Global climate conferences may be the ultimate stage for nation-to-nation negotiations, but municipal leaders see City Hall as ground zero in the effort to reduce carbon emissions and creatively adapt to a changing climate.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

I am convinced that our people want clean air,” declared the mayor of Pittsburgh in his inaugural speech. “There is no other single thing which will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health, the pride, the spirit of the city.”


These words were spoken not by Bill Peduto, the city’s current mayor, but by former Mayor David L. Lawrence at his 1946 inauguration. Lawrence campaigned on a slogan of “Smoke Must Go” and championed local clean-air legislation after decades of dense industrial activity had earned Pittsburgh the nickname “the Smoky City.” Photographs from the time show a city choking on smog, with dark clouds obscuring building tops and enveloping everything else in an ashy haze.


“Seventy years ago, trees couldn’t grow on our hillside,” says Peduto, mayor since 2014. “Our streetlights would come on at noon because of the soot from the pollution. We had destroyed our environment.”


At 51, Peduto isn’t quite old enough to remember the city’s smoggy heyday. Lawrence’s 1949 anti-pollution legislation lifted the smoke clouds, and although the city’s industrial reputation lingers (its pro football team is the Steelers), over time the local economy has come to revolve around universities, nonprofits, and financial institutions more than it does smokestacks.


Still, things are not perfect. The Pittsburgh metro area continues to rank near the top of “worst air” lists published by groups like the American Lung Association. But the situation is vastly improved since decades past, and the city continues to make strides. Peduto, who joined the Sierra Club in his mid-20s, championed a new clean-air ordinance as a member of the City Council, and as mayor he has taken steps to reduce energy consumption in the city and encourage green building practices. The streetlights do not turn on at noon any more, and when they do light up, many are powered by money-saving, energy-efficient LED bulbs.

Opening: The Eiffel Tower displays messages as part of the 21st Session Conference on climate change in Paris. Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images
Above: Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto believes his city is the perfect example of a city moving from a post-industrial metropolis toward a 21st century clean energy solution. Photo: Ryan Smith

“We’re no longer a model of a postindustrial city, but a model of a 21st-century city,” Peduto says.


There is a lesson for other cities in Pittsburgh’s transformation, Peduto thinks. Pittsburgh saved itself, in a sense—not waiting for federal legislation like the Clean Air Act (which came more than a decade after the city’s own legislation) to clear the skies—and Peduto believes that cities are central to solving today’s environmental challenges.


He brought this message to the world this fall at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (commonly referred to as COP 21), as part of a delegation of local officials. Several dozen mayors from the U.S. attended the conference, joining several hundred from across the world, in a show of solidarity and support for aggressive emissions reduction goals. Peduto traveled as part of the Local Climate Leaders Circle, a group of municipal officials organized and sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, the National League of Cities, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), and the World Wildlife Fund.

Former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, and Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, pose with leaders from different cities at the Paris city hall during the COP21 Paris Climate Conference. Photo: Thierry Chesnot

In addition to Peduto, the 11-member delegation included mayors from Atlanta, Georgia; Boulder, Colorado; Chula Vista, California; Des Moines, Iowa; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Oakland, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; and West Palm Beach, Florida. Joining them were council members from Santa Monica, California, and King County, Washington. Each of the communities is a signatory to the Compact of Mayors, an agreement by cities to conduct greenhouse gas emission inventories, develop climate action plans, and report on their progress.


While the city leaders played no formal role in conference negotiations around emissions targets (that was left up to the representatives of national governments), their presence in Paris was not merely symbolic. In addition to pushing their national governments to adopt ambitious goals, city leaders flocked to France to share their ideas and success stories with one another, and to lay claim to a seat at the table in the climate conversation.


“There’s an understanding that the world’s complex problems no longer have to be solved by nations,” Peduto says. “They’re better solved by a coalition of local governments. With an issue like climate change, the biggest impact is happening in cities around the world.”


While even the world’s largest cities lack the standing and resources of national governments, cities are more nimble, able to effect policy changes quickly, and experiment with new strategies and ideas. While cities contribute disproportionately to the problem of climate change—accounting for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations—they also can have an outsized impact on solutions. If every city in the world took steps to reduce energy use and invest in renewables, there would be very little left for national governments to do.


Peduto sees the manageable size of Pittsburgh as a strength, and thinks the city’s past sets it up as an example of what is possible, even in the dirtiest of metropolises. “Pittsburgh is small enough that we can implement things, but big enough that the entire world will take notice,” he says. “I was [in Paris] to say to the world, ‘Look, if we can do it, certainly the rest of the world could do it.’”


“In Paris, there were really two approaches,” Peduto says. “The first was the ability to be there to show our support for an agreement coming out of COP 21. The second was to be able to work with other mayors around the world to basically say, even without an agreement, we’re still going to [fight climate change], and we’re going to be able to implement the changes that the countries are calling for.”

“The Leaders Circle cities were instrumental in shoring up the United States position in Paris,” says Elizabeth Beardsley, senior policy counsel for USGBC. “In the run-up to COP 21, these leaders helped inspire other cities to commit to greenhouse gas reductions, and by the start of the conference, 119 U.S. cities had made commitments.” She notes, that collectively, the city commitments to reduce greenhouse gases were a significant supplement to federal actions. “At the COP, city leaders demonstrated that we can be successful in tackling the cause of climate change—with example after example, from cities building highly efficient and even net-zero buildings, to retrofitting their streetlights, to adopting policies to support private sector efforts to transition towards efficiency and clean energy.”


Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities, helped organize the delegation of local leaders. He echoes the notion that the city officials were in Paris not only to push for a solid emissions reduction agreement, but also to announce their status as change makers in their own right.

Retired mayor George Heartwell led Grand Rapids to become the nation’s most sustainable mid-sized city. Photo: Ara Howrani

“We felt it was necessary to get cities sort-of on the record in support of the agreement,” Martin says, “and show the rest of the world that it’s not just the president versus Congress, but that there are already lots of other entities that can work toward these goals and are already achieving them.”


“We wanted to highlight the fact that some of the largest, most economically successful cities across the country and across the world are actually the ones that are taking the most aggressive [environmental] action,” Martin adds. “We wanted to push back on the notion that we have to choose between our economic success and averting climate change.”


George Heartwell, who made the trip to Paris as mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan, but retired from the position at the end of 2015, previously attended the United Nations’ 2013 climate change conference in Warsaw, Poland. He walked away from that event disappointed that the agreement stemming from the conference didn’t include language about the role of cities. “I wanted to be back in Paris because this was going to be the one where we finally got standing,” he says. “When you come [several hundred] strong, and you’ve got access to your diplomats—far better access than we had in Warsaw—you feel at least that your voice is being heard. It was important for us to say that cities play a key role in this, and if we’re going to achieve these goals, it’s going to be because cities have moved the needle on energy efficiency, public transportation, and building design.”


Throughout the conference, U.S. Department of Energy officials regularly briefed the city leaders on the negotiations, giving them a window into how the talks were proceeding. The mayors also participated in workshops, meetings, and information sessions throughout the conference, including sessions where several U.S. mayors talked about what they were doing to make their cities more resilient in the face of climate change.


“It was an opportunity to meet with leaders who are instituting these programs in their cities, and compare what one city was doing differently from another,” says Mary Casillas Salas, mayor of Chula Vista, California.


A highlight of the trip came during the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, when more than 400 city leaders from around the world descended on Paris City Hall. The event, cohosted by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was billed as the largest-ever global meeting of local leaders to discuss climate change, and featured an all-star lineup of speakers including Al Gore, Elon Musk, Robert Redford, and Leonardo DiCaprio.


“There was an overall sense of optimism, separate from the treaty,” says Peduto. “It was a powerful feeling, sitting in a City Hall with hundreds of mayors from every continent on earth. Not only do we have a common interest in tackling this issue, but also the commitment to do it.”


Ultimately, the conference resulted in the Paris Agreement, a landmark treaty lauded by French Foreign Minister (and head of the conference) Laurent Fabius as “ambitious and balanced” and a “historic turning point.” The accord is the first to require action on climate change from even developing countries, and represents an agreement by nearly 200 countries to voluntarily commit to greenhouse gas reduction targets. The agreement also requires countries to reconvene every five years, beginning in 2020, to update their plans with more ambitious emission cuts.


Additionally, the agreement includes language directly addressing the role of cities, encouraging municipalities and other “nonparty stakeholders” to address and respond to climate change by scaling up efforts to reduce emissions and build resilience.


“It was a recognition that cities and urban centers will play a key role in achieving the goals of the agreement,” says Heartwell. “You’ve got half the people in the world living in cities, and that percentage is growing every year. The greatest impacts that can be made are going to be made in cities.”


“Cities are where it’s happening,” says Jeri Muoio, mayor of West Palm Beach, Florida. “We are taking [climate change] on, when at the national level they’re too busy fighting with each other. Being mayor is one of the coolest jobs you can have in politics, because you can actually get things done.”


“Cities are where it’s at,” echoes Chula Vista’s Salas. “You can implement things a lot easier on a micro level than you can on a macro level.”


This is not just bluster. The Paris Agreement does not go into full effect until 2020, and while individual nations are ratifying the accord through their own governmental processes, many of the carbon-curbing initiatives that help the countries meet their goals will come at the subnational level. It’s a responsibility that city leaders are taking seriously.


“For me the big takeaway [from the conference] was not new information as much as it was inspiration,” says Heartwell. “It’s the sense that Grand Rapids is not alone out there, and there are cities around the world that are ready to do what it takes to achieve the goals of the Paris accord.”


Kevin Taylor, senior specialist for local engagement at the World Wildlife Fund and an organizer of the local leaders group, argues that cities are uniquely positioned to enact change on a number of levels—not only through direct action, but also by helping to create a market for sustainable materials, and by exerting influence on state and national governments.


“Cities are a major customer for things like electricity, things like paper products, furniture,” says Taylor. “When they set a new [sustainable] direction for what they’re going to choose to value—one type of system or provider over another—that’s certainly at a scale that makes a dent. They have influence in both directions: down to the individual level, as well as up to the national governments.”


In West Palm Beach, city officials have committed to turning the city’s fleet of vehicles over to non-fossil-fuel models by 2025, have installed LED lights throughout the city, and have made electric car charging stations available for public use. The city has also set targets around reduced emissions for city facilities and operations (including an overall 37 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 from a 2008 base), and is providing free trees to residents and businesses.

Foreign Affairs Minister and President-designate of COP21 Laurent Fabius (C) celebrate the adoption of a historic global warming pact at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris.

Photo: Jonathan Raa/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

As a coastal city, West Palm Beach will likely be disproportionately affected by climate change (although Muoio notes that, with an elevation of around 13 feet above sea level, the city is actually better positioned than some other neighboring communities). Still, climate change is a global problem, and West Palm Beach—or any other city—cannot prevent increasing temperatures or rising sea levels alone, even if it stops emitting carbon completely.


This means that most cities taking environmentally friendly actions are doing so for a mix of the same reasons that businesses, schools, nonprofits, and individuals are—namely, officials are worried about the long-term health of the planet, and the changes often have operational benefits as well. “It’s becoming more obvious that we have to look at our carbon emissions,” Muoio says. “I think young people are pushing us in this direction. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to be living in this world.’” At the same time, the city is saving money through initiatives such as the LED lighting, and various water management improvements have left the city better positioned to handle crises. “When I became mayor in 2011, we were going through a really bad drought,” Muoio says. “Now, it wouldn’t even be a blip on our radar.”


In Pittsburgh, officials have committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 2003 levels by 2023. The city also gives density bonuses to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) development and requires LEED Silver certification or higher for any publicly financed development over $2 million or 10,000 square feet.


In August of 2014, Chula Vista began a program to help property owners finance projects centered around energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation, and had completed or begun 57 projects by the end of that year. Also, over 30 percent of the city’s vehicle fleet has been transitioned to operate on electricity, propane, compressed natural gas, or biodiesel.


Grand Rapids received the title of “Nation’s Most Sustainable City” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2010. The city has set a goal of sourcing 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, and this spring will start construction on a 38-acre solar field.


And the list goes on. Not long ago, one might have had to search around for examples of cities taking the lead on sustainability issues. Now, they abound. Heartwell says he was labeled a “tree hugger mayor” when he first came to the post in 2004, but that, over time, attitudes shifted and sustainability became embedded in the culture of Grand Rapids. It is a shift that Heartwell sees happening nationally, too.


“If you attend the National League of City conferences, or the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a dozen years ago, you rarely heard anything about climate change or energy efficiency,” Heartwell says. “Today, it dominates the agenda of most of our meetings. I think it’s a growing movement.”