Sunday, July 08, 2007

How Green is your City?

For those of us who care about the health of our planet, it's been disheartening and disturbing to watch the federal government's actions regarding climate change and environmental protection throughout the Bush years. It's not enough to sit back and grumble, and it's long past time for action. We can do something now. Of course the federal government has an enormous responsibility to protect the United States and the planet, but it's our responsibility too. We can start working now on a personal level and within our cities. Who is responsible for protecting the environment? We are. Every last one of us. We need to start taking better care of our world today. We can not just sit on our hands waiting for the state or federal government to tell us what to do. Individual and community action are essential.

Some of the most innovative results can be found at the local level and within local jurisdictions. This is where we can make change happen. While congress debates, we can get busy working on the problem of excess carbon emissions in our personal environment today. You can change out your incandescent light bulbs, buy energy saving appliances, and weatherize your home, but you can also demand that your local government go green by implementing sustainable practices in your community.

Why should our cities go green? Because it's time to provide leadership and to lead by example. It's the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. It's the responsible thing to do. As a bonus, going green can save money which translates into tax savings and efficiency for the city. There's a common misconception that focusing on sustainability is expensive, but officials around the country have found significant long and short term cost savings in their transition to a cleaner, sustainable city.

The most obvious savings is in the reduction of energy costs. For example, several years ago the city of San Jose tested CalTrans approved red LED traffic indicator lights for both street and pedestrian signals. They were pleased to find that the change provided energy savings of 45.5% per light. Additionally, as the technology has improved, it's possible to change lights less often, which provides the additional savings associated with lower procurement costs and the reduction of maintenance expenses.

Moving toward the goal of a sustainable city also reduces costs associated with waste management. Less garbage means a reduction in land fill fees (which are calulated by weight), and reduced expenses related to the disposal of hazardous materials. This directly and positively impacts operating costs for the city.

Recently San Francisco's mayor Gavin Newsome decreed that the city would no longer spend $500,000 per year purchasing bottled water. In addition to eliminating an unnecessary cost, the plan will reduce the amount of trash that goes to the landfill. More than a billion water plastic bottles end up in California's landfills each year. Additionally the production of the disposable plastic bottles alone comsumes over 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, not to mention the fuel burned in shipping bottles of water around the country. It makes both financial and environmental sense for cities to adopt this green practice.

Cites can also work toward a sustainable future by attracting businesses that provide good jobs and have a positive environmental impact, implementing anti-sprawl land-use policies, and using green building standards in public works projects, and in local building code. There are innumerable ways to go green and save money at the same time, but it's important to keep in mind that the benefit is more than financial. We can look at the economic bottom line, which of course is very important, but the bottom line should also be viewed in social and environmental terms.

What can you do to help your city to "go green" and to bring the concept of sustainability into their everyday operations? I have the perfect answer!

In 2005 Seattle mayor Greg Nickels proposed the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement. This plan has been endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It began in 2005 as a protest against the inaction of the federal government. When it became clear that the U.S. would not join the Kyoto Protocol, Mayor Nickels decided it was time to show the world that there is, in fact, intelligent life in the United States. However this is no longer a symbolic gesture, as it has taken on a life of it's own and is making a difference in hundreds of communities in California and around the country. This agreement has been signed by 592 U.S. city mayors who have pledged to reduce carbon emissions in their own cities, and these mayors are seeking a block grant from the federal government to provide seed money for further innovations that can be implemented at the local level. Cities who participate in the Climate Protection Agreement agree to the following terms.

  • Strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their community, through actions ranging from anti-sprawl land use policies to urban forest restoration projects to public information campaigns.

  • Urge state and federal government to enact politices and programs to meet or beat greenhouse gas emission reduction target suggested for the US in the Kyoto Protocol -- 7% reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.

  • Urge Congress to pass bipartisan greenhouse gas reduction legislation, which would establish a national emission trading system.

So how green is your city, and has your mayor signed the Climate Protection Act? I live on the east side of San Diego and the east county mayors that haven't signed the pledge here are Mark Lewis of El Cajon, Mary Sessom of Lemon Grove and Randy Voepel of Santee. I'm going to work on my little corner of the world, and I challenge anyone who's mayor isn't on the list to do the same. We can make a difference now. There's no need nor time to wait.

For more information on the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement.


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