Getting Down to Business to Achieve City Climate Goals


A federal government hostile to climate action has sparked renewed enthusiasm by cities across the country to take matters into their own hands. As our intern Dugan Becker noted in a blog post this month, 125 cities (along with 10 states, 183 colleges and universities, and more than 900 businesses) have committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

These city commitments to clean energy are critical – but as the former director of D.C.’s energy division recently noted, not all cities are backing up their commitments with real action (and hard data).

The truth is, getting off fossil fuels will take some hard work. The good news is that as cities across the country begin implementing climate plans, knowing what to do – and how to do it – is getting easier. Last week, our colleagues here in Boston at Environment Massachusetts released a new report offering some more help, called 100% Renewable Boston: How Boston Can Accelerate the Transition from Fossil Fuels to Clean, Renewable Energy.

The report lays out concrete steps toward a renewable energy future for Boston. Although some of the recommendations are Boston-specific, the basic path is one that many cities and towns across the country can follow. Importantly, the report also highlights case studies of cities that have already started to implement a version of each recommendation.

Solar panels in New York City. Image: U.S. Department of Energy

Most of the recommendations can be broken down into just three basic goals that every city can aim for:

  • Reduce energy use. America wastes more than half of the energy we produce, and more than a third of the energy used in residential and commercial buildings. Measures cities can take include encouraging building owners to install efficiency improvements and requiring new buildings to meet strict efficiency requirements.
  • Increase reliance on renewable energy. From solar panels, to wind turbines, to geothermal heating systems, cities can play a leading role in deploying renewable energy. Measures cities can take include installing solar power on municipal buildings, requiring solar panels on new construction, and providing funding for low-income residents to install renewable energy systems.
  • Reduce transportation emissions. Transportation is the leading source of CO2 emissions in the U.S. (pdf) Measures cities can take include converting municipal fleets to electric vehicles, building public charging stations, and investing in infrastructure for public transit, walking and biking.

Different strategies are right for different cities. A city with old housing stock, for example, might benefit the most from a residential efficiency program, while a city with a commercial building boom might get the most out of a solar panel requirement for new buildings. And a city with a limited budget and a busy downtown could start reducing transportation emissions on the cheap, by laying down bike lanes with just a few buckets of paint (for more on how cheap and effective this can be, I recommend the book Streetfight by the former NYC transportation commissioner). While different cities will come up with strategies of various type and scope, the important thing for city officials to realize is that setting climate goals isn’t enough – goals must be followed up with good policy and concrete actions.

Cities have already started to recognize their importance in the fight against global warming. Many have begun to lay the groundwork for change. Now, to make good on their commitments, cities need to turn to the work of planning and implementation – and shouldn’t forget to find ideas and inspiration from the cities around the country that are already making big progress.