How Energy Efficiency Builds Communities And Benefits Climate

Drive through any city and you’ll inevitably happen upon neighborhoods that have seen better days. Older houses, run-down buildings, and antiquated infrastructure can blight any community. But where some see neglected neighborhoods, others see climate opportunities.

While less flashy than major new projects or infrastructure development programs, old construction presents a simple, affordable climate solution that benefits both residents and the environment. And the solution is simple: increasing energy efficiency.

Already underway in major cities across the country, bold new energy efficiency programs are helping residents in places like Chicago, where buildings represent the city’s largest source of pollution. Old construction lacks proper insulation and often has poor plumbing, requiring more energy to heat and cool homes, offices, and commercial spaces. That excess energy use increases both utility bills and fossil fuel consumption. Buildings are estimated to account for 40% of energy use nationwide, and over 15% of the country’s carbon emissions. With such a large energy footprint, cities represent a large target for cutting energy consumption.

Recognizing this growing problem, mayors from 20 cities throughout the United States have joined forces and are now collaborating in the City Energy Project. The group aims to help bring climate solutions to cities with a focus on energy efficiency programs—especially ones that target older construction.

Their first task is to simply identify areas ripe for improvements. To accomplish this, the City Energy Project provides onsite assistance to help mayors and sustainability directors develop and implement action plans and set obtainable goals. It also provides a space for mayors and city leaders to share experiences, successes, and failures. These can serve as models to emulate, lessons for pitfalls to avoid, or inspirations for making progress.

The City Energy Project also works to build private-public partnerships, and advises municipal leaders in enlisting private property owners to commit to efficiency standards. This is aided by providing clear information on where inefficiencies are, how they can be addressed, and what the benefits of action will be.

The climate consequences of inefficient buildings are clear – so, too, are the benefits of modernization. For residents, occupants and building owners, retrofitting old construction can lead to dramatic cuts in utility bills. Less fuel required for heating and cooling, and fewer leaky pipes mean more money in the pocket books to be spent on other, more important priorities. Those redirected dollars can help boost local economies, and recirculate resources that would’ve otherwise been spent on energy. Retrofitting buildings at scale also requires skilled workers, which can create well-paying jobs for residents who, in turn, are able to play a vital role in helping modernize their community.

There is also a very important social justice element to energy efficiency programs. Low-income communities across the country are more likely to live and work in neighborhoods without the latest in modern efficiency standards. Because of this, they are disproportionately affected by pollutants sneaking through unsealed doors and windows, water making its way through tainted pipes, and higher energy bills due to old or nonexistent insulation. These shortfalls represent low-hanging fruit that can make major impacts, and should be high-priority targets for municipal leaders. 

Cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Reno, and many others have already begun to see the fruits of increasing energy efficiency. With organizations like the City Energy Project committed to the cause, now is a better time than ever to target inefficiencies to improve the lives of residents, to revitalize communities, and to make a dent in carbon consumption. Equally important to such policies is communicating the need, benefits, and opportunities of pursuing climate action. To get the latest communication tools and training, you can sign up for ecoAmerica and Path to Positive Communities’ free webinar on February 16. Sign up here!

Stuart Wood is a writer at Path to Positive Communities and an adjunct professor of political science and environmental politics. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University. Email him at

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