Cities Take On Kyoto Challenge to Cut Emissions

Jonathan Cohen Shows Off Recycled Building Supplies i i

Jonathan Cohen, Boulder's environmental affairs manager, points out some recycled building supplies. Boulder residents come to this site to browse for supplies to fix up their houses. Kathleen Schalch, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathleen Schalch, NPR
Jonathan Cohen Shows Off Recycled Building Supplies

Jonathan Cohen, Boulder's environmental affairs manager, points out some recycled building supplies. Boulder residents come to this site to browse for supplies to fix up their houses.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR
Boulder Collects Organic Waste and Recycles It i i

Boulder is collecting organic waste and recycling it to make compost for people to put into their gardens. As branches, tree limbs and food waste decompose in landfills, they release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Kathleen Schalch, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathleen Schalch, NPR
Boulder Collects Organic Waste and Recycles It

Boulder is collecting organic waste and recycling it to make compost for people to put into their gardens. As branches, tree limbs and food waste decompose in landfills, they release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR
Mayor Mark Ruzzin Stands in Parking Spot Reserved for Electric Vehicles i i

Boulder Mayor Mark Ruzzin stands in a parking spot the city has reserved for electric vehicles to allow them to plug in and recharge. It's in front of the North Boulder Recreation Center, one of the city's new energy-efficient buildings, which includes solar panels on the roof to heat the pool. Kathleen Schalch, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathleen Schalch, NPR
Mayor Mark Ruzzin Stands in Parking Spot Reserved for Electric Vehicles

Boulder Mayor Mark Ruzzin stands in a parking spot the city has reserved for electric vehicles to allow them to plug in and recharge. It's in front of the North Boulder Recreation Center, one of the city's new energy-efficient buildings, which includes solar panels on the roof to heat the pool.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR

Mayors across the nation are trying to do something meaningful in their communities to address climate change. More than 600 have pledged to try to meet the target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions set by the Kyoto Protocol, even though the federal government won't make the commitment.

One city not waiting on Washington is Boulder, Colo., a sunny college town with lots of bike paths, mountain vistas and activists. Mayor Mark Ruzzin says residents are alarmed about global warming and want to take action.

"We don't need to study it for another five years. We don't need to play politics for another five years," he says.

So Boulder has created the nation's first carbon tax — a charge that's added to electric bills because the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants.

"Electricity is the major contributor to the community's greenhouse gas emissions, so it is the elephant in the living room, so to speak, and taxing that consumption makes a lot of sense," Ruzzin says.

The money from the tax, about a million dollars annually, will help fund the city's "climate action plan." Volunteers are going door to door, handing out compact fluorescent light bulbs and weather stripping. The city has been buying hybrid vehicles and adding "green" features to public buildings, such as the new recreation center.

Inside the recreation center, the water in the leisure pool is kept warm by solar panels on the roof.

"We're using sunlight to heat the water, rather than using natural gas," Ruzzin says.

Residents say they like the climate plan, which also includes recycling as another way for the city to save energy. A huge assortment of recycled building supplies is piled in a field east of town.

Vicky Watson browses through the pile, stooping to measure a bathtub. "I bought a fixer-upper and essentially I've furnished the entire kitchen, all the lights, the bathrooms, the plumbing."

It's not just cities like Boulder that are aiming to cut emissions. The communities come from across the geographic and political map.

"My community happens to be a community in Indiana that polls as one of the most conservative cities in one of the most conservative states," says Graham Richard, the mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Fort Wayne is holding virtual town meetings to cut down on driving and replacing its old traffic lights with LED bulbs that use 80 percent less energy.

Environmental innovation is also happening in big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But will cities actually meet the Kyoto target? To do it, they would have to cut citywide greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

"This is going to be very challenging," says David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has studied programs in 10 participating cities. During the 1990s, he says, greenhouse gas emissions soared in most places.

"Most of the cities had increased emissions between 6 percent and 27 percent above their 1990 baselines," Morris says. He adds that it's tough to undo that kind of increase, even for a city like Austin, Texas, which has one of the most ambitious climate action plans in the nation.

"Its population growth is, in some ways, overwhelming its improvements in efficiency," Morris says.

Most cities don't have much choice in where they buy their energy, either. Some — the ones with municipally owned utilities — are cutting emissions by buying more wind and solar power. But most utilities are owned by investors and regulated by states.

Cities do have power over building codes, land-use plans and zoning. Boulder has used these to limit development and improve energy efficiency. Jonathan Cohen, Boulder's environmental affairs manager, says it will help the city meet the Kyoto target.

"Our total carbon emissions have reduced by about 5 percent since we started this program. We have another 20 percent to go, and we're going to do it," Cohen says.

But it won't be easy. Boulder and other cities face a problem with tailpipe emissions. After electricity generation, the second-biggest source of greenhouse gases is vehicles. Even in Boulder, where you can bike or take a bus anywhere, Cohen sighs, "People like their cars."

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