5 Ways for Cities to Implement Sustainable Waste Management |
Article by Jane Marsh |
Global and national policies for more sustainable waste management are years away, so cities must take on the responsibility of enacting change. Countless places worldwide are using advances in technology to help combat the waste crisis.
Cities are setting their own guidelines for change and focusing on working toward a zero-waste system. Managing garbage and keeping it from landfills is the primary concern. San Francisco, a zero-waste leader in the United States, has worked hard to keep 80% of its trash out of landfills.
As cities worldwide test new waste management ideas, they learn what does and does not work. Sharing these advances can help move global initiatives further forward. Here are just a handful of ways various places are answering the waste crisis.
Generate Energy From Waste
One way of diverting trash from landfills is to burn it. Power plants that would typically rely on fossil fuels can instead use garbage to generate electricity and heat. Though a seemingly simple solution, critics argue that the disposal method is not worth the cost — high quantities of greenhouse gas emissions.
A plant in Denmark may have found a solution. Copenhagen is home to a waste-to-energy power plant called Copenhill that features a large green slope used for skiing in winter and hiking in warmer months. Copenhillburns 450,000 tons of trash into energy each year, providing over 30,000 homes with electricity and 72,000 with heat.
Copenhill is different from other waste-to-energy power plants because it’s working on ways to capture carbon gas emissions and store or recycle them. Copenhill heats about 99% of the buildings in Copenhagen. It is also working to reduce its use of fossil fuels, which are scarce resources. The success in Denmark prompts other cities to consider implementing this system as well.
Enact Pay-as-You-Throw Programs
Pay-as-you-throw programs are growing in popularity. Communities without these initiatives in place fund waste removal with property tax money. There is no incentive for households to reduce the amount of garbage they produce. Pay-as-you-throw programs charge residents by the bag. People must either purchase special colored trash bags or tags to attach for $1-$2. Setting fees for waste removal is no different than charging for other utilities. It helps make consumers aware of their consumption and can make a significant impact.
New Hampshire is already seeing benefits from its pay-as-you-throw program. It compared data from 34 towns with this program in place to those that did not and found it decreased waste by 42%-54%. This simple plan makes individuals more accountable for their trash and helps reduce the burden on landfills.
Find Ways to Recycle Hazardous Waste
Hazardous waste is difficult to dispose of and adds harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Part of the problem is that many consumers do not know what constitutes a dangerous material and can be throwing potentially harmful items into their regular trash. These products can leach toxic metals and chemicals into the atmosphere and soil, affecting air, food, and water quality. In order to protect the environment, hazardous waste must be managed sustainably.
Cities need to educate residents about the dangers of throwing these everyday items in their garbage. Common hazardous items include printer cartridges, lightbulbs, car fluids, batteries, and nail polish. The best way to recycle these products is to take them to a location designed to treat them properly. For instance, some hardware stores take batteries for recycling. Putting better and more consistent systems in place for households to recycle their hazardous items could make a huge difference.
Additionally, the same sort of care in managing waste from households applies to healthcare. Medical waste needs to be managed sustainably, including the use of color-coded bins and recyclable products, when possible. Managing waste from healthcare also can protect the environment from toxins generated by hazardous medical waste.
Install AI-Powered Dumpsters
One problem with typical waste management is that dump trucks collect dumpsters on a set schedule, often a few times a week, regardless of whether they are full and ready to be emptied or not. The different types of items thrown into these dumpsters also pose an issue. Hazardous materials, food waste, and recycling often end up in these receptacles when there are better, safer ways to dispose of them.
Miami has been testing a new system for waste management at the level of the dumpster. It has installed AI-powered dumpsters throughout the city that monitor when they are full and what types of garbage are inside. This new method means trucks only collect trash when the receptacle is full, saving carbon emissions from driving when unnecessary. Miami has also used this technology to educate residents of buildings that continually put trash in the dumpster that should be recycled, composted, or disposed of properly.
Improve Waste Sorting Systems
Finding improved methods for sorting garbage from materials that can be reused and recycled would go a long way toward reducing the burden on landfills. Removing recyclables, disposing of hazardous waste properly, and saving food for composting are all helpful. Still, cities struggle with implementing a system that covers all the different types of trash.
Songdo, South Korea, has made great strides in becoming zero waste. It accomplishes this through a system of pipes that lead from homes to the necessary trash processing areas. Different lines are for various types of garbage.
Closer to home, San Franciso has improved its trash collection system by having three garbage bins curbside instead of one. There is a container each for refuse, recyclables, and compost.
We Must Do Our Part
Cities can only do so much on their own. Many of these programs come to a standstill without public buy-in. It takes individuals who are willing to implement new systems for separating their trash to make a change. Try composting on your own or use a service provided by your city. Check to make sure you aren’t throwing out hazardous materials and do your due diligence to dispose of them properly. Small steps like this enable citywide improvements that can then expand to national and global levels. It all starts with you.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of
Cities are the heart of every global region. They house generations of families, are often headquarters for the world’s biggest companies, and provide universities that produce the most innovative minds. It’s no wonder why so many people throughout the world want to live in a city.
However, an increase in residents also creates additional air pollution that harms everyone’s health. These are some of the technologies improving air quality in cities to make them better places to live and work.
Many people sell their cars when they move to a populated downtown area, but everyone will still require some kind of vehicle for transportation.
Whether you take a conventionally-fueled (fossil fuel-based) bus or drive yourself around the city in a vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE), the transportation method will burn gas and create carbon dioxide (CO2) that intensifies global warming. ICE vehicles also create many forms of pollution that adversely affect public health and the environment.
The number of EV models will double in 2022 and continue rising in 2023. More people will have access to vehicles with electric motors that eliminate tailpipe emissions and therefore tailpipe pollution, and which prevent CO2 from entering the planet’s atmosphere.
2. Vehicles Designed for Hydrogen Fuel
In addition to electric cars, engineers, scientists, and vehicle manufacturers are also developing vehicle motors powered by hydrogen gas. Hydrogen doesn’t create carbon dioxide or harmful emissions when burned, so it would be a 100% clean energy alternative. The U.S. Department of Energy is leading research to make FCEVs safe, affordable, environmentally-friendly vehicle options. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) produce no tailpipe emissions (other than water vapor), and FCEVs are more efficient than conventional ICE vehicles.
3. Rentable Electric Bikes
Bicycles are another alternative sustainable technology for transportation purposes. Many cities pave their roads with bike lanes included, and some cities even rent out e-bikes and other electric micro-mobility devices (e-scooters, e-skateboards, etc…) to increase sustainable transit options.
Publicly available or rentable bikes will get people across the few blocks they need to travel without burning fossil fuels. It’s a pollution-free form of transportation that immediately makes the surrounding air safer to breathe.
4. Personalized HVAC Systems
Urban airborne pollution also involves everyone’s homes. Every ounce of air in your home can contain up to 40,000 dust mites or more if the house isn’t clean.
It’s so important to tailor your HVAC unit to your household because some families breathe more air pollutants than others. Getting professional advice will point you toward the most suitable air filters and a cleaning schedule that will make your system last longer.
5. Construction Site Filtration Machines
Research shows that 23% of urban air pollution originates from ongoing construction projects. This is an especially pressing concern in cities because there’s always ongoing construction.
Massive filtration machines at technologically advanced sites pull air through filters during the workday and push out clean air for workers to breathe. They removes dust and other contaminants that people might breathe while working on the site or walking past.
6. Air Quality Sensors
Sometimes city air is safer to breathe than others, so people can check websites or apps to see the current pollution level where they live. Numerous cities installed air sensors to provide accurate instant readings.
Chicago installed their sensors on lampposts in 2014 to track four common pollutants like carbon dioxide and particulate matter. The chips will upgrade to add volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when the technology is available. The ability to upgrade without reinstalling new technologies is one of the many benefits of using emerging tech to improve air quality in cities.
7. Wet Deposition Sprinklers
When it rains or snows over a big city, the water particles capture air pollutants and chemicals before bringing them down to earth. Longer periods of rain in one place capture more pollution, but rain systems have varying lengths and move through regions quickly.
Wet deposition sprinklers recreate this helpful process by operating as long as people need. They’re especially helpful in areas with high amounts of airborne pollution.
8. Biomass Household Stoves
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 2.6 billion people cook with kerosene, which puts them at risk of inhaling fatal gases. It’s most common in developing countries, but biomass fuel is an easily accessible alternative. It contains naturally degradable compounds like wood, farming waste, and animal dung. People can access all three components where they live and make the fuel at home.
There is a concern for anyone using biomass stoves long-term. Although the fuel doesn’t create carbon monoxide, it can release carbon dioxide fumes that are poisonous in spaces that lack ventilation. Air cleaning technologies will continue to develop and meet people where they live in these regions.
9. Pollution-Vacuuming Pods
Cities with massive highway infrastructure put more focus on airborne pollutants created by vehicles. Many have set up pollution-vacuuming pods that sit under each road in response to that. Pipework connects the pod to the upper street and sucks in air to remove ozone, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide.
It’s another new technology that makes city air safer to breathe, especially for pedestrians walking along high-traffic streets.
10. Self-Cleaning Structural Concrete
Concrete buildings are fire-proof and withstand extreme weather, so they’re an optimal urban construction solution. They’re an even better choice when construction teams use self-cleaning concrete to cover the outer walls and roof. It uses photocatalysis to break down pollutants with sunlight redirected off the concrete.
Because this technology can also create urban necessities like parking decks and sidewalks, it’s a widespread pollution solution.
Urban leadership and residents should adopt technologies that improve air quality in cities, such as sustainable transit alternatives and household upgrades. Sustainable technologies make a significant difference in reducing airborne pollutants that harm city residents and the planet.
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of
Additional “technologies” that vastly improve urban air quality are the ancient “technologies” of planting trees and maintaining green spaces – as described in the Green Urban Planning article on GCT. Here’s an excerpt from the Green City Times’ Urban Planning article:
A sustainable town: Vauban, Germany | leading the world in plus-energy green buildings |
Vauban – A Plus-Energy Community |
Vauban is an exemplary sustainable town, the greenest town in Europe. A “zero-emission” district in Freiburg, Germany, most energy for buildings in Vauban is sourced from rooftop solar panels.
Energy for Vauban is also supplied by a local municipal bio-natural gas cogeneration plant. Vauban’s electricity is supplied by renewable energy sources, and district heating for Vauban is supplied by their cogeneration plant.
Buildings in Vauban are either passive energy buildings (ultra energy efficient buildings that consume roughly as much energy as they produce), or plus-energy buildings (producing even more energy than they consume). Homes in the Sun Ship (Das Sonnenschiff) are entirely plus-energy buildings. Residents in plus-energy homes in Vauban simply sell excess energy generated by their home or building back to the municipality (for use in other homes in the community), resulting in lower electricity bills.
Vauban’s Urban Planning
Urban planning helped to create a city layout that lends itself to cycling as the primary mode of transit. Vauban’s urban plan is connected streets throughout the town (forming a fused grid), plenty of pedestrian and bike paths, as well as designated lanes for mass transit (filtered permeability).
Vauban’s streets have minimal parking spaces, with roads designed instead for pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit. Most Vauban residents don’t own a car, choosing instead to use the tram, cycle, or simply walk. Vauban is notcompletely emissions-free, as cars are actually allowed (if you pay at least $23,000 USD for a parking spot on the outskirts of town).
Theurban planningstrategies of filtered permeability and fused grid were implemented in the design of the municipality of Vauban. Residents primarily live in co-op buildings, such as the Sun Ship.
The radical culture of Vauban has roots in its dramatic history. Ironically, Vauban was a military town through WWII and into the early ’90s. When the military left, the vacant buildings were inhabited by squatters. These people eventually organized Forum Vauban, organizing a revolutionary eco-community. Today, Vauban is modern, beautiful, and represents the very cutting edge of sustainable living.
And, here are the rankings for Green City Times top 10 greenest cities in the world>>>
Climate change is adversely affecting all parts of the earth. There have been dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) globally since the industrial revolution of the 19th century. The planet warms faster as more GHGs are added to the earth’s atmosphere.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, expressing the global scientific consensus on the matter, warns that “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air…The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future.”
With GHGs (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, other gases – see epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases) continually added to the earth’s atmosphere, the planet continues to warm at an increasing rate. Unfortunately, much larger changes to the earth’s climate are projected despite the current pace of global climate change mitigation.
Thus, an increase in the pace of climate change mitigation (such as increased global investment in, and implementation of, clean and sustainable energy technologies) is imperative to slow the pace of climate change. In this article, the focus is on just a few (of many) categories of climate change, all of which represent significant adverse impacts to people and ecosystems.
Adverse climate feedback loops will lead to ‘tipping points‘ that might cause ‘runaway climate change‘. The way to avoid this scenario is for governments, industries, and the private sector throughout the world to increase investments exponentially in climate mitigation technologies.
Adverse Climate Feedback Loops
As the planet’s temperature rises, ocean temperature also rises in some regions globally, while simultaneously droughts and wildfires increase in other regions, and adverse climate feedback loops occur globally. For example, as the earth’s temperature and ocean temperature rise, there is also an increase in the size and frequency of intense storms and flooding. The increase in extreme storms leads again to an increase in the very factors that lead to more extreme wet weather in the first place (evidence of an increase in adverse climate feedback loops).
At the same time that extreme storms pummel some regions, global warming leads to extreme drought in other parts of the planet, and severe wildfires result. The larger wildfires and drought dry out land and make way for more adverseclimate feedback loops (higher average temperatures, more extreme drought, more extreme wildfires, etc…). An increase in severe drought globally also has knock-on effects, such as devastation to agricultural food crops throughout entire regions of the planet.
From the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization: “The percentage of the planet affected by drought has more than doubled in the last 40 years and in the same timespan droughts have affected more people worldwide than any other natural hazard. Climate change is indeed exacerbating drought in many parts of the world, increasing its frequency, severity and duration. Severe drought episodes have a dire impact on the socio-economic sector and the environment and can lead to massive famines and migration, natural resource degradation, and weak economic performance.” FROM – fao.org/land-water/droughtandag
Global warming presently is primarily due to human-caused GHGs from the combustion of fossil fuels. Essentially, rises in GHGs will continue to increase average global temperatures at a continuously higher rate.
The impacts and pace of global warming simultaneously accelerate adverse feedback loops, which have the effect of increasing the pace of global temperature rise.
Thus, the hope to reduce the consequences of climate change is tied to the successful global effort to reduce GHGs.
Consequences of global warming and related adverse climate feedback loops include increases in extreme weather events of all kinds, such as:
increased severity of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones
disruption of global weather patterns, such as jet stream disturbances that send colder weather further south (i.e. ‘polar vortex‘)
chaotic increases in rainfall and flooding in parts of the world, while simultaneously other parts of the world experience –
drought, heatwaves, wildfires, and devastation to agriculture
increases in toxic algal blooms; especially in freshwater ecosystems such as lakes, but also in coastal marine habitats
extinction of wildlife species and ecosystems; degradation of wildlife habitats and biodiversity globally
Sea level rise is already threatening some regions of the planet, especially during extreme high tide and flooding events, and especially for low-lying communities on coasts and islands. Melting ice of all sizes, and warming oceans, adversely affects the lives of marine wildlife species and ecosystems. Read more about the adverse effects on marine wildlife from global warming below.
Ocean acidification has led to mass die-offs of coral reefs, home to a diverse set of marine species. Compounding adverse marine changes have affected coastal ecosystems, island-nations, and communities, causing them to face increasing exposure to storms, floods, as well as the aforementioned marine ecosystem issues. All of these factors have led once-thriving marine ecosystems and coastal communities to be in a state of distress, struggling for survival.
Increase in Wildfires
Wildfires are forecast to continue to increase in frequency, duration, and range. Increasing global temperatures will continue to increase the number and level of wildfires worldwide. The increasing number of wildfires will, in turn, cause a continued increase in global temperatures. This is a diabolical adverse feedback loop of increased atmospheric GHGs and adverse effects of global warming; a continuous cycle of global environmental devastation.
Despite the seemingly unusual high frequency of the raging wildfires that took place recently, it is alarming that there are many more large wildfires predicted over the coming couple of years. In California and Australia, as well as throughout the entire planet; warmer temperatures, drier land conditions, and extreme dry gusty wind are expected to expand the length and increase the intensity of wildfires.
Thawing permafrost will release large amounts of potent GHGs, such as methane, increasing global warming. Thawing ground (for example, in Siberia) is also likely to disrupt municipal building sectors and other infrastructure on a regional basis; for regions where human activity and permafrost are both present. The recent Arctic fires are an example of an adverse climate feedback loop; the fires set loose significantly high amounts of the potent GHG methane that had been locked in permafrost; increasing global warming and the potential for more severe Arctic fires.
Sustainable cities, like San Diego, have eco-city designs that prioritize consideration of social, economic, and environmental impacts of climate mitigation policies and sustainability policies. Green cities also prioritize resilient, thriving urban habitats for existing residents.
San Diego bills itself as “America’s Finest City”, and a sustainability powerhouse. Factors leading to San Diego becoming a city that runs entirely on renewable energy include the higher-than-average amount of sunshine in the area, along with the consensus among city leaders to pursue sustainability as a top priority. Additionally, California’s push for 100% renewable energy (100RE) throughout the state has allowed San Diego to attempt to reach 100RE fairly quickly. To this end, San Diego has pushed ahead with its San Diego Climate Action Plan.
Sunny San Diego
San Diego is famous for its year-round mild climate, its bays and harbors, and popular beaches.
The city is also known for its US military ports and bases (especially for the Navy in downtown SD & the Marines in Camp Pendleton, North San Diego County – but also for bases of other military branches).
In recent decades,San Diego has become increasingly internationally recognized for its emergence as a global center for clean energy, healthcare, biotechnology, and technological research & development.
The San Diego Convention Center, and hotels in Coronado, host many national and international conferences including; many medical conferences, Politifest, the Global Investment Forum, and the Food Waste Solution Summit.
There are also many smart tech. and sustainability conferences put on by CleanTech San Diego. CleanTech San Diego is a non-profit trade organization and think-tank that promotes San Diego as a global leader in clean and sustainable technologies.
“Cleantech San Diego is uniquely suited to support industry by fostering collaborations across the private-public-academic landscape, leading advocacy efforts to promote cleantech priorities, and encouraging investment in the San Diego region.” – CleanTech San Diego.
San Diego’s Sustainability Initiatives
The City of San Diego is a leader of sustainability in the United States. An organization that represents the city’s substantial contribution to sustainability was launched by Cleantech San Diego in 2011 – Smart Cities San Diego. Smart Cities San Diego is a public-private organization that advances sustainable, energy efficient technological development throughout San Diego county, renewable energy technologies, and water efficiency.
Smart Cities San Diego also has initiatives to support greenhouse gas reduction and lowering the carbon footprint of San Diego.
The push for 100RE is a major part of the San Diego Climate Action Plan (CAP); adopted citywide in December 2015. San Diego’s CAP is billed as a continuing push to make San Diego, “America’s Finest City”, now also its most sustainable city. San Diego plans to eliminate half of all greenhouse gas emissions (reach 50% GHG reduction by 2035 compared to 2010 levels) from the city and run entirely on renewable energy by 2035.
In addition to San Diego’s CAP, the city has ambitious zero-waste goals:
The San Diego City Council recently adopted a zero waste plan that sets goals of 75 percent waste diversion by 2020; 90 percent by 2035, a goal consistent with the proposed Climate Action Plan; and “zero waste” by 2040. FROM – sandiegouniontribune.com/san-diego-aggressive-recycling
SDG&E and 100RE
The utility that is the lone energy provider to San Diego, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), is one of only several utilities nationwide to offer a 100RE option. San Diego’s sole utility (a de-facto monopoly), SD&E, offers an option for 50% or 100% solar energy as part of their “EcoChoice” plan. The EcoChoice plan offered straight from SDG&E, not a company providing the renewable energy service as an option for residents and businesses to the utility, an “aggregator” energy service.
Community Choice in San Diego
An alternative energy service to the utility is an aggregator energy company; for example the San Diego and statewide “Community Choice” program. Community Choice operates throughout California, including San Diego, and also offers 50% and 100% options to supply residents/ businesses with power from renewable energy, but SDG&E still provides the actual energy maintenance service.
Community Choice is similar to SDG&E’s “EcoChoice”, but the customer pays the private energy aggregator to generate renewable energy, while SDG&E still maintains the actual energy service. Under Community Choice, for example, SDG&E still maintains the grid infrastructure, but instead of paying SDG&E for solar from exclusively large utility-scale solar farms, the customers pay Community Solar and support solar from a variety of local and state-wide renewable energy projects. By paying SDG&E directly through EcoChoice, residents and businesses are paying the utility directly to generate renewable energy. Both services help support renewable energy.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the San Diego Climate Action Plan:
“The plan identifies steps the City of San Diego can take to achieve the 2035 [climate] targets. That list includes creating a renewable energy program, implementing a zero-waste plan, and changing policy to have a majority of the City’s [public transit] fleet be electric vehicles…the city has committed to slashing its greenhouse gases 15% below 2010 levels by 2020 and 50% below that benchmark by 2035. The goals are intended to mirror the state targets of reducing emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.”
“…in 2016 the city had already cut its emissions by 19%, a 2% improvement from the previous year. The report largely attributed that progress to the state’s strict vehicle-emissions standards and renewable energy requirements (for the city’s utility, SDG&E)…” – San Diego CAP 2016 PDF
Sustainability initiatives in San Diego (including a couple of potential initiatives)
Public transportation options in San Diego include the MTS bus system, commuter rail (The Coaster), and light rail (The San Diego Trolley). Public transit in San Diego accounts for only 3.5% of county residents for all transportation in, and to & from, the city, for people living within 90 minutes of the city. The majority of people drive alone to work in the city, with a modest amount (<10%) choosing to carpool. Far fewer people walk or bike to work in San Diego city, generally people that already live in the area. There is potential for further development of public mass transit and alternative transit like biking, walking, and electric micro-mobility.
By focusing on developing, and increasing the use of, public transportation and sustainable alternative transit in San Diego, the city can most effectively reduce its carbon footprint. This is especially true of light rail in the city, which runs entirely on electricity.
California mandates that every city in the state is to run on 100% clean energy by 2045. This is part of an effort by a group of bipartisan lawmakers within the state to have California make good on the state’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2045. The opposition and legal challenges to this effort are from fossil fuel companies, lawmakers who side with the fossil fuel companies, and California counties and cities that want to continue to keep natural gas in the energy mix for their municipalities beyond 2045. San Diego is already committed to 100% renewable energy, and seeks more than California’s GHG reduction goal – aiming for net zero GHGs by 2035.
San Diego County already has a few cities that have made 100RE pledges, and has the highest number of 100RE pledges for any county in the nation.
Here’s the PDF for the full 74-page San Diego Climate Action Plan that was adopted in December 2015 (the San Diego CAP has been updated since passage, and some of those updates are reflected in this article and the PDF of the plan Green City Times links to here): sandiego.gov/final_july_2016_cap.pdf
Austinis widely recognized as a top eco-friendly city, especially in the United States. In Austin, through non-profit organizations, sustainability groups, and local government; there are continuous efforts in environmental justice. [See below for a few examples of Austin’s sustainability organizations].
Austin’s local sustainability organizations also work to improve the city’s carbon footprint and make strides toward a renewable energy based local economy. Austin’s sustainability measures are extensive; which is why the city has consistently been recognized as a leading U.S. green city in national sustainability studies.
Austin is an attractive city from an economic and geographic perspective. This is true for hard-working professionals in a variety of fields, from education to agriculture. Additionally, tech or artistically focused, sustainability-focused people, and entrepreneurs do well in the city. Austin attracts a diverse population of job-seekers and migrants, perhaps attracting people to the city due to its unique physical setting.
Austin Energy’s Community Solar Program provides access to locally-generated solar energy for customers. They provide solar power from local community solarphotovoltaic (PV) projects. Community solar projects are arrays of solar PV invested in by members of a local community from which energy and/ or financial benefits are derived. They will even develop community solar projects if needed (Austin Energy, 2020). Community solar is one example of how Austin is leading American cities, and worldwide, in renewable energy.
A major component of Austin investing in renewable energy projects is community solar investments. These investments are made by Austin’s residents, commercial building owners, and business building owners. Austinites who want solar, or simply see it as a profitable investment, can freely invest in community solar projects. A group of potential renewable energy investors is able to invest in a community pool of solar energy as seen in Austin Energy’s community solar programs – Austin Energy, 2020.
There are many communities in Austin that can optimally put solar panels on their rooftops because they have access to abundant sunshine – for others, there is community solar. Many community solar investors aren’t otherwise able to have access to optimal solar resources (for example, a property within a shaded area). Often, community solar investors can’t install solar PV panels on their property (such as in the case of a rental property or HOA that doesn’t allow solar PV). Some community solar investors simply like the investment opportunity these renewable energy projects provide.
On average, there are over 200 sunny days per year in Austin (along with over 100 partly cloudy days with intermittent sun). Austin not only has the right weather for community solar but the right political climate as well.
“As cities are leading on climate change, Austin is focused on inclusive innovation around sustainability. We are realizinga greener future, and the Austin Energy Community Solar initiative shows the world how everyone in your community can support and benefit from renewable energy.” – quote by Austin Mayor Steve Adler.
UTAEI; Austin as a World-leading Sustainable City
Austin’s growing prominence in addressing the climate change crisis is hard to overlook. Austin is quickly becoming a leading city in the United States among many American cities transitioning to renewable energy sources. The University of Texas at Austin (utexas.edu) is a global leader in the research and development (R&D) of renewable energy and sustainability technologies.
UT Austin features sustainability technology R&D facilities that are recognized globally as leaders in the field. R&D in sustainability and clean energy technology is found prominently at The University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute (UTAEI). UTAEI came out with a major study, demonstrating that solar and wind, as well as natural gas, are the least expensive forms of energy available (UT News).
Austin– A Bright Example of a Sustainable City
Austin has gained the reputation of a sustainable, progressive, and innovative city. The city’s green reputation has spread internationally as well as in the states. The city is well-known for its active concerned citizenry in many sustainability and justice issues.
This is evident by Austinites’ active participation in sustainability and social/ environmental justicemovements. [see below for a few examples of Austin’s sustainability organizations]. Austin was ranked #25, one of the top spots for a major US city, in terms of access to green spaces (at 73% of the city covered by green spaces) by interiorbeat.com.
The roles played by the active citizenry in sustainability movements are evident in Austin. Active citizenry is fundamental to the sustainable success, progress, and growth of a city. The city is certainly blessed to have such a well-informed citizenry (evolveaustin.org).
Here is a brief snippet from Architectural Digest on the reasons for ranking Austin as the #1 most sustainable city in the United States –
“While five out of ten of the greenest [U.S.] cities are located in the Northeast, the number-one spot went to the hipster haven of Austin, Texas, and its surrounding area of Round Rock. With a population of [over 2 million], Austin scored the top slot by a landslide thanks to its 5 LEED buildings per every 1000 residents.
Its title can also be attributed to the .097 miles of bike lanes per every 10,000 residents, demonstrating that commuters are ditching their cars in favor of pedaling their way to work and thereby shrinking their carbon footprint.
The city draws about 5% of the city’s energy needs from hydroelectric projects (dams, tidal barrages) in the lakes of Austin. Additionally, Austin is deploying a larger number of hydroelectric turbines to generate energy, including tidal barrages in rivers to harness the energy of tides and currents.
Hydroelectricity in Austin
There are three lakes formed by dammed portions of the Lower Colorado River in the Austin area – Lady Bird Lake, Lake Austin, and Lake Travis. All three lakes are used for recreational camping, hiking, boating, and fishing; but a couple of the lakes also double as hydroelectric reservoirs.
Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin does not allow motorized boats, and also is not currently designated for any hydroelectric generation. However, northwest of downtown is Lake Travis – Austin’s largest lake. Lake Travis is designated as a lake that has sections that can be used as hydroelectric reservoirs.
Between Lake Travis and downtown Austin is Lake Austin. Lake Austin is created by dams along the Lower Colorado River. This lake is used as a reservoir for hydroelectric energy generation through the dams with its tributaries and rivers.
Austinites and The Great Outdoors
It is worth noting that a city’s population relative to the quantity of nature surrounding the population can greatly affect urban social structures. Natural settings in an urban environment influence way people interact with each other and form priorities for social justice and environmental justice issues.
In such a rapid urban growth scenario as in Austin, it is important that the definition of a livable city is clearly outlined and it must stress upon having maximum open green spaces. Austin features over 200 parks and more than 50 miles of hiking trails (and much of the trails are also biking trails).
The connection of Austinites to their city’s natural landscape is immensely strong, and this creates a unique sense of place. This connection to the environment is apparent throughout the historical evolution of the city and is made manifest through a variety of avenues like environmental protection campaigns. Examples such as the Texas Campaign for the Environment, are initiated by non-profit sustainability advocacy groups, as well as municipal agencies and institutions.
The purpose of these environmental justice campaigns is to raise awareness about sustainability concerns. For instance; the struggle to protect Austin’s green spaces and local waterways (detailed in the section on Save Our Springs below). These sustainability campaigns (see below for a few prominent sustainability campaigns in Austin) also allow the citizens to band together for the betterment of the city and environment.
Most of the new homes and businesses developed in Austin are built to the latest energy efficiency standards. Many new buildings in Austin are built to LEED green building standards (leedatx.com). In Austin, some new construction is even carbon neutral; with on-site solar energy generation. Austin is on track to get at least 35% of its energy citywide from renewable energy sources, while all of Austin’s public buildings are already powered by renewable energy. Wind farms in and near Austin supply a substantial amount of energy to Austin’s energy grid; contributing over 15% of the city’s energy.
Additionally, the city deploys anaerobic digesters at some of the city’s farms to harness the energy of agricultural and animal waste produced at the farms. Anaerobic digesters (AD plants) turn waste into energy that can be used to power the farm or is distributed to the grid for the city’s energy needs. Food waste, and even household waste, is diverted from local landfills and used for the same purpose at local anaerobic digesters in Austin. AD plants generate biogas…converting waste into a useful form of energy.
All renewable energy in Austin is backed up by natural gas generators, and/ or energy storage in utility-scale battery storage facilities. Additionally, large quantities of energy storage are Austin’s hydroelectric reservoirs. Overall, the energy of Austin is green, clean; and accomplishes the city’s goal of lowering the city’s carbon footprint.
The city aims for a public transportation fleet that has a low carbon footprint. Over 1/2 of city buses in Austin currently run on alternative, cleaner fuels like compressed natural gas or biodiesel. Ambulances in Austin have solar panels on the roofs of their vehicles to power EMT’s medical equipment.
*** (demographic info on what makes Austin uniquely sustainable)
Austin, Texas – a shining example of a sustainable city
Austin is the capital city of Texas, as well as Travis County’s seat of government. The city is a thriving and populous city with a population of almost 1,000,000 people and a population density of just over 3000 people per square mile. These population numbers can be largely attributed to the city’s never-ending expansion and migration to the city.
The city’s demographic story is greatly influenced by the incredibly sustained job opportunities that it offers. As the number of people tempted to find job opportunities in the city rises, the population of the city increases. This further intensifies the population density of Austin.
Some facts about Austin’s demographics will offer a clearer picture of the demographic dynamics of the city:
In the previous decade, the population in Austin increased by roughly 20%
The population of Austin is nearly 1/2 college graduates, and 88% people with an HS degree or higher
The number of Latinos in Austin is relatively high, at over 30% of the population
The number of people living in poverty in Austin is under 20%, but above 15% (ex. of the definition of living in poverty is a family of 4 living on under $25,000 combined income annually per the US Census Bureau).
In the American South, Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. After Phoenix, it is the 2nd most populous state capital, where a 40% rise in population has been observed since 2000. Moreover, Austin is the 11th most populous city in the US, and Texas’s 4th most populous city.
Among the roughly 1 million citizens of Austin are a significant population of migrants and job seekers. Austin is primarily focused on the technology sector of its economy. Additionally, Austin is home to the main campus of the University of Texas, where over 40,000 students are enrolled. Austin has been ranked the #1 city to start a small business by Fortune Magazine.
Austin’s music and entertainment industries are key economically productive sectors in the city. The focus on the tech, music, and arts industries in Austin are further enhanced by several cultural events. The most famous such event is the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. SXSW is Austin’s premier technology conference and music & film event.
The latest trends observed in Austin’s population offer ways through which the city’s sustainability prospects can be assessed. The most significant demographic trend is that Austin continues to be a growing, diverse city, where the majority-minority division doesn’t exist anymore. There isn’t a single demographic group that can claim a majority in this city, which is a welcome societal change.
Another trend in the Austin population is that there is a decline in families with children, which is the result of the city’s rapid urbanization. This trend offers an insight into the rapidly changing demographic dynamics in Austin.
The number of young, highly educated, and skilled people moving to Austin to join the workforce is increasing. Newcomers tend to choose to live in the urban center of the city, while a majority of families opt to move to nearby suburban greenbelts.
These migratory trends in Austin change the median age and the number of members per household within the city. This affects the public services sector including schooling (e.g. at UT Austin), mass transit, and other city services – services that are overwhelmingly used by young adults.
It’s important that Austin adopts new initiatives that encourage a focus on improving sectors like transportation to address. This is in order to address population-oriented issues such as traffic congestion, housing, real estate sector prices. The most pressing ecological problem that must be addressed with the rapid growth of the city, is environmental pollution. Also, Austin should adopt a newer approach to address these issues in order to make the city inviting, healthy, and investment-worthy for families with children (austinindicators.org).
Hardworking, talented, skilled, and innovative individuals from across the globe are instantly attracted to the city. The investment made by its citizens in the urban landscape has made this city’s quality of life its main engine of economic development. On the other hand, its diverse demographic structure tends to often complement and support the city’s quality of life.
The population of Austin has been increasing steadily since the beginning of the 21st century; hence, it is essential for the city administration to cautiously devise strategies for the future of the city with attention to demographic trends in Austin such as the growing migrant population and the diverse socio-cultural foci of city residents.
It is necessary that the city formulates policies that ensure sustainable development of the city and help in improving the implementation of, and the efficiency of, eco-friendly practices, among other top sustainability concerns for the city, like social justice issues.
Many Austinites worry that the city’s environment will be destroyed because of continuous population growth. Ultimately, the city’s quality of life will be determined primarily by its environment instead of its size or economy. Proponents of quality of life, such as Austin community members in environmental justice and social justice non-profits, are determined to preserve environmental and socially altruistic aspects of the city that define the identity of Austin.
The city of Austin has historically dedicated itself to becoming a sustainable city, and made efforts at social and economic sustainability.
The Smart Growth Initiative in Austin has become an important example of both the pros and the potential cons of large-scale urban sustainability efforts. This initiative was directed towards addressing the problem of food and clean water deserts within east Austin.
The multi-faceted basis of the SGI are the pillars of economic success, social parity, and conservation. Smart Growth zones include a Drinking Water Protection Zone, Desired Development Zone, and Urban Desired Development Zone, in Austin’s designated watershed regulation areas.
SGI was launched to limit the developments in West Austin, to ensure the preservation of its natural areas, and to stimulate sustainable growth and development of the urban eastern Austin area. West Austin is in close proximity to the city’s current urban center – East Austin. Despite being constructed with positive outcomes as the ultimate goals, the net result of this initiative was negative social justice consequences (Green Policy 360). However, SGI also produced positive environmental, clean water, and sustainable development results.
Success and Failures of SGI
The Smart Growth Initiative was originally devised to stimulate urban renewal, economic productivity, and environmental protections. In Austin however, eventually, it turned out that the plan ended up destabilizing local residents and underpinning their racial attitudes.
The sustainable redevelopment and rezoning of east Austin under the SGI resulted in the subsequent influx of upper-income, highly educated, and young white shifters. This demographic moved to this area in search of affordable homes, as well as to live in an area that has some identity and character of its own.
Also, part of SGI’s priorities was gaining easy access to the downtown, which promised to improve residents’ quality of life. SGI sought to expand employment opportunities and amenities for Austin’s affluent community; but at the same time, these developments affect the cost of living in that area tremendously.
Therefore, gentrification quickly became an important sustainability and social justice issue in Austin. This is a central consideration when developing urban sustainability strategies and policies in Austin, and became the focal point of social and environmental justice groups such as PODER.
People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER)
In the sustainability agenda for Austin, environmental issues, and economic growth and development, are sometimes prioritized over the issue of social equality, which is why addressing gentrification often takes a backseat. People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) is an interracial organization working in Austin to protect lower socioeconomic communities.
One of the most noteworthy and widely acknowledged achievements of PODER is their work against the development of locally unwanted land uses, which usually occur in the form of landfills, incinerators, and waste treatment plants near low-income neighborhoods, and has become a key focus in the development of East Austin.
PODER’s work for environmental justice is indeed quite successful and it is due to their genuine, consistent efforts and effective use of awareness programs to promote public engagement and generate citywide concern among the masses. PODER has worked vigorously against the gentrification of East Austin and has helped in the promotion of environmental justice issues, as these have become a lot more critical to urban sustainability.
PODER Speaks for the Environment and the People
In the gentrification issue, the argument endorsed by PODER has been that the city has been focused on the support of environmental principles, which is positive, but while following these principles, the priorities and sustainability concerns of communities of color have been unjustly diminished, which indeed is not justified.
The influence and importance of this non-profit organization, PODER, in voicing the concerns of the low-income and minority groups of the community cannot be overlooked. The advocacy of PODER is one of the main reasons that the voices of low socio-economic, predominantly minority, communities have been addressed by local policymakers in Austin.
PODER has also helped in fostering the belief that an inclusive approach is important for urban sustainability; and that social and equitable elements of environmental justice must be taken into consideration when the Austin City Council develops public policy. All of these myriad elements affect the city of Austin and, if addressed constructively, will help in positive sustainable development for the city.
Urban Sustainability Issues in Austin
There are still many sustainability issues that have to be resolved in Austin, which do relate to the environment tangentially but relate to urban sustainability directly. One of the most urgent issues in Austin is allowing the voices of Austin’s diverse city population to be heard, particularly lower socio-economic, predominantly minority communities, and to be reflected in decisions made by City Council, and city planners.
Sustainability movements in Austin can be at least partially understood to be the efforts to include a wider swath of Austin’s diverse population in the decision-making processes vis-à-vis public policy in the city, particularly with regard to city planning. In Austin, as with any growing American city, environmental and social justice, and sustainable equities, also refer to the impacts of over-industrialization, distributional injustice with respect to environmental amenities, and vehicle use/ traffic patterns, on communities in the city.
Traffic congestion is a big issue in Austin. Austin residents experience traffic congestion on a regular basis, which is indicative of the way population growth has surpassed the limits of the available infrastructure in the city, resulting in undesirable, yet unavoidable, environmental impacts.
In a 2011 study conducted by Texas A&M, Austin ranked number three in the US as the most traffic-congested city. Forbes magazine has consistently ranked Austin as the fastest growing city in the U.S., with the most employment opportunities available in U.S. cities (according to Forbes). This substantially explains why car-centric, freeway, and highway infrastructure is believed to be insufficient for Austin’s population, as well as environmentally concerning.
CAMPO’s sustainability advocacy
Organizations like the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Org. (campotexas.org) are striving to address traffic issues in Austin. Examples of CAMPO’s sustainability advocacy include creating awareness in the population aimed at reducing the demand for transportation via automobiles. CAMPO also works to increase accessibility to trails, sidewalks, and bike lanes, and increase the use of public transit systems. In addition, CAMPO is actively spearheading advocacy actions aimed at infrastructure improvements, like highway infrastructure capacity to prevent traffic blockage, such as express transit lanes for carpooling.
Urban sprawl and traffic congestion both tend to be incredibly degrading for the environment, and these affect the livability aspects of a city. The prevalence of these issues stands in contrast to Austin’s claim to the title of a top eco-friendly city. The efforts of Austin to improve the sustainability of the city are substantially reflected in the need to decrease car use, or to improve the efficiency of vehicles being driven around Austin, as well as through issues that emerge with the lack of easy modes of transportation for low-income and minority populations.
A group called the Save Our Springs Alliance represents a major source of organizational action in the sustainability agenda for Austin. S.O.S initially represented a group of citizens struggling to help preserve environmental aspects of the 4,000-acre development proposal for the Barton Creek Watershed. A night-long meeting was held with Austin City Council members in June 1990, where the planned development was unanimously rejected by the council.
With the establishment of the Save Our Springs Alliance in 1992, S.O.S advocated aggressively for the Save Our Springs Ordinance to become law in the city. The S.O.S. Ordinance ensures that the quality of drinking and potable water for Austin isn’t affected by the water coming off of development areas. The water running off development areas eventually mixes into the Barton Springs Watershed. Around 30,000 supporting signatures were received in favor of this ordinance. Because of the rigorous efforts of the S.O.S. eventually, the ordinance was approved by Austin voters in August 1992. S.O.S. quickly became a popular, mainstream, relevant organization.
The scope of S.O.S. has been expanded, as its profile now includes creating awareness and alliances across Austin. The S.O.S. Alliance officially became a non-profit organization in 1997. This organization now works regularly with local conservation groups to promote the need to protect the Barton Springs and Edward’s Aquifer. Due to the efforts of S.O.S, Barton Creek and Barton Springs are now recognized as key sources of success in advocacy for environmental sustainability causes to Austin residents.
Oslo has fleets of green mass public transit – trams, electric buses, and ferries – that are powered by electricity from a municipal grid fed mostly by renewable power with a majority of that electricity from hydropower – but also from biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind energy (along with a share of fossil fuels). Some of Norway’s fleets of buses and ferries run directly on renewables. Oslo not only sources electricity for public mass transit from renewable energy when possible but uses RE sources to provide electricity for every other sector of the city’s economy as well.
The Norwegian government already offers aggressive incentives for drivers to buy electric cars. These incentives include eliminating sales tax nationally for the purchase of some EVs, developing free parking spaces for EVs in major cities like Oslo, as well as building free parking garages for EVs with charging stations in Oslo. Meanwhile, ICE vehicles are still taxed, providing a disincentive for ICE vehicles, while tax-free EVs are incentivized. Norway plans to only allow zero-emission new cars to be registered in the country(starting 2025, at the soonest).
Oslo, Norway is Europe’s eco-capital for 2019-
“Nearly half of all new cars sold here [Oslo] are fully electric. [Today, the share of new car sales that are EVs is well over half]. There are trams, electric buses and ferries, all running on renewable hydroelectric power. During the icy winters, a waste incinerator plant heats many of the city’s homes.
The city aims to cut emissions by 36 percent from 1990 levels by the end of next year, and 95 percent by 2030. To achieve this, the city council has introduced its own climate budget — possibly the first of its kind in the world.” FROM- dw.com/en/oslo-starts-2019-as-europes-eco-capital
“The award [Europe’s eco-capital award] honors high environmental standards, sustainable urban development and green job creation.
Indicators for being a green city include local transport, biodiversity, air quality, waste management, and noise [reduction]. Oslo, with its 660,000 inhabitants, is green not only due to its low carbon footprint of 1.9 tons per capita per year, Katja Rosenbohm tells DW. As head of communication at the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, Rosenbohm was part of the jury that awarded Oslo its new title. “They have very ambitious targets, for example of having a car-free city by 2050.” Rosenbohm also praises Oslo’s “front-running activities in electro-mobility.” FROM- dw.com/en/oslo-is-europes-green-capital-2019-finally
Since 2010, an annual European Green City Capital has been awarded to European cities with a population over 100,000 (the population of Oslo is about 660,000 and was the 2019 European green capital), in recognition of high environmental standards, sustainable urban development, and green job creation. Additional considerations for this award include public mass transit, conservation, biodiversity, air quality, waste management, and implementing measures to achieve a low citywide carbon footprint.
Oslo has also created its own Sustainable Cities Program. Oslo has ambitious emission reduction goals. Here’s a snippet from DW on why Oslo is Europe’s 2019 eco-capital –
Oslo starts 2019 as Europe’s eco-capital
The Norwegian capital plans to cut emissions by 95 percent by 2030, despite being one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. As European Green Capital 2019, it hopes to set an example for others.
Oslo’s waterfront was once a mass of shipping containers and a vast intersection jammed with cars pumping out fumes. Today, traffic is diverted through an underwater tunnel, and much of it is made up of electric or hybrid cars. The new development has impressive environmental as well as cultural credentials, with all new buildings meeting energy efficiency standards for low energy use, explains Anita Lindahl Trosdahl, project manager for Oslo’s Green Capital year.
“We’re using our market power to introduce fossil fuel-free construction,” Trosdahl told DW. “So not only will the build in its lifetime be as sustainable as possible, but also during the construction period itself.” FROM- dw.com/en/oslo-is-europes-green-capital-2019-finally
Chicago might not be widely known as a green city, however, the city has a Sustainable Action Agenda, a vast network of sustainable mass public transit options, a high share of energy efficient buildings, and is home to a host of other green city initiatives.
Public mass transit options in Chicago include a large network of CTA buses, Metra commuter rail lines, and CTA’s ‘L’ railcar lines (above-ground rapid transit railcars running on elevated subway routes, which combined make over 2,000 trips/ day). CTA has a goal to use 100% clean energy by 2040, and has been able to cut its GHGs by over 10% annually by incorporating more energy efficient transit options while expanding its city fleet.
Chicago not only features exemplary mass public transit networks but excels at maintaining green spaces in the city as well. The greater Chicago area consists of over 12,000 total acres of parkland (this includes land managed by the state and county – there are over 8,800 acres of green space owned by the Chicago Park District, including over 600 parks). ~8.5% of the land area of Chicago is green space open to the public.
One great example of a large community park in Chicago is Lincoln Park, the city’s largest park (at about 1200 acres). Lincoln Park is the (adjacent) home to a city district (home to over 68,000 people) in Chicago’s Northside, as well as the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Chicago has benefited from green urban planning. The City of Chicago has worked hard to put in motion plans to transform the city into one of the world’s brightest examples of a sustainable metropolis.
A path to this goal is found in the 7 themes of “The Sustainable Chicago Action Agenda”. These 7 main themes include – Chicago’s Climate Action Plan, Energy Efficiency & Clean Energy, Waste & Recycling, Waste & Wastewater, Transportation Options, Economic Development & Job Creation, and Parks & Open Space.
Chicago has developed a citywide Climate Action Plan that mirrors the goals of Chicago’s Sustainable Action Agenda. The ChicagoClimate Action Planincludes climate change mitigation strategies featuring energy efficient buildings, clean & renewable energy sources, improved transportation options, and reduced waste & industrial buildings.
Sustainability Action Agenda of the City of Chicago – focus on LEED buildings
One of the aspects of the Sustainability Action Agenda the City of Chicago has been most successful at implementing, and a major part of that which makes Chicago a sustainable city, from an energy use standpoint, is developing sustainable energy efficient buildings. Another is the city’s implementation of sustainable technology with regard to retrofitting buildings.
LEED certifies buildings that demonstrate excellence in the following categories: sustainable sites, location and transportation, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Energy Star is another high energy efficiency standard for buildings and appliances within buildings, particularly high-efficiency electric appliances (such as electric HVAC units). Chicago excels at producing highly efficient buildings, and the electrification of buildings in order to enhance energy efficiency.
With regard to LEED and Energy Star buildings, Chicago has the highest percentage (at over 65%) of LEED-certified/ Energy Star certified office buildings among the top 30 real estate markets in the United States. The Willis tower (pictured here) went from LEED Gold to Platinum certification in just one year by efficiency retrofitting. The Willis Tower, the tallest U.S. LEED Platinum building, has made significant energy, sustainability, and air quality/ healthy building environment improvements.
In order to make even more advancements in residential and business buildings’ energy and water efficiency, and reduce GHGs associated with buildings in the city, the City of Chicago has launched Retrofit Chicago.
“Energy efficiency is a priority for strengthening Chicago— helping Chicago to be at affordable, modern, competitive, attractive, livable, and sustainable city. Retrofit Chicago’s energy efficiency pursuits help:
Save Chicagoans money
Improve air quality for workers in commercial buildings
The city of Chicago has initiated a Sustainable Development Division (SDD) to address sustainability concerns in the development of buildings in Chicago.
“The Sustainability Division provides technical assistance for [developers]…required to meet the City of Chicago’s sustainability standards, specifically city-assisted projects [and] new planned developments…[Chicago’s] Sustainable Development Division promotes development practices that result in buildings that are healthier to occupy, less expensive to operate and more responsible to the environment than traditional buildings.
Sustainable requirements involve various levels of LEED [and] Energy Star standards for energy efficiency…The policies are intended to improve…public roadways and parks– [and create] a higher level of stewardship of local water, air, and land resources. The division promotes strategies that absorb stormwater on site, such as…bioswales, permeable pavement and rain gardens, as well as green roofs. Green roofs help to keep rainwater out of overburdened sewer systems, reduce urban temperatures, improve the air quality in densely developed neighborhoods, and reduce a building’s energy costs.” – Chicago SDD
Additionally, Chicago has created theSolar Express renewable energy initiative largely to advance green building in the city. The Chicago Solar Express is a public-private initiative to bring low-cost solar panels to the rooftops of Chicago- by cutting fees, streamlining permitting and zoning processes.
Since 2012, the City of Chicago and ComEd have worked with private partners and the University of Illinois, under a grant from the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, to lower-cost barriers and reduce market prices of purchasing and installing solar PV for the city.
“By committing the energy used to power our public buildings to wind and solar energy, we are sending a clear signal that we remain committed to building a 21st-century economy here in Chicago,” [former]Mayor Emanuel said. The city of Chicago will achieve that commitment in a number of ways, including on-site generation and the acquisition of renewable energy credits (mostly wind and solar energy). Jack Darin, president of the Illinois Sierra Club supports the effort, “…by moving boldly to re-power its public buildings with renewable energy like wind and solar, Chicago is leading by example at a time when local leadership is more important than ever.” FROM: goodnewsnetwork.org/chicago-city-buildings-powered-100-renewable-energy
These efforts of Chicago in green building illustrate the success of Chicago Sustainability themes – substantially developing energy efficient buildings, and the retrofitting of buildings in Chicago to be LEED and Energy Star certified. Chicago Solar Express, as well as the widespread development of electricity & renewable energy to power buildings throughout Chicago, illustrates more Sustainability themes – clean energy & energy efficiency. Waste Management is yet another Sustainability theme in which the city of Chicago excels.
Chicago’s Waste Management
The City of Chicago has developed ambitious recycling programs throughout the city. By reducing Chicago’s waste and implementing various recycling programs, the city of Chicago is making an effort to conserve resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste management, lower Chicago’s carbon footprint, and reduce space in areas surrounding Chicago currently needed as landfills. These are some of the programs offered by the city of Chicago to increase conservation in the city, especially focusing on Chicago’s recycling programs:
Blue Cart Recycling – “The City’s Blue Cart program provides bi-weekly recycling services to single-family homes and multi-unit buildings. By recycling regularly, [residents of Chicago] can help reduce the need for landfills, lower disposal costs, reduce pollution and conserve natural resources, such as timber and water”. Blue Cart Recycling includes almost every type of household waste, and had diverted over a half-ton of waste from landfills in the first 10 months of 2018 alone.
construction and demolition debris recycling - an ordinance requires that contractors recycle at least 50% of the recyclable debris generated by construction/ demolition
Another key sustainability initiative that is helping Chicago save money and resources is the city’s wastewater management program. New wastewater treatments are assisting in the recovery of essential energy, solids, and water. These resources are then recycled and transformed into assets that can generate revenue for the city, and protect the environment.
Green Infrastructure in Chicago; Chicago’s Greencorp
The city has also installed 50,000 water meters through the MeterSave program, to help residents of Chicago conserve water and reduce water bills. The city has made a $50 million investment to clean and upgrade 4,400 miles of sewer lines, while also upgrading the built infrastructure, creating a cleaner, greener infrastructure. The City of Chicago is also investing in replacing and enhancing rooftops and roadways in the city to allow for stormwater to circulate back into the environment.
Chicago plans to continue to replace or build new clean green and clean infrastructure. The city is replacing sewer mains in order to control stormwater accumulation in the sewers. Sitting next to Lake Michigan and atop a swampy marshy land, water management is crucial for Chicago to become a more sustainable and resilient city.
With a history of water pollution and toxic city water, Chicago became one of the lead innovators of waste and water management by securing federal funding in 1970 to upgrade its treatment facilities as a result of the Clean Water Act. Chicago continues to lead by example while reducing its water usage and increasing its efficiency.
Chicago is also keenly focused on developing sustainability training and jobs among the inner-city population- namely through its flagship program, Greencorps Chicago. Greencorps Chicago provides training and jobs in environmental conservation, as well as nature-area management careers, to Chicago residents with barriers to employment.The Greencorps Chicago Youth Program, which launched in 2013, provides paid, sustainability-focused summer jobs.
In addition to robust citywide conservation and waste management programs, the city of Chicago also has well-developed sustainable mass transit systems. Chicago’s mass transit options include transportation offerings from the United States’ 2nd largest public mass transit system; the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which operates bus and rail lines in the city, including 144 rail stations and over 100 bus routes.
The city of Chicago is on the way to becoming a leader in sustainable transit. Chicago Transit Authority is committed to providing integral transit options that are greener and more sustainable. CTA is a huge contributor to the city’s sustainability movement because it helps to reduce vehicle emissions by replacing automobile trips with mass transit, reduces traffic congestion, and enables compact development.
The city of Chicago has 1,500 railcars with electric high-efficiency rails, and the new “L” cars are a new family of railcars equipped with innovative braking systems that can transfer electricity back to the third rail, which supplements power to nearby CTA trains (among other advances in the design and function of the railcars). The City of Chicago has launched a significant sustainable mass transportation campaign in order to reduce GHGs, decrease transit costs for the city and its residents, and increase efficiencies associated with transit. Chicago has 1,900 energy efficient buses that were converted to ultra-low sulfur diesel engines in March 2003; since 2007 any new buses acquired have been equipped with clean diesel and hybrid-electric engines. The city of Chicago plans to purchase additional all-electric buses.
Chicago has also made an effort to promote its multimodal transportation. That includes its Bike & Ride program. This program was established to improve bicycle access to bus routes and rail stations. In order to do that, the City of Chicago helped develop 6,000 Divvy bikes (Divvy bikes are part of a bike-sharing system run by the City of Chicago Department of Transportation), available for rent at 580 stations across the city. CTA has also worked with car-sharing companies to make for easier access between public transit and car-sharing. The CTA’s multimodal integration addresses transit-friendly development by working with the City of Chicago and other municipalities to connect their services and destinations.
As part of the ongoing global battle against climate change, almost 200 countries have set greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) reductions targets, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs). They’re fairly self-explanatory; by a specified year, a nation aims to reduce its carbon emissions by a certain amount (compared to a previous, specific year).
Every 5 years, member nations of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) are required to submit revised NDCs, which are encouraged to progressively be greater GHG reduction targets, reflecting higher levels of ambition. Some national commitments are made more frequently, and more quickly than others. The latest round of NDCs came before COP26 in Glasgow Oct 31-Nov 12, many made well before in the case of more ambitious nations. Most members of the UNFCCC managed to make their improved NDCs public before COP 26.
For example, the EU group of nations have committed to a collective target of 55% carbon emissions reduction by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) – known as ‘Fit for 55‘. Countries worldwide have upped their original carbon reduction pledges made in the run-up to the Paris Climate Accord to new pledges reflecting greater climate ambition (described below). Many countries have taken the even more ambitious step of also setting a net zero emissions (carbon neutrality) national target (usually of 2050, but some nations have set different net zero target dates, described below).
The Paris Climate Accord is not legally binding, so actual binding NDCs must originate from national, state, and regional governments. (When not put forward by a national government, but rather by state or regional governments; these commitments are simply referred to as GHG reduction pledges). In the case of the EU, NDC targets and the 2050 net zero target are codified into law by legislation that is passed by the European Commission – the European Climate Law (effective July 2021).
Many European nations (& California) had legally binding net zero targets, as well as ambitious GHG reduction pledges, in place well before China or the US. (Historically, China & the US are the 2 biggest emitters of GHGs in the world). China has set their net zero target for 2060 (in September 2020); while the United States has committed to net zero by 2050 (with President Biden taking office, in January 2021). It is expected that NDC and net zero commitments that the Chinese national government makes, will be codified into legally binding law in China. The US Congress would need to pass legislation, much as the European Commission has, in order for its NDC and net zero targets to become legally binding.
Net zero pledges made by governments around the world represent ambitious goals to keep global warming below 2°C (that’s 2°C rise above pre-industrial temperature averages), and ideally to 1.5°C this century; making good on the latest IPCC climate targets. Here is a map with countries’ various degrees of progress to net zero:
Historically, fossil fuels have brought developed nations a higher standard of living, however, renewables will effectively raise the standard of living for developing nations with cleaner, cheaper, abundant energy. Climate change will disproportionately affect developing nations, which have done the least to cause the problem. The solution is for all world nations, developed and developing, to simultaneously make the clean energy transition, and enjoy the benefits of clean energy development.]
Australia differs from Canada and the EU in that the country has not legislated ramped-up targets. The Australian government has officially announced that the initial NDC set in the Paris Climate Accord is “…a floor…” (at least 26% GHG reduction by 2030 compared to 2005 levels), and that the country is on course to “…overachieve on this target…”; as well as a national goal to achieve net zero “…as soon as possible”. Australia has committed to net zero by 2050 just ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, however, the commitment hasn’t been legislated, so it isn’t legally binding.
Ahead of the Paris Climate Accord, China initially announced it would be lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level. China is currently the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, and its attempts to meet its carbon intensity targets are rated ‘inadequate’ by the Climate Action Tracker. Despite this, China now aims to hit the target of net zero by 2060; and is trying to stay on course to reach its original NDC target.
India initially pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its national GDP by 33-35% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. India also intends to produce a significant amount of additional forest and tree cover (for carbon sequestration, in order to achieve carbon neutrality). India also intends to invest a substantial amount in renewable energy and energy efficiency; but on this and indeed their overall emissions targets, India can be vague on how it plans to achieve them. India has yet to make a net zero commitment, despite the over 100 other nations that made net zero commitments before COP26 in Glasgow.
Until recently, Japan had been slow to reduce its national GHG emissions, despite an ambitious pledge of 80% emissions reduction by 2050. However, in November 2020, Japan made an even more ambitious pledge of netzero by 2050 (or…”as close as possible to 2050″). Like China, Japan has been dependent on coal (especially after increasing coal energy on the national grid following the Fukushima nuclear disaster). However, Japan now says it is committed to shutting down its coal-fired power plants; and developing more renewable energy in its place. The Japanese government says that “Japan will strive to achieve a decarbonized society by as close as possible to 2050“. Japan has an interim NDC of 26% GHG reduction by 2030 (compared to 2013 levels).
Here is a summary of the most recent nationally determined contributions from nations discussed in this article, heading into COP26 in Glasgow:
COP and CAT (Conference of the Parties and Climate Action Tracker)
Countries set interim targets (mostly targetting 2030), and now largely many major world nations are en route to net zero. Upon setting an initial interim target in the Paris Climate Accord, countries are supposed to ramp up their interim 2030 NDC targets on a 5-year basis (or ideally, more frequently), and with the latest IPCC guidance; strongly encouraged to set net zero targets. Every 5 years, all UNFCCC member nations are required to submit new NDCs. Due to COVID-19, the year 2020 was just a low-profile virtual meeting; and the formal UNFCCC COP (in which all new NDCs from all UNFCCC member nations is due) will be COP26 in Glasgow.
The CAT Consortium runs the Climate Action Tracker, which grades each nation on how useful its promises actually are. Each nation’s NDC shapes to ‘current policy’ scenario in the CAT chart below. The ideal ‘optimistic’ scenarios are based on the most ambitious net zero emissions by 2050 targets being fully realized. How are current climate policies worldwide (NDCs) going to actually reduce global greenhouse gas emissions as world nations try to achieve net zero GHGs (carbon neutrality) in order to stop global warming? This chart, from Climate Action Tracker (CAT), models current climate policy outcomes, as well as optimistic net zero targets, to 2100>>>
After the first decade of the initial policy’s implementation, California boosted its economy while diminishing carbon pollution with clean energy and new green technologies. However, more work needs to be done for California to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
Despite a few shortcomings, California’s success in combating climate change can teach other states a critical lesson in applying similar climate action measures.
California: A Work in Progress
California is no stranger to the effects of climate change. In 2021, California Fire and the U.S. Forest Service responded to 8,786 wildfires spanning 2,568,941 acres. The consequences of these frequent fires include lower air quality, reduced soil quality, and the destruction of the state’s ecosystems, homes, and livelihoods.
In other parts of the state, like the Sierra Nevada, hotter temperatures are melting the snow and releasing about 15 million acre-feet of water all at once. With this event occurring more frequently and earlier in the year, the state’s water storage facilities face increased pressure and generate fear of worsening floods and water shortages.
California has recognized the importance of securing its precious resources, including its energy. More fires and extreme temperatures are unavoidable due to climate change in the years to come.
The energy sector has changed dramatically over the years, from depending on natural sunlight to electrical grids to investments in renewable energy technologies. Populations and heavy industry have increased worldwide, and the demand for greener initiatives has, as well.
California has done the following in its effort to become more energy-efficient:
California initiated the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) that requires reduced carbon in transportation fuels, transitioning to regulated fuels like natural gas, hydrogen, electricity, propane, and biomass-based diesel.
Powerful storms, strong winds, fires, tornadoes, and other natural events can knock out electricity grids for days, weeks, and even months on end. However, it’s essential to create substantial emissions-reducing legislation that tackles the climate crisis and allows for a more resilient power source.
What else can be done to progress the decarbonization of California and other states across the nation?
The Next Step: Decarbonizing Buildings
Buildings are responsible for generating nearly 40% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions, a majority of which are produced by operations and materials. California recently launched the Building Decarbonization Coalition (BDC) to continue balancing energy resilience with decarbonization.
The BDC aims to cut 40% of structural emissions and adopt zero-emissions building codes by 2030. It has gathered experts in the energy sector, public interest advocates, building contractors, construction workers, local government officials, real estate agents, and investors for their input and industry knowledge.
The BDC released a guide that details set goals, philosophies, policies, and strategies that California intends to meet in its path toward building decarbonization. Highlights and recommendations from the report include:
Adopt an emissions-free building code for all new construction, removing the reliance on fossil fuels and shifting toward renewables instead.
Replace heat and hot water appliances in existing buildings with zero-emission alternatives over time.
Help increase the market share of clean, electric appliances by replacing all fossil fuel-burning appliances.
Guarantee that efforts to decarbonize buildings aid the grid by incorporating renewable energy into the state’s power supply.
Barriers to Building Decarbonization
While California’s building decarbonization pursuits could be applied to emissions-reducing objectives in other states, the BDC and stakeholders recognize that several barriers need to be addressed for the state to reach its goals by 2030:
Government officials, industry experts, and the public currently lack interest in and understanding of building decarbonization technologies.
Gas utility companies and various labor unions are likely to deliver political resistance, particularly to decarbonizing commercial buildings.
A lack of coordination exists between like-minded emissions-reducing organizations throughout the state.
Customers and contractors are faced with higher upfront costs and little financial assistance or incentives to back renewable technologies for building decarbonization.
Many building decarbonization technologies aren’t available yet, requiring more states to manufacture green technologies, as well.
Existing energy policies and building codes need to be updated to meet the newer emissions-reducing goals of decarbonization initiatives.