U.S. mayors find it’s not easy to be green

Times Staff Writer

America’s mayors, responding to a growing sense of urgency over climate change, are rapidly stepping up programs to weatherize buildings, capture methane gas from landfills, switch municipal fleets to hybrids, promote mass transit and buy cleaner electricity.

But changing the carbon footprint of their cities is turning out to be harder than they thought.

To help fund the mayors’ ambitious plans, Congress has included block grants in energy legislation now under consideration -- up to $2 billion a year in a House bill -- to jump-start “green jobs” initiatives, training low-income workers to retrofit buildings and install climate-friendly energy systems.

“Green energy is going to be the oil gusher of the 21st century,” New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg testified at the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Summit in Seattle on Friday. “This is going to be a huge industry.”


As of last week, 728 mayors, whose cities house a quarter of the nation’s population, have signed what amounts to a Kyoto Protocol for U.S. municipalities. By joining the mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, launched three years ago, they have formally pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions by their cities to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012, which is also Kyoto’s target.

And the mayors have set a goal to further cut their cities’ emissions by 80% by 2050 -- the amount most scientists say is needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change.

The Bush administration has opposed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, saying that it would damage the U.S. economy -- a stance that drew scathing criticism at last week’s summit.

“It’s the failure of our federal government to step up,” said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. “We as mayors recognize the threat of hurricanes, drought and the lack of snowpacks. It’s our obligation to . . . take action.”

Despite their green enthusiasm, however, many cities are hard put to calculate the actual level of their greenhouse gases back to 1990, the benchmark in their pledge.

In some cases, data is unavailable. And though several nonprofits offer technical assistance and new software is being sold to crunch the numbers, no standard model exists to assess progress.

Even Berkeley, a green pioneer with access to high-powered academics, is uncertain as to its pre-2000 emissions and how much transportation contributes, said Mayor Tom Bates, who estimates that the college town has cut total emissions by 8.9% in the last five years. Seattle’s Nickels includes airport emissions when calculating his city’s CO2, but he pointedly notes that New York doesn’t.

“If we focus on recycling, on increasing bus ridership, on sprawl, we should get reductions,” said Heidi Davison, mayor of Athens, Ga., who signed the pledge two years ago. “But I don’t have any way to measure it.”


And how much of their emissions can cities in fact control? Vehicle tailpipes, a huge source of carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases, are regulated by Congress, which is reluctant to mandate strict fuel efficiency in the face of a strong auto manufacturers lobby. And except when they own utilities, cities have little control over power plants.

In a January report, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, surveyed 10 high-profile “Kyoto cities,” including San Francisco, which have signed the mayoral agreement early and have moved aggressively to cut emissions. In all, with the exception of Portland, Ore., the report found that emissions had increased dramatically since 1990.

The report concluded: “Most do not appear to be slowing their greenhouse gas emissions more than their state, or the national averages.” Several city plans have been predicated on speculation that Congress would increase auto fuel efficiency, or that state renewable electricity standards would cut power plant emissions.

Nonetheless, the mood was upbeat among the 110 mayors who attended the two-day Seattle powwow. “The work is not easy,” said Nickels. “But 75% of the world’s energy is consumed in cities. Mayors have the ability to change peoples’ behavior. . . . If we can only get that first 7% and not get thrown out of office for doing it!”


At the summit, a 65-page booklet was handed out, detailing initiatives taken in 52 cities, from Albuquerque to Waukesha, Wis. Several programs in California were also included, such as Irvine’s distribution of 60,000 compact fluorescent lightbulbs (enough to reduce carbon output by 1,200 tons), and Palm Desert’s visitor center, which uses 40% less energy and 50% less water than building-code norms.

The mayors also launched a website,, to guide communities. And in a keynote speech Thursday, former President Clinton announced that he would include 1,100 large- and medium-size U.S. cities in his foundation’s buying consortium. The initiative, launched last year for the world’s 40 largest cities, seeks to drive down the price of energy-efficient equipment by making bulk purchases.

Even so, many of the mayors acknowledged that they had only begun to take on the easier tasks -- such as capturing methane gas from landfills and installing efficient traffic and street lights. Some have gone further, with 28 cities adopting mandatory building codes that meet the standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit industry group.

But the obstacles to other high-impact measures are considerable. Bloomberg, whose signature accomplishment in this field has been to mandate the conversion of New York’s 13,000 taxis to hybrid vehicles, has yet to get his congestion-pricing plan -- charging vehicle fees to commuters -- through the Legislature.


And Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, while touting his plan to reduce carbon emissions by 35% in 20 years, complained: “Just think about the need in my city: A million people go to work every day on Wilshire Boulevard. It connects downtown with Santa Monica -- two of the biggest centers of jobs -- and yet we don’t have a subway.”

One thing the conference participants agreed on was that the biggest challenge is to persuade their constituents to change their energy-wasting behavior.

Oakland Mayor Ron “Dellums and I can’t go into West Oakwood and say . . . ‘Hey we got to do something about polar bears,’ ” said Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, who touted the city’s Green Job Corps. “Some people can’t buy a Prius because some people are struggling to pay bus fare. Does the green wave lift all boats?”

In Berkeley, Bates is encountering little resistance. “We went to the ballot in 2006, and asked citizens, ‘Are you interested in having your mayor come up with a plan to reduce emissions 80% by 2050?’ ” The initiative passed by 81%.


“So now we are able to do things we wouldn’t have had the running room to do,” he said. “When all those smart lawyers and doctors feel self-entitled, we say, ‘Wait a minute -- you can’t argue with 81%!’ ”