joke, and that is that there are two things people hate: sprawl, and density in their neighborhoods.
But you know, you come up against a lot of resistance to any change. When we put in the first line of light rail in the Salt Lake City area, there was greater opposition to that than anything I can remember in politics: the cost, the contention that it’s outdated technology, that people won’t give up their cars to ride it. We don’t hear that any more, because it’s been immensely successful. It’s been so successful — and this is one of those cases of success breeding more success — communities that were adamantly opposed to light rail before the first line was ever built are now clamoring for it in their neighborhoods.
Support has reached the point that there have been two sales-tax increase initiatives for money to increase transit opportunities, and they were passed overwhelmingly by some of the most conservative voters on the planet. It’s really heartening.
Have you clashed with the [overwhelmingly conservative] state legislature on green issues?
Yes. They wanted me dead. And probably not quickly. They wanted me to suffer before I was gone. Year after year, they made me a target during their legislative sessions. They were always threatening draconian retribution against Salt Lake City because of my position on some of these issues.
But more and more, I think people understand the impacts on long-term economic development from having poor air quality in this region, especially with temperature inversions like we’re experiencing now. The governor, Gov. [Jon] Huntsman [R], has set up a blue-ribbon task force on climate change. He understands that Utah has fallen far behind the rest of the country when it comes to taking measures to combat global warming. I’ve also cosponsored with Robert Redford and Sundance an annual conference of mayors from around the country where we bring in some of the top climate scientists. Last year we had Al Gore come and put on his presentation. We talk about communicating this issue, and best practices for municipalities.
Some things, like changing to CFL light bulbs, seem like sacks of money laying on the ground — yet they just aren’t happening in so many big cities. Are there still cultural barriers?
Some of these solutions are so readily in reach and so economically beneficial, yet still not being embraced by so many governmental entities, at all levels. It is a remnant of this thinking that good environmental practices somehow run counter to good business practices, or economic development interests. But people are starting to understand that good environmental practices, good business practices, and good long-term, sustainable economic development go hand in hand.
It doesn’t take a brilliant accountant to figure out that if you can buy compact fluorescent bulbs, albeit with a small increase in price initially, you’re going to come out ahead. Same thing holds true with our transportation systems. You can’t keep building more and more highways, or widening the highways we have now, and solve congestion problems in the long term. You’re just accommodating people to live further and further away from their work, to commute longer distances, and once again fill up our highways. It’s not sustainable, whether you’re concerned about crowded highways, protecting open spaces, or air quality.
Why have you decided not to run for a third term?
Clearly there’s a missing link in the formation and implementation of good public policy by our elected officials. Most elected officials aren’t leaders. They don’t read a whole lot. They don’t know much about most of the areas upon which they have such great impact. I don’t think a lot of them really care about much more than what they perceive as being the politically efficacious thing to do. So I want to devote the rest of my life to grassroots advocacy and organizing around human rights and global warming.
You have no plans to run for other office?
Do you think grassroots advocacy can have the practical impact of an executive position, even at the city level?
Not if you have the right person in the executive position. But I can’t be here forever.
Sustained progressive change has got to come from people who care. Most people in this country do care, very deeply. The reason our elective officials don’t do anything to bring about positive change is they don’t sense the people really care about it. It’s not in front of them. President Clinton has made reference to that in regard to the 800,000 people killed in 100 days in Rwanda — said he didn’t understand the gravity of it as it was happening.
Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s national security adviser, two weeks into the genocide, told the director of Human Rights Watch to keep three words in mind: Make more noise. Our telephones aren’t ringing. If our telephones aren’t ringing, people don’t care. And if people don’t care, we’re not going to be taking any action to intervene. If there had been a principled lobby, enough concern expressed by the American people, we would have seen a very different result.
And global warming? I see it as exactly the same issue. People have not been mobilized. People mostly have been confused on the issue, because the Bush administration and industry-sponsored organizations have been out there spreading lies. There really hasn’t been any organizational effort on the ground in each community, getting people who care about these things to engage in the kinds of action that will bring about effective change.
If this were the No. 1 issue in the last congressional races, believe me, the candidates would have responded. And they’d have responded once they were elected. We can create that kind of national lobby around these issues. There’s no doubt about it.
In some ways, you’re facing the same choice Al Gore is facing: whether to choose politics or work at this grassroots stuff. Sounds like he’s making the same choice you are. Have you talked to him about it?
I have actually. I begged him to run last time. I thought that was his shot. I think he could have kicked Bush’s ass last time around.
Congrats on everything in Salt Lake City. I hope it catches on.
I do too. As I always tell people, I was on the outside too, and disgusted with what I was seeing in government. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for me and a real privilege to be in a place where I can actually get some of these things done rather than complaining that people aren’t doing it. It’s been a heartening thing for me and the team we’ve built here.
See photos of Anderson showing off green features of his home and city.