Guest Columnist

Cities in Iowa can be leaders on climate action

Thousands of U.S. cities have pledged to help meet targets for cutting emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement

A rally with climate activist Greta Thunberg in downtown Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A rally with climate activist Greta Thunberg in downtown Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

It’s no secret our federal government has largely punted on climate action in recent years, favoring the fossil fuel industry. And, yes, that will change with the new administration. But I think I have found another ray of hope in a paper published in the August issue of the journal Nature Climate Change: “Performance determinants show European cities are delivering on climate mitigation.” This paper looked at a subset of European cities within the European Union Covenant of Mayors (EUCoM), an initiative launched by the European Commission in 2008 to “engage and support mayors to commit to reaching EU climate and energy targets.”

The Covenant includes 10,475 cities representing 320 million people. And while cities cover only 3 percent of the earth, they account for 72 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Each member city joining before 2015 pledges to go further than the 2020 EU target to reduce 1990 emission levels at least 20 percent by 2020. All signatories are required to provide emission inventories and regular progress reports. They are also required to develop their own climate action plan detailing specific measures and policies they intend to implement to achieve their targets.

Determining the impact of subnational climate actions is no easy task. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that there have been very few evaluations of urban climate action plans and their effectiveness. This is due to a lack of data on city-level greenhouse gas emissions, limited information on policy implementation and inconsistent methodologies for monitoring progress. For these reasons the paper focused on only 1,066 cities that provided sufficient data to adequately monitor progress.

The cities in the study represent 47.5 million inhabitants and account for total baseline emissions of 256 million tons of CO2 (6 percent of EU emissions in 2017). On average, the EUCoM cities in the study committed to a reduction of 24 percent. As of this summer, they had achieved emission reductions of 1.08 tons of CO2 per capita, a 14.9 percent reduction from their respective baseline emissions. In addition, the study found that 60 percent of all cities evaluated are on track to achieve their 2020 emission reduction goals. Most telling, of the 1,066 cities studied, 435 are outperforming their national governments by demonstrating steeper emission reduction trends at the local level.

The study also found that city actions focused specifically on energy efficiency were associated with higher greenhouse gas emission reductions. These included technological substitutions in heating systems, roof insulation, heat pumps, solar water heaters and high efficiency glass in buildings. They also included policy measures such as a commitment to purchase 100 percent green energy, implement public awareness campaigns, and provide training courses on energy efficient technologies.

While this study represents a small sample of cities, it offers hope for other communities. Currently, 3,800 U.S. cities have pledged to help meet targets for cutting emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement. And, though it may not look like progress yet, 45 of our 100 largest cities have set specific targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and inventoried their emissions levels to establish baselines. At least it’s a start.

Steven W. Weber lives in Iowa City.

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