Sustainable development at the city level: The Climate Protection Agreement

Caitlin Buhr, Bowling Green State University

During each round of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks, I find myself cautious in hoping my home country of the United States will contribute something new. As a consequence of the US’ consistent opposition to including legally binding actions in UNFCCC negotiation documents, climate change action in the US is perhaps better observed at the local level. Former Seattle Mayor, Greg Nickels, established the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2005. The pledge recruited cities to meet the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, despite the fact that US federal government still had not ratified it. Mayor Nickels’ initial goal was for mayors of 141 cities to sign on, representing the 141 countries that had ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The number of participating mayors has now reached over 1000. With innovative city plans, including retrofitting buildings, cleaning up neighborhoods and developing renewable energy projects, Nickels’ proactive plan for cities turned into the picture of local action.

Through this programme, Salt Lake City’s former Mayor, Rocky Anderson, implemented a system to capture the methane emissions from the city’s water treatment plant, and use them to power the plant’s operations. This project has only gained traction since 2005, and today reduces Salt Lake City’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2,700 tons per year. Mayor Anderson and the city’s public utilities department recognised not only that methane is a potent greenhouse gas that should be contained, but that it can be utilised to the citizens’ benefit.

The city of Asheville, North Carolina also responded to Nickels’ call when former Mayor, Terry Bellamy, signed on with plans to make Asheville a green leader. Under Bellamy, the city’s River District and Kenilworth neighbourhoods received hundreds of LED lights to replace regular streetlights. These LED lights are not only extremely energy efficient, but also work to decrease both glare and light pollution. Mayor Bellamy’s lighting project not only addresses greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency but also makes key areas of Asheville more livable.

A prominent chair of the US Conference of Mayors Energy Independence and Climate Protection task force, Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana emphasises city-level action: “We need to start at the local level, cleaning up pollution, planting trees, making every city a better place to live.” One of Brainard’s key policies for his city was his replacing traditional traffic light intersections with roundabouts, which decrease vehicle emissions from idling. As a Republican, Brainard feels compelled to remind policymakers that the Environmental Protection Agency was initiated under a Republican President, Richard Nixon, in 1970. Since Brainard’s constituents re-elected him four times, he has proven that city politics can exist outside the realm of the federal government’s partisan gridlock.

Mayors Anderson, Bellamy and Brainard proved themselves leaders in shrinking their cities’ carbon footprints, as well as addressing community nuisances. In response to Mayor Nickels’ push, they transformed major parts of their cities to create healthier environments for their constituents. To achieve sustainable development, sometimes local leaders – like mayors – must take charge when federal officials lag behind. This solidifies the UNFCCC’s mission even further. If international alliances cannot be secured, the United States Conference of Mayors has demonstrated that any document the UNFCCC creates can effectively guide leaders and citizens at the city level.