Municipal courage needed to revamp our energy system

Oct. 7, 2008
Energy Expert Peter Garforth says the fate of our industries — and society — depends on our priorities.

Not a day goes by without hearing a political leader somewhere in the world make impressive-sounding commitments to a green and sustainable future. Foremost in most of these declarations are energy-savings and climate-change aspirations. In one example, 884 mayors of U.S. and Canadian cities have promised, starting in December 2005, to take actions such that their cities would produce no more greenhouse gases than the level of the Kyoto Protocol (as if the United States had ratified it). This means they’re pledging a 7% reduction in greenhouse gases relative to 1990 by 2012, independent of economic growth.

In a rational world, this would call for each city to evaluate the 1990 sources of greenhouse gases in their communities and quantify them to establish a starting point. As any business owner knows, the next step would be to establish clear 2012 goals for each of the main sources of greenhouse gases to ensure the city’s aggregate performance met the 7% reduction target. How many of these 884 mayors could clearly state their city’s 1990 emissions level and summarize the reduction targets for the key sources? I suspect it would be depressingly few.

Vehicle emissions must be reduced using a combined strategy of increased vehicle efficiency, redesigning of the city neighborhoods to reduce average journey lengths, encouraging pedestrian-friendly urban design and selective investments in mass transit. The efficiency of existing and new construction must be drastically increased through upgraded building standards and systematic, large-scale retrofit programs. Industry, especially energy-intensive industry, should establish clear reduction goals benchmarked against global best practices. Any new investments coming into the city should be required to have climate-performance standards that support the ongoing city goals.

On the energy supply side, electricity generators using fossil fuel should be given clear reduction targets, including implementation of large-scale heat recovery, which would require an active dialogue with industry and community. Large developments and neighborhoods must be re-zoned and redesigned systematically to permit district heating and cooling. Clear renewable heat and electricity targets must be put in place.

Landfill use should be discouraged through a strategy that reduces waste, recycles as much as possible and recovers energy from the remaining balance, thereby avoiding long-term methane emissions, garbage transportation emissions and fossil fuel use. Agricultural and forestry land use should be realigned to reduce the major contribution modern farming makes to greenhouse gas emissions.

This kind of framework means addressing major sacred cows and engaging and confronting influential organizations and municipal businesses around the achievement of the targets. Building codes and standards must be fundamentally  revised. Utility managers of all types will have to rethink how they site their systems, how they make their technology choices and their level of involvement with the community. Every citizen must become a part of the process in some way, through encouragement, regulation, penalties or incentives. Once these elements are in place, the city’s progress against its targets, by key sectors, should be measured regularly and communicated publicly as a part of the city-management process.

Most importantly, mayors and community leaders must face down the stream of objections and barriers that this scenario would inevitably generate, and incumbents should sustain the city’s commitment irrespective of the short-term political shifts. This takes political courage and leadership, combined with a willingness to tell constituents the truth about the reality behind the fine-sounding declarations, supported by clear plans and targets. Sadly, this level of civic leadership is rare.

What has this got to do with you? If we applied this kind of leadership consistently, huge new markets would open up for energy- and climate-efficient technologies and for services and engineering. Investments in R&D would become less risky if the city’s commitment was clear and believable for decades ahead.

If municipal investment incentives for new factories were tied to medium- and long-term energy-efficiency goals, companies would have real reasons to move to lower-carbon configurations. As I’ve often mentioned in this column, this is likely to make them competitive in the future.

The opening of new markets and the attraction of inbound investment would make the cities themselves better able to compete. So, why is it so hard to find the leadership, courage and commitment in these 884 cities, backed up by clear climate and energy action plans?

Peter Garforth is principal of Garforth International LLC, Toledo, Ohio. E-mail him at [email protected].

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