Cities to Save Climate?

June 27, 2017


Can they?

AP –

With the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, national policy on climate change will emerge from U.S. cities working to reduce emissions and become more resilient to rising sea levels, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieusaid at the annual U.S. Conferences of Mayors meeting in Miami Beach.

The conference supported the Paris agreement, and according to preliminary results released Saturday morning from an ongoing nationwide survey, the vast majority of U.S. mayors want to work together and with the private sector to respond to climate change.

“There’s near unanimity in this conference that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it. There may be a little bit of a disagreement about how actually to deal with it,” said Landrieu, who will replace Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett as conference president this weekend.

“If the federal government refuses to act or is just paralyzed, the cities themselves, through their mayors, are going to create a new national policy by the accumulation of our individual efforts,” he said.

A May survey of local sustainability efforts, conducted by the conference and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, initially only included 80 mayors who hold leadership positions within the conference. It was extended to all conference members and the mayors of about 1,400 cities with populations of 30,000 or more after President Donald Trump pulled the country out of the Paris agreement.

Don’t declare victory yet.


The truth is that cities have done little to contribute to recent declines in carbon pollution. Renewable portfolio standards have spurred tons of new renewable generation, but states adopt those, not cities. Transportation-related CO2 is down in many cities, but that’s largely the result of improved national fuel-efficiency standards. And urban areas did nothing to create cheap natural gas, which, by displacing coal, has been the leading driver of reduced emissions.

A central issue is that cities seldom have jurisdictional authority over energy infrastructure. There are few municipally owned utilities — and most regulators are chosen at the state level. Even with respect to the critical issue of building codes, mandates are frequently determined by counties, states, and the International Code Council.

It turns out that when cities claim reductions in greenhouse gases, they’re usually taking credit for things they didn’t do.

This doesn’t mean that cities can’t play a vital role. They can.

As San Francisco’s Renewable Energy Task Force stated in a 2012 report, “Reaching [100% renewables] will require coordinated action in three main areas: improving energy efficiency to reduce total electricity demand, increasing in-city renewable distributed generation (DG) to reduce the need for imported green power, and providing all customers a 100% renewable power purchasing option.”

Most city climate plans reflect these principles — focusing on reducing demand (i.e., efficiency) and increasing renewable supply (i.e., distributed solar) within their borders.

With energy efficiency, however, it’s difficult to identify much progress. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently released its 2017 City Energy Efficiency Scorecard. Among the leaders in energy efficiency, you’d reasonably expect improvements with energy efficiency. You’d be wrong.

Electricity consumption, a primary source of carbon emissions, is flat or growing in each of ACEEE’s top 20 cities with available information. In a host of frequently lauded cities, building electricity use is up over the last five years of data: Los Angles (+3 percent); New York City (+1 percent); San Francisco (+1 percent); Boston (+2 percent); Denver (+3 percent); Austin (+5 percent); and D.C. (+1 percent).

On a per-capita basis, residential electricity use is down in Austin (-9 percent) and San Francisco (-9 percent), but it’s up in Boston (+7 percent), Los Angeles (+9 percent), and D.C. (+17 percent).

This is bad news. The bottom line is that in urban areas, where new residents often live in highly efficient apartments and businesses operate in increasingly dense office buildings, electricity use must drop. That’s not happening.

While potentially less impactful than efficiency, solar is another top priority. But according to the 2017 report, Shining Cities, only a few cities have more solar per capita than the national average. For example, while Los Angeles accounts for 10 percent of its state’s population, just 2 percent of California’s solar is in L.A.

Solar panels may dot farmlands and deserts, but the sun is not yet powering most urban areas. Just 0.3 percent of NYC’s power comes from solar, and the situation is similar in other cities, including San Francisco (1.2 percent); Boston (0.4 percent); Denver (1 percent); Austin (0.3 percent); D.C. (0.4 percent); Chicago (0.1 percent); and Baltimore (0.2 percent).

“100 percent renewable”

This lack of progress hasn’t stopped cities from making increasingly aggressive climate goals. Most notably, many cities now have “100 percent renewable” pledges. Unfortunately, at this juncture, it’s not entirely clear what these commitments really mean.

[Note: The issue of carbon accounting can lead you down a rabbit hole from which you’ll never return. The main issue to understand, however, is that electricity generation creates two tradable commodities: “null electricity” (e.g., electrons) and environmental attributes (e.g., RECs). These commodities are routinely decoupled, wherein renewable generators sell electricity to one entity and RECs to another.]

I know about the bizarre implications of “100 percent renewable” and RECs firsthand. When I led the energy division for government facilities in Washington, D.C., we became entirely “green-powered” by purchasing one wind REC to account for each megawatt-hour of electricity we bought from the grid. “D.C. schools, firehouses, and offices are 100% powered by wind,” declared USA Today.

This is where things get strange. Because the government was already “100 percent renewable” through RECs, our subsequent long-term power-purchase agreements (PPAs) — to actually buy electricity from an offsite wind farm and new onsite solar panels — had no impact on our greenhouse gas emissions. Technically, our emissions were not even reduced in buildings where efficiency measures cut consumption by 30 percent or more.

To appreciate this insanity, it’s helpful to consider two scenarios.

Building A doubles its electricity consumption with an inefficient air conditioning system, but it buys RECs from an existing wind farm. Building B installs solar panels that provide all of its power, but it sells the RECs from those solar panels. According to the bizarre world of carbon accounting, Building A is preferable to Building B. That’s a problem — because in actuality, it is not.

At scale, the muddled nature of this issue is showcased, ironically, in “100 percent renewable” Burlington, Vermont.

The city has created a website to provide clarity about its energy portfolio. It’s worth reading; pay particular attention to the journey from chart #1, to chart #2, to chart #3, and finally to chart #4. With respect to Burlington, clearly a well-intentioned jurisdiction, this path to “100 percent renewable” is a laughably confusing shell game.

Ultimately, put plainly, all of this means that cities can meet nebulous climate goals by purchasing credits. This is a worrisome path. Instead of obfuscating climate-related success, our focus should be on impactful action.




2 Responses to “Cities to Save Climate?”

  1. indy222 Says:

    Great post, Peter. Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland of carbon accounting. When hype (excuse me; hope) is more important than reality, this is what you get. Quite helpful when math is not the strong suite of people coming out of school and heading to political and policy jobs.

    I’ve been pointing out to policy types the accelerating atmospheric CO2 while the policy types point out the hope (excuse me; hype) a’la the USA Today nonsense in the above article. Anything to make one feel good about Our Progress! Let’s hear it for Hope and Heroism!

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    “natural gas, which, by displacing coal, has been the leading driver of reduced emissions.”

    Fracked gas has reduced CO2 emissions and increased methane emissions, leading to CO2e levels at least as high as they have been, and maybe higher in the short term. The short term matters as every bit of higher GHG level pushes faster reactions like ice and tundra melt, etc. leading us to tipping points and internal ice feedback loops that propel us faster toward an unlivable planet.

    This is another example of accounting systems being used to obscure rather than describe reality.

    It’s the perfect solution for politicians. They can go on making not just campaign promises but actually pretending they’ve followed through and met the goals while fossil fuel burners go on pumping out clouds of CO2 and other pollutants, simply by buying more and more renewable energy. It’s the rip-offset perfected in the age of the lunatic right wing’s alternate reality. And like tropical rainforest rip-offsets, which can be sold for one piece of land (preserving it for a fee with the idea that it will “offset” or make up for carbon used by flying etc. It’s an absurd idea in any case but has led to scams in which one piece of land is “preserved” while the unchanged demand for lumber, pasture, farmland etc. causes some other equal piece of land to be clearcut.

    Why not just build one wind turbine and one solar panel and sell them over and over and over to various people wanting offsets? (They can even have a choice between solar and wind power that way.) Then when the biosphere collapses into chaos and suffering and it actually starts to affect us, we can just buy more offsets and have poorer dark people in other countries suffer for us.

    Oh, I guess we already do that.

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