Dissecting Atlanta's southern sustainability stand

City View

Dissecting Atlanta's southern sustainability stand

Atlanta is a city of contrasts. It boasts a thriving business community — home to several major brands, including Coca-Cola, CNN and Holiday Inn — but also suffers from growing economic inequality. On top of that, Atlanta faces several other serious sustainability and resiliency issues.

Although the American South isn’t exactly known as a bastion of sustainability, the Georgia home to some 450,000 people is looking to lead the way toward widespread regional change. And it's a role Atlanta already has played historically.

Rising literally from the ashes of the Civil War, Atlanta established itself as a symbol of the “New South” by quickly developing a modern economy less reliant on agriculture. Despite widespread social and racial conflict throughout the 20th century, Atlanta earned a reputation for being “too busy to hate” for its emphasis on economic development. The city actually became a Civil Rights stronghold and was home to Martin Luther King Jr.

Fast forward to 2010, and Mayor Kasim Reed entered office with a vision of making Atlanta a “top-tier sustainable city." The area that already has seen some of the country's most pronounced water wars is now doubling down on energy, mobility and development that fuses sustainability with clean tech jobs.

To this end, Reed expanded Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability and hired a new director of sustainability — Denise Quarles, who has a background in corporate sustainability. Reed charged Quarles and her team with developing a comprehensive sustainability plan.

This resulted in Power to Change (P2C), a citywide sustainability initiative that establishes a basis for measurable sustainability action around 10 impact areas — including materials management and recycling, air quality, energy efficiency and renewables and water management.

This is no top-down policy — it was created through benchmarking, focus groups and one-on-one interviews. Quarles and her team solicited input from more than 300 stakeholders across Atlanta, representing businesses, government agencies and community organizations, as well as neighborhoods and schools.

“It is really about making sure the stakeholders understand that you’re relevant,” Quarles told GreenBiz during an interview in Atlanta. “While we can say that sustainability isn’t a ‘one size fit all,’ there are several things that link us all.”

To measure and report on the initiative’s progress in the near-, mid- and long-term, Atlanta has taken a page out of the corporate sustainability playbook by enlisting the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) methodology. This typically is used in the private sector, where an organization’s materiality is an easily identifiable set of products or services, and rarely is used by municipalities due to much more variegated and nebulous responsibilities.

In March, Atlanta released its first GRI report, which Quarles said helps the city tell its story in a way that never has been told before.

Energy-efficiency improves, but renewables lag

Like most cities, energy used in buildings — particularly commercial — is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Atlanta. That is why P2C calls for a citywide reduction in commercial building energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020. Atlanta is making “moderate” progress toward this goal, the GRI report stated.

However, the city leads the nation in green-certified buildings — coming in third for Energy Star certified buildings in 2014. Atlanta also has over 100 million square feet of commercial building space committed to energy and water efficiency improvements through the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge.

Atlanta is one of the first three cities — alongside Los Angeles and Chicaco — to participate in the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, which calls for cities, businesses and other building stakeholders to takes significant strides towards improving energy efficiency in buildings. The Challenge has since grown to include some 20 major cities and over 100 private institutions. Quarles said that although the Atlanta challenge began downtown, it has spread citywide thanks to citizen engagement.

On the renewable energy front, Atlanta is also making “moderate” progress towards its goal of tripling renewable energy capacity by 2020, according to the GRI report. Renewables have struggled to gain traction in Atlanta due to a lack of production and incentives in Georgia.

Teaching a city to recycle

P2C recognizes waste as “one of the most pressing problems of contemporary growth,” but Atlanta is struggling to create a culture of recycling. Despite efforts to expand recycling citywide — including supplying 65,000 homes with free recycling bins — only 30 percent of Atlanta’s waste is recycled, putting it just below the national average of 34 percent.

In other words: the city still has a long way to go before reaching its aggressive goal of a 90 percent waste-to-landfill rate by 2020 and, eventually, to zero waste.

But progress has been made. The city’s recycling rate was only 19 percent in 2010 when P2C launched.

“Just three short years ago, you could walk into our police stations and fire stations and you wouldn’t have seen recycling bins,” Quarles told GreenBiz. “That’s different today.”

To increase recycling rates within the municipal government, Quarles and her team employ “recycling ambassadors” to educate city employees on what is and isn’t recyclable.

Promoting cleaner commuting

Atlanta has a history of poor air quality — consistently receiving poor rankings from organizations such as the Asthma & Allergy Foundation and American Lung Association. No doubt, the city’s legendary traffic is a prime factor.

To help reduce commuter traffic, Atlanta partnered with Georgia Commute Options, which offers free programs and services that reward commuters for taking alternative forms of transportation to and from work. In the past year, this has resulted in a reduction of 205,535 vehicle miles of travel, cutting nearly 80 tons of carbon dioxide, over 1,000 pounds of NOx and 52 pounds of particle matter, according to the GRI report.

Regardless, the report shows Atlanta is making only “moderate progress” towards its goal of meeting national air standards for ozone and fine particles by the end of 2015.

A slew of sustainability goals

Atlanta also has its sights set on improving transportation and mobility, water management, sustainability planning, land use, community health and vitality and environmental education.

P2C calls for the creation of 6,000 clean tech jobs by 2017, and establishing Atlanta as a hub for entrepreneurs. The city knocked this one out of the park — a total of 43,000 clean tech jobs were added to the metro-Atlanta workforce, the GRI report stated.

Beginning to talk about Big Data

An increasing number of cities worldwide are capitalizing on the enormous quantities of data they collect to further sustainability ends. Chicago, for example, has embraced open data policies to empower entrepreneurs and catalyze innovation.

Big Data is something Atlanta has been dipping its toe in for some time, but it’s just getting ready to take the plunge.

“There is a lot of discussion here in terms of how can we better leverage some of these tools and be much smarter about how we utilize data,” Quarles said.

Progress, not politics

If one could sum up in a single word Atlanta’s approach to sustainable development, it would be “transparent.” Speaking with Quarles and reading the city’s GRI report, it’s obvious the city isn’t interested in greenwashing for political gain — sugarcoating undesirable realities is not part of the policy. Atlanta is in it for the long haul — it is owning up so it can stand up and lead.

“My vision for making Atlanta a top-tier city for sustainability is one that will endure beyond administrations, and live within the people and places that create the fabric of this urban metropolis,” Reed told GreenBiz. “Atlanta’s sustainability goals are the way forward, not only for our environment, but for our city to remain economically and socially responsible for this and future generations.”