Cities around the world have been taking the lead on driving policies and programs to reduce air pollution and cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. A few days before 280 mayors converged on San Francisco for this year’s U.S. Mayors Conference, city leaders and diverse cross-sector partners gathered at the City Innovate Summit to showcase their successes, learn from each other, and brainstorm about how smart cities can combat the local impacts of climate change and protect our most vulnerable communities.
Melanie Nutter, former Director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, pulled together an impressive lineup of civic innovation and urban sustainability leaders to talk about their successes, tools, and approaches used on their path to carbon neutrality.
Gil Friend, widely considered one of the founders of the sustainable business movement, is now Chief Sustainability Officer at City of Palo Alto, “the start-up city in the heart of Silicon Valley.” He emphasized the power of cities to “go first” and lead-by-example. “We’re the sparkplug for Silicon Valley regarding transportation transformation and electric vehicle readiness”, he said, and the city’s also been leading with “default to green” purchasing policies (“Buy Green. Period.”), where a justification must be written if green alternatives are not selected. Palo Alto has already achieved 100% carbon neutrality, initially using renewable energy credits in its transition toward its 2017 renewable portfolio standard, and is now working toward its zero-waste goal. But the city envisions how to do even better, using real-time conversation and feedback from its community to drive policy decisions and process revisions – e.g., the implementation of an online, one-day solar permitting process. According to Friend, “The big questions are, How do we do this? How fast? How to run a city on ambient resources? How to we adapt to the inevitability of climate change, and the new normal of water? Sustainability and climate action planning is not just about counting carbon, but supporting the regenerative capacity of ecosystems to support our lifestyle and communities.”
Graham Richard, who served as mayor of Fort Wayne and in the Indiana State Senate, now leads Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), a national association of businesses in 28 states that works toward “a prosperous future based on secure, clean, affordable energy”. He speaks about the importance of innovative technology and financing, but also that cities must take the lead in transforming state and local policies to reduce carbon, save energy and create jobs. “If we can add up the jobs in each locale – 100,000 jobs in Illinois, 500,000 jobs in California – that gets the attention of mayors, even if they don’t want to talk about climate.” He makes a strong case for supporting the Clean Power Plan as “a $20B job-creating opportunity, as states come up with implementation plans to retire coal plants”. His organization is working to “radically re-think current investor-owned utility models”, including the integration of a performance-based approach for utilities that represent such a vast amount of capital investment and regulatory manpower. Just as importantly, he underscores the power of individuals – as consumers and employees – to stand up to legislators to protect their freedom to choose, say, rooftop solar, or access to wind power and other renewable forms of energy.
Emma Stewart’s work is at the intersection of business and sustainability, as the leader of Autodesk’s sustainability solutions division and the teacher of a business school course on “Intrapreneurship for Sustainability” at UC Berkeley and Stanford. Named a “sustainability insurgent” by MIT Sloan Management Review and an “urban pioneer” by FORTUNE Magazine, it’s no surprise that she speaks of the importance of political courage (vs. political stubbornness) as we transform into smart, sustainable cities. She talked about her firm’s partnership with Washington DC, one of the most carbon-intensive cities in the nation and out of compliance with the Clean Water Act and its own municipal code. Together, they are doing “rapid triage at the urban or district scale” to: help focus city priorities and incentives, make better use of green infrastructure, and figure out how to save the National Mall from congestion, lack of parking, and regular flooding. Using rapid energy modeling and 3D prototyping tools, they are also identifying which buildings are the best candidates for energy upgrades and retrofits.
Few would dispute that a holistic approach is a key to success and viability in any community. Metta Sos Lassesen works in DC as the leader for sustainable and liveable cities initiatives for the global consultancy RamBoll (based in Denmark), and for the three years has focused on the connection of carbon neutrality to the liveability and attractiveness of a city. Both Copenhagen and Oslo are well on their way to becoming carbon neutral by 2025 and 2050, respectively, while they continue to rethink the next generation of liveable, urban lifestyle.
A big thank you to these role models for sharing their strategies as an inspiration for city and policy leaders facing similar challenges across the nation – and the world. The implication is clear that networked, cross-sector partnerships will be a key to unlocking the potential to drive transformational change, climate solutions, and civic innovation on the Path to Positive.
For anyone who is in politics, is a fan of politics or likes to watch the spectacle of politics, San Francisco is the place to be this weekend. President Obama,Hillary Rodham Clinton and 280 mayors from across the country will be in town as the city hosts the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting.
The conference, which runs Friday through Monday, will feature galas, hobnobbing and undoubtedly some soul searching as it comes after a year that saw racial tensions in a number of U.S. cities.
For San Francisco and Mayor Ed Lee, the conference couldn’t come at a better time. The Golden State Warriors — soon to be the San Francisco Warriors — are celebrating their first NBA championship in 40 years, the economy is booming, unemployment is at an all-time low and Lee enjoys all-but-assured re-election in November.
The conference kicks off Friday night with a gala at City Hall, which is also celebrating the 100th anniversary of its opening the same night.
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