Nature speaks, cities listen

Nature speaks, cities listen

Illustration of a city skyline with speech bubbles
ShutterstockVladgrin
What are mayors of the world's greatest cities saying?

Appropriately and poetically, Mother Nature shouted for attention last month on the lead-up to this year’s Climate Week NYC — an annual event focused on driving climate action forward  which this year coincided with GreenBiz's signature fall event VERGE 17.

From a safe distance, I listened and sent donations to Harvey victims. I agonized watching Irma’s trajectory, as sheltered-in-place family members endured the high-anxiety of a last-minute route change in their direction. Disruption continued in the shape of Hurricanes Jose and Maria. Meanwhile, I sweated out 103-degree temperatures in San Francisco, despite its "coldest winter was a summer" reputation.

Cities are listening, too, especially those members of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. They are listening closely to Mother Nature, ignoring climate-change deniers and naysayers, especially those in high office. They vocalized shared goals and concerns at a series of C40 Talks in mid-September.

President Donald Trump's pulling from the Paris Agreement is a "drastic mistake," chastized Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris and C40 Chair. "C40 cities will be relentless" in their mission to bring down CO2 levels, she said.

Wherever our own national narrative ultimately lands, cities are aligned with enlightened business leaders: they are "still in," they will not miss a beat, and they will dig deeper. C40 Executive Director Mark Watts said: "More than 300 American 'Climate Mayors' have committed to adopt, honor and uphold Paris Climate Agreement goals."

UNCCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa underscored: "The Paris Agreements came into force less than a year after it was agreed. We are not waiting until 2020."

First C40 Talk

Kicking off Climate Week NYC was the first C40 Talk, "How Mayors are Getting the Job Done." Watts and power-duo Hidalgo and Espinosa opened the event, "The Air We Breathe. The Future We Want."

C40 connects more than 90 of the world’s greatest cities in a global alliance to tackle climate change. Founded and led by mayors, C40 is helping to create the sustainable, low carbon cities of the future, while advancing resiliency and livability. It organizes best-practice sharing and joint problem-solving through its initiative-focused networks. Indeed, joining groups is key to creating shareable approaches.

"Every city in the world is unique, but to prevent catastrophic climate change they all need to rapidly become more sustainable," urged Watts.

Observed C40 Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City: "C40 works because it is visionary and bold…. There is a healthy competition to do more, to be energized by each other…. Each step you take is energizing someone somewhere else."

Three years left to turn the tide

Former UNFCCC Executive Secretary and COP22 Leader Christiana Figueres has declared 2020 as the deadline to turn the tide. Research by C40 confirms that conclusion. Its new report, "Deadline 2020: How Cities Will Get the Job Done," "is the first significant routemap for achieving the Paris Agreement, outlining the pace, scale and prioritization of action needed by C40 member cities over the next five years and beyond."

"Mankind is engaged in a race," Hidalgo said.

A culture at war: denying the deniers

California Gov. Jerry Brown was among the dignitaries gathered at this first C40 Talk: "The president has said climate change is a hoax created by China, which is so absurd that it alerts people that it is not to be believed," he said. Meanwhile, "In California, we’ve had real Republicans agree with cap and trade. States can help reverse the Republican party position. [With the help of business] we can change the thinking… This is not a deep belief."

At the core of our culture are citizens. Ultimately, what they think is what matters most. C40's Watts identified the need to secure public support as a key barrier to implementing sustainable projects, policies or investments. Said Watts: "But that doesn’t mean scaring people about the risks of catastrophic global warming that will occur decades in the future, which can actually have the opposite effect of demoralizing individuals from wanting to act."

Panelist Jeremy Heimans, CEO of Purpose and co-author of the book "New Power," concurred: "If you talk about [the future of our] children, without something actionable, [the result] is net negative. You have to rally people around the powerful solutions. ... Citizens can do a lot. [They are] pushing up against power [through] pride of place and collaborative [action]. Everybody loves their city. It makes me hopeful."

Heimans then got specific: "Health and lived experience is a stronger place to start — a way to embody the message."

Inspiring citizens with the air we breathe

To that end, a theme for this first C40 Talk was the link between air quality and mobility: "The Air We Breathe." Mobility and air-related health can be a messaging pathway and an avenue for action. 

Panel moderator Antha Williams of Bloomberg Philanthropies observed: "We see an emerging air quality crisis. There are 5 million people dying each year. What we do for climate change also has a great impact on air. We can [fix both together]."

Oslo, Norway, which leads the world in per-capita electric vehicles, is doing just that. Oslo political adviser Tor Henrik Andersen said: "About 60 percent of our emissions come from transport, so transport is very important. We use governance as a tool to create markets. You pay more if you drive diesel…. less if gasoline…. and the least if you drive an electric vehicle. EVs can be recharged for free, and can use the HOV lane.

"Construction sites also generate lots of emissions, so we look at what we can do in the tendering process, to create the market. For example, we look for use of electric caterpillars."

How does citizen demand have an impact in Oslo? Echoing Heimans, Andersen explained: "If you give a problem without solution, people won’t move into it… We banned diesel cars for a day, and measured it, and told people we were doing it for the children, the elderly, those with asthma. Seventy to 80 percent complied with the ban… We are also introducing a car-free City Center; [the goal] is to free spaces for activities other than parking. Local businesses see that they have something to gain." 

Technology can be used to move policy, by providing better datasets to mayors. Panelist David Lu, CEO of Clarity Movement, highlighted the power of data. "There is air pollution data, but it is not enough to see the impact of policy. We need hundreds of thousands of sensing points [using low-cost air pollution sensors]. Without measurement, it’s like playing chess without seeing the chess board. What is working? Where? What is not? What you can see, you can’t argue with.

"We are increasing awareness to citizens, and to government. Now it is a policy priority, [whereas] recently you couldn’t talk about it. Now is a great time to address this. By having a sensor network around the bus line, you can communicate in real time. [Data can] show the health impact of the new policy. Citizens need to be shown the data, and to see with their own eyes."

New York City demands a clean skyline

New York City’s de Blasio keynoted the event, opening with an invitation to picture its famous skyline. "It’s recognizable, and we are proud of it." Yet it’s also a problem. Most of New York's emissions come not from transportation but from its 1 million buildings, especially old and outdated ones. Some 15,000 buildings create a quarter of the emissions, the mayor said:

The old rules won’t work anymore. We looked for a voluntary path, but it wasn’t enough. We announced the most powerful mandate this week. We think it will make a big difference, and fast. Strict fossil fuel targets by 2030, and [retrofits]. We will provide low-interest loans to encourage quick action. The beauty of retrofits is you make the money back. There are big famous names attached to many of their buildings. For those who fail, we will have serious consequences [such as $2 million/year in fines]. Once we’ve achieved this, it will be the equivalent of taking 900,000 cars off the road. There will be opposition. But we will proceed. My children are 20 and 22. This is the kind of urgent action that allows us to pass the baton...The president is from this city. Even if our president turns a blind eye, we will act.  At a certain point if we all act, we will create a new reality.

More C40 cities show us the future

The fifth annual C40 Cities Bloomberg Philanthropies Awards will celebrate the best projects across five categories: building energy efficiency and clean energy; sustainable transportation; reducing waste; climate action plans; and adaptation plans and programs.

These projects represent the most ambitious and innovative efforts by mayors of the world’s great cities to tackle climate change. Eleven U.S. cities are among the 25 finalists announced around the C40 Talks. The winners (see last year’s here) will be announced in Chicago later this year.

Cities at the C40 Talk join this year's finalists

Oslo’s climate budget project, "Climate and Energy Strategy for Oslo," aims to "reduce emissions by 95 percent by 2030 and has developed a unique climate budget which accounts for every single unit of CO2 emitted by the city." Explained Andersen, "It creates competition to deliver."

New York City, in addition to its bold Green Buildings Mandate, earned a finalist position with two programs. "Cleaner Trucks for a Healthier South Bronx" accelerates "the purchasing of low-carbon vehicles, retrofits existing trucks and replaces old vehicles to reduce local air pollutants by 75 percent per truck." Meanwhile, "Cross-Sector Strategies for Achieving Zero Waste in New York City" works "to engage citizens and makes it easier to recycle, re-use and repurpose materials with the ultimate goal of sending no waste to landfills by 2030."

Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city would become an epicenter for water research in collaboration with Israel, noting that "the drought map and the civil wars map are the same." In addition, Chicago is protecting EPA data. "If they take it down, we’ll put it up," he said. "It’s the beauty and power of technology. We will make public all of our benchmarks along the way to the Paris agreement… We’ll sign our customized plans to meet the Paris Protocols, and publish results annually. We’ll give a multi-star rating to buildings, and customers will ask for more stars."

Chicago earned its finalist position with Retrofit Chicago, a program that "partners with countless local organizations to improve energy efficiency and cut costs and greenhouse gas emissions for Chicago's residents and businesses." Summarizes Emanuel, "Climate change action complements your other goals; it is not a distraction from it."

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson described the scene: "In my province in British Columbia, we had a government that was pro-fossil fuels and froze the carbon tax. Now, we again have an urban agenda, a pro-climate agenda. We’ve had to get rid of anti-climate administrations." The new strategy includes "tens of billions of dollars to keep the ocean at bay. [And strengthening] social resilience, and the impacts at the neighborhoods, so people know how to react to crisis, and how to deal with the long, steady grind. People need to be more connected and resilient."

Vancouver earned its finalist position with its Green Buildings Program which "improved building bylaws to make green housing more practical and affordable, thereby increasing the cities sustainability and resilience."

Austin Mayor Steve Adler explained the ethos that drives his city: "One thing that didn’t change last November is Austin. We are the blueberry in the middle of the tomato soup. In addition to [COP22] there was a meeting of mayors. The mayors signed their own accord. Nothing at the federal or state level can stop a city, e.g. on its power and procurement decisions. The rest of the country could go crazy, but we’ll still be Austin."

Austin earned its finalist position with the Austin Energy Solar Program which "has expanded solar power within Austin at a massive scale, all while limiting increases in electric rates to no more than 2 percent per year."

Mother Nature gets the last word

"The recent hurricanes have left us horrified and heartbroken," said Espinosa. "Behind each of these events are real people and real suffering. The first six months [of this year were the] hottest ever, after the hottest year last year. I am not exaggerating. The consequences will have an impact everywhere, especially in coastal cities  right here in NYC."

De Blasio concurred: "We feel urgency. Ours is earned, stemming from what we experienced in Superstorm Sandy. Sandy focused the entire NYC community to think about our place in the world, in the context of nature. People are often way ahead of their political leadership. I’ve found — global warming is an article of faith, because we lived it. There’s a lot of people now in Florida and Texas that have come to that realization."

Austin’s Adler sympathized with his neighbor’s plight: "[With Harvey] the water temp in the Gulf was 7 degrees higher than it would normally be, which is what powered up the hurricane. Climate change will happen to all of us, whether we believe in it or not. When you’re in the middle of it, you find out what you didn’t plan for."

Houston is a C40 city with its hands full. As it re-emerges from the fouled water, and as the C40 Talks series continues, I hope we get a chance to hear from Houston. What will be its next move?