Failing environment spurs mayoral action
Just one week after 50 mayors from around the globe convened in San Francisco for the United Nations World Environment Day Conference to sign the Urban Environmental Accords, the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) passed a resolution to endorse the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement at its annual meeting in Chicago. The good-faith agreement, advocated by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, holds signing cities to the same standards set in the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty in which participating nations agree to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Although President Bush declined to sign the treaty, citing a concern for the economy, many of the U.S. mayors argue that they will not be able to afford more damage to their cities.
“We’ve already helped to pass one hurdle and that is accepting that [global warming] is happening,” Nickels says. “The science is beyond dispute.” He began promoting the climate protection agreement in February when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect. So far, 166 mayors in 37 states representing 35 million people have agreed to the terms.
The potential impact of global warming on Seattle includes rising sea levels and a decline in the mountain snow pack, which means less water for the hydroelectric power supply, according to Steve Nicholas, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. He adds that greenhouse gas emissions will increase 40 percent by 2030 if the city’s surrounding four-county region does not address the problem.
To show his commitment, Nickels formed the Green Ribbon Task Force, co-chaired by Orin Smith, the retired president and CEO of Starbucks, and Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation and national coordinator of the first Earth Day, to develop recommendations. Because utilities, along with transportation, are the main sources of Seattle’s emissions, the plan will include alternative energy options, such as wind power. Rather than draining the city’s economy, Nicholas says finding climate-friendly fuels, developing better means of heating and building green buildings present economic opportunity.
Many of the communities participating in the agreement are coastal cities concerned with rising sea levels, however, inland mayors, such as Austin, Texas, Mayor Will Wynn, are beginning to feel the pressure as well. “Austin has doubled in size every 20 years since 1900,” Wynn says. “We have become one of the worst cities for traffic congestion and, therefore, vehicle emissions.”
To combat the emissions, Austin is addressing land-use patterns and density in the urban core and has voted to add a commuter rail to mass transit options. At the recent USCM meeting, Wynn introduced a program from Austin Energy, the city-owned utility, that provides incentives for corporate and government purchasers of electric/hybrid vehicles.
Not all environmentally conscious mayors, however, are signing the climate protection agreement, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. “The mayor supports Nickels’ efforts, but it’s not the approach he wants to take,” says Sadhu Johnston, commissioner for Chicago’s Department of the Environment. The city, however, was the first to join the Chicago Climate Exchange, a market for trading greenhouse gas emissions that participants pay into when failing to meet reduction requirements. A resolution supporting the exchange also was approved at the USCM meeting.
For now, Nickels’ goal is to build a coalition that supports stronger policies on a national scale. “Our working assumption is that Kyoto by itself is not enough,” he says. “What it represents is an initial and relatively small step.”