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Frontline: Cities Pledge to Reduce and Track Greenhouse Gas Emissions

With the formation of the Compact of Mayors, cities worldwide are preparing GHG inventories for buildings and transport and hope to link this data to development priorities.

Q3 2016
Climate experts estimate that urban regions cause at least 40 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Reductions from just three urban sectors — buildings, transportation, and municipal waste — could potentially exceed total emissions from the U.S. and the European Union.

To address this issue among cities worldwide, the Compact of Mayors was formed in September 2014. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were principal founders.

So far, 126 U.S. mayors have joined the Compact, mostly in 2015. The membership date is important because it starts a one-year clock requiring a city to prepare a GHG inventory for buildings and transport. Cities also must identify climate hazards. Data must be reported within a standardized, apples-to-apples format and updated. While voluntary, the Compact is a program with rigor.

Many cities are close to the end of their first year. Some work can be tracked via the Compact’s website. But, the website only presents completed work, not updates. After the inventory, implementation plans are due in three years.

Comparative decisions about GHG directly affect development. Phoenix, for example, has a long-range plan to develop a cityscape with dispersed neighborhood, commercial, and employment centers linked via transit and bike-paths. This redevelopment will reduce automobile dependency and, more importantly, even the demand for travel — a big shift for a city like Phoenix.

Just as important, new and different development projects could change funding programs. Consider transportation: In the future, mayors might ask to “flex” federal highway dollars to transit, based on concerns about comparative GHG levels. Currently, that flex allowance is limited. Should state and federal DOTs change policies? Answers aren’t easy, but they can become controversial.

Work Is Progressing
A check with officials in three Compact cities — Atlanta, Knoxville, and Phoenix — indicates that inventory work is progressing, but it’s more difficult than expected. Climate experts estimate that urban regions cause at least 40 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Brian Blackmon is project manager at the City of Knoxville’s Office of Sustainability, already a DOE “Climate Action Champion” city; its leadership is familiar with sustainability. Still, Blackmon comments, “You can’t necessarily describe (the Compact) work as easy. If you’ve done it before, you know what you’re getting into. If you haven’t, it can seem pretty overwhelming.” October is Knoxville’s one-year anniversary. The completed inventory will likely be ready by end of 2016.

In Phoenix, Chief Sustainability Officer Mark Hartman says his team will need at least its full year to complete the inventory, and perhaps need a contractor to finish the work. Phoenix, like Knoxville, has a history of working on climate issues, and Phoenix’s inventory builds upon prior work.

Atlanta’s inventory is due in July, and it will be ready, says Dr. Jairo H. Garcia, director of Climate Policies & Renewables for Atlanta. His advice for a novice city: Get expert help or commit to training staff.

Garcia says Atlanta’s BeltLine project exemplifies the development decisions and priorities linked to ideas implicit in the Compact. The BeltLine will redevelop a network of parks, multi-use trails, and transit along a 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown. Atlanta officials call it “the most comprehensive transportation and economic development effort ever undertaken in the City of Atlanta and among the largest in the United States.”

Look for similar development priorities when public officials begin to link infrastructure and capital projects to GHG data.
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