Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The good news: More American cities are taking action. The bad news: There’s a lot left to be done.
Earlier this year, Washington, D.C., approved what was then the most ambitious climate bill in the nation, requiring utility providers to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2032. Boston, meanwhile, continued pushing its stringent energy-disclosure ordinance, which since 2013 has required owners of larger buildings to benchmark and report their utility data. The initiatives helped earn both cities top spots in the 2019 Clean Energy Scorecard, released by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). D.C. came fifth, while Boston held on to its number-one place from 2017, when the previous report came out.
ACEEE found that overall, the United States is stepping up efforts in advancing renewable energy and energy efficiency, with more than 200 related actions taken by 75 cities. The bad news: Most of those cities have not made significant progress toward their climate goals.
Researchers at ACEEE scored the mostly large and mid-sized cities on five policy areas—building energy, transportation, water and utilities, local government operations, and community-wide initiatives—putting emphasis on where they deliver results and how they include equity. “Equity relates to investments in low-income communities and communities of color, as well as engagement with them,” says lead author David Ribeiro, senior research manager at ACEEE. “It’s important that frontline communities have a seat at the table when climate action plans are being developed.”
All in all, 48 cities have set goals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and of those, only 11 are actually on track to meeting those goals, according to the report. And a whopping 21 cities—including Detroit, Nashville, and Indianapolis—lack sufficient data to track their progress.
Cities “took more than 265 actions between January 2017 and April 2019, and those range from modest efforts to some really cutting-edge ones,” Ribeiro says. He points to Philadelphia as an example of the former: The city recently implemented a teleworking policy for its public employees, allowing them flexibility over how they fulfill their work hours in a given week so as to cut down on the energy used for commuting and running office space.
On the other end of the spectrum is D.C., with its ambitious climate bill. Joining it and Boston in the scorecard’s top 10 are San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, and Portland.
The most innovative city energy policies are those that deal with buildings; the residential and commercial building sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of the U.S.’s carbon emissions. New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act—often referred to as the city’s own Green New Deal—was enacted in April and introduced new aggressive regulations to address the energy performance of its buildings. (It was adopted too late to be counted toward this year’s report, however.) In Denver, city officials launched a new green building ordinance in 2018 requiring new construction to install cooling roofs and consider other options like installing solar panels.
“We have also seen both New York and Chicago make energy-efficiency information more transparent by requiring results from a benchmarking program to be posted on site,” says Ribeiro. “So those are a few standout items that really show cities trying be laboratories for innovation.”
Ranking in the bottom 10 are cities including Newark, Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Tulsa. “Most of them haven’t even set goals yet,” says Ribeiro. “Most of them are at the very earliest stages, where it might be that clean energy isn’t a priority yet, or maybe they’re just getting started.”
The report also notes three cities to watch for as emerging leaders. Cincinnati adopted the Green Cincinnati Plan in May 2018, and set a series of goals, including reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and committing to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. In Providence, officials focused on equity through a racial and environmental justice committee. And Hartford has focused on energy efficiency in the transportation sector by eliminating all minimum parking requirements and updating zoning regulations—for the first time in 50 years—to promote solar and wind technology and mandate EV charging stations in some areas.
Hartford’s efforts in transportation are especially notable, considering that’s the policy area in which cities across the board struggle the most in making a significant dent. In fact, since 2017, only nine cities have set targets to increase public transit, biking, and walking over driving, according to the report. Sixteen cities have goals to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, but only nine are tracking their progress. Of those cities, just seven are actually on track to meet those goals.
“There’s room to do more, because if you’re looking at 2050 goals, in which a city has to reduce reduce emissions by 80 percent,” Ribeiro says, “no matter how much you make your building more energy efficient, you also have to make a dent in transportation.”
The report emphasizes that all cities “have considerable room for improvement, even those ranked in the top tier.” That fewer than a dozen are meeting their climate goals is concerning. Leaders across the globe are scrambling to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. The United Nations has warned that global temperatures are on track to rise by at least 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which would have devastating effects.
Partly to blame is cities’ uneven tracking of their policies’ performance. Only nine cities with transportation goals, for example, even had data for the researchers to analyze. In another policy area, the report notes that cities across the board have “substantial room to ramp up” efforts in including low-income communities in their climate plans.
Ribeiro hopes the scorecard, which will come out annually beginning next year, can be used for encouragement and as a roadmap for cities that want—or rather, need—to do more. “Cities are doing a lot,” he says. “My hope is that all the energy savings, the greenhouse-gas emission reductions that will accrue from all those activities, will add up over time and close the gap they currently have in reaching their goals.”