Cities play a crucial role in combating global warming, says Greg Nickels

As the world works to implement the Kyoto Protocol, attention will continue to focus on what the US is doing – or not doing – to meet the challenge of global warming. While some have despaired, I remain hopeful, because the spirit of Kyoto is very much alive here in America.

Already, 188 mayors across the country have embraced the goals of Kyoto. They did it by signing the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which I launched on February 16, 2005, the day the Protocol went into effect. These mayors represent more than 40 million Americans across the political spectrum in 38 states from California to Texas, Florida to Maine. The coalition includes 23 of the 50 largest cities in America. The US Conference of Mayors – the pre-eminent association of local government, representing 1,100 cities – unanimously endorsed the agreement at its annual meeting in Chicago last June.

By signing this compact, mayors are making two commitments. The first is to strive to meet or beat the emissions reduction targets in the Kyoto Protocol in their own communities, through such steps as curbing urban sprawl, investing in public transport and clean energy, and increasing recycling. The second is to support strong climate-protection policies at the state and federal level.

Kyoto is striking a chord in city halls across America. More and more mayors recognize that while climate disruption is a global phenomenon, many of its impacts – and solutions – are local.
Consider Seattle. My city of 575,000 people relies heavily on snow in the nearby Cascade Mountains for drinking water and hydroelectric power. Since 1950, the amount of snow in our mountains has gone down by 50%. Leading climate researchers at the University of Washington warn that it could be cut in half again by 2050.

The disruption of global warming is not far in the future. It is staring us in the face.

But so are enormous opportunities for improving quality of life and economic vitality in our cities. Some people believe action to fight global warming will lead to economic ruin. I believe the opposite.

Light without heat

In Seattle we found a way to power our city without toasting the planet. We made the commitment five years ago that Seattle City Light, our municipally-owned electric utility, would produce and deliver power to its 370,000 household and business customers with zero net emissions of greenhouse gases. In November, City Light became the first major utility in the US to meet that goal. We did it by combining careful management of our hydroelectricity supply, aggressive conservation programmes, decreased investment in coal power, increased investment in wind power and other renewable energy sources, and an innovative greenhouse-gas mitigation programme to purchase emissions reductions from other institutions.

At the same time, we have kept our rates affordable, boosted the local economy and improved the bottom line of our electric utility.
By conserving energy, people in Seattle saved more than 7.2 million megawatt-hours of electricity between 1977 and 2001, enough to power the entire city for two years. The money that would have otherwise been spent on electricity bills stayed in the pocketbooks of families and made businesses more profitable.

Our strong commitment to environmental design and construction in new city buildings such as Seattle City Hall have helped to create one of the most robust green building industries in the country. This means more work for the local architects, civil engineers, developers and builders who are pioneering more climate-friendly approaches to buildings and infrastructure.

Similarly, our investments in renewable biodiesel are creating jobs and business opportunities in Seattle and throughout the region. We converted all of the city’s diesel vehicles to run on a mixture of biodiesel and ultra-low sulphur diesel. We are helping other large fleets convert, including the regional bus system and the ferries that carry tens of thousands of commuters a day across our waters. As a result, our state’s first biodiesel production plant recently opened in Seattle, and talks are under way to grow biodiesel crops on farms in the eastern part of Washington State.
It is, therefore, increasingly clear to me, and to more and more of my fellow mayors, that climate disruption is much more than an environmental issue. It is an economic issue, too.

Cities acting individually and together can make a difference. For the first time in our history, most human beings in the world live in cities. Most of the world’s energy is consumed by cities. We are also the epicentres of innovation. As major employers, developers, fleet operators, utility providers and buyers of goods and services, city governments can take direct action to reduce local and regional emissions while setting a powerful example for other governments and private companies.

City planning

In addition, through smart zoning and building requirements, transport investments, affordable housing and economic development programmes, we can cut regional emissions by curbing urban sprawl, taking cars off the road and creating “clean” industries. If all the major cities in the world set and achieved strong climate protection goals, we would be a long way towards solving the problem.

We can’t do it alone. Strong action at a national and international level is essential. We need a robust network of local, regional, national and international commitments to meet the challenge.

In the months ahead, we must define what that network should be as 2012 – the end of the Kyoto Protocol timeframe – rapidly approaches. I will continue to meet mayors from around the world to compare notes, to share success stories and lessons learned, and to find new ways in which cities can support each other. Our message to national and international leaders will be clear: climate disruption is an urgent global and local challenge; the quality of life and economic vitality of our cities are at stake; sensible and profitable solutions exist; and the time to act is now.

CV Greg Nickels

Greg Nickels, a Democrat, became the 51st mayor of Seattle in 2002.