Web Only / Features » November 20, 2006
Filling the Void
With the federal government failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, many mayors are beginning to think globally and act locally.
With the Bush administration offering little more than empty rhetoric to combat global warming, mayors in cities across the country have begun to accept that responsibility. In particular, Salt Lake City is leading the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its successes stem from environmental efforts led by the city’s Democratic mayor, Rocky Anderson.
“What we have done to combat global warming has been received very well,” Anderson says. “Nobody disagrees with decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, saving money and cleaning up the air locally.”
Started in 2001, Salt Lake City’s Green program is “one of the most comprehensive municipal environmental programs in the nation,” according to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a Toronto-based group that connects governments around the world working toward environmental sustainability. The Green program has combated deteriorating air quality, automobile dependence and sprawl by promoting transit- and pedestrian-oriented development with a growing regional light-rail system and a new Intermodal Transportation Hub that will connect different modes of transport.
One aspect of the Green program, the Local Climate Action Plan, has decreased the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by more than 23,000 tons. The city purchased 1.5 million kilowatts of wind power and upgraded its traffic signals to a new type of light, light-emitting diodes or LEDs, that will save the city more than $50,000 each year. The city has also decreased the amount of energy demanded from coal-fired power plants–and saved taxpayers more than $33,000 a year–by switching to compact fluorescent bulbs at the City and County Building. In 2005, Salt Lake City had already achieved the Kyoto goal of reducing its global warming pollution by 7 percent by 2012–seven years early.
The success of local greening efforts is especially important because of what Anderson calls “a vacuum of leadership on the national level” in combating global warming. The U.S. government has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or otherwise take a proactive stance on global warming.
By the time the Kyoto Protocol became legally binding on February 16, 2005, 141 nations had ratified it. Those nations emit about 55 percent of greenhouse gases and have pledged by 2012 to cut their emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below levels in 1990. U.S. output of carbon dioxide, a principle greenhouse gas, is the largest of any country at 24 percent. Had it had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the United States would have been required to cut its emissions by 7 percent of 1990 levels.
“We’re at a major turning point,” Anderson says. “Now we need to move toward zero emissions. It’s absolutely possible. We have the ability. We need the will.”
“There have got to be major changes [so we can] catch up with the rest of the world economy,” Anderson continues. If more localities get “on-board with local communities and people see [what’s] accomplished, it will be very difficult for the federal government not to get on-board. We can solve the most urgent problem facing our world today.”
Anderson hasn’t been alone in this fight. More than 30 mayors across the country met in Sundance, Utah, from November 12-14 for the Sundance Summit, which aims to drive climate protection through local action. The summit is building on efforts begun in February 2005, when Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels drafted the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The agreement includes provisions to reduce global warming pollution levels to 7 percent below 1990 levels before 2012 and calls on Congress to decrease greenhouse gas emissions using bipartisan legislation. By August 10, 279 mayors representing over 48.5 million Americans had endorsed the agreement, pledging to “strive to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing global warming pollution by taking actions” locally.
One of those signatories, Patrick Henry Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, believes the issue of global warming crosses party lines. “Climate change is not about right or left, but what is important for this country,” Hays says. “Everybody loves their children.”