Cities are at the forefront of the climate revolution

Austin Mayor Steve Adler thinks cities are an important climate solution. He’s right.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

The Austin Climate Equity Plan sets the city’s climate agenda for the coming decades, including reaching net-zero emissions by 2040.

Photo: Sarah Karlan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Climate change obviously requires global action. But if we’re actually going to solve the whole planet-on-fire thing, then it’s going to take more than top-down mandates.

It’s not like world leaders have done much of anything about carbon pollution to date — and let’s not get started on Congress. In that vacuum, city leaders could be just what we need to start making concrete changes to help Earth. At SXSW, Austin Mayor Steve Adler made the case for just that.

“We used to live in a time when city-states were more controlled,” he told Protocol. “We've evolved through that, and now we have nation-states. But the decentralized approach, city-to-city contact, now is so much more important than it was when I became mayor just seven years ago.”

Austin is part of the C40 coalition, an international constellation of cities that have set aggressive climate targets in line with what the science demands and that represent more than a quarter of the global economy. The Austin Climate Equity Plan sets the city’s climate agenda for the coming decades, including reaching net-zero emissions by 2040. That’s 10 years ahead of the timeline identified in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report about limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It’s also 10 years ahead of the federal government’s net-zero goal set by President Joe Biden last year.

Net zero, of course, has some wiggle room in terms of how a city, company or nation interprets it. Different technologies and forms of carbon accounting, as well as the role of offsets, can all be used to fudge reaching net zero. But while companies are largely unaccountable except to shareholders — who may not prioritize climate goals over profits — and national politicians are increasingly insulated from their policy choices, city-level policymakers actually have to face the people they serve.

Austin, TX Photo: Dale Honeycutt via Unsplash

“At a city level, platitudes and aspirations really don't carry much weight,” he said. “The people I run into all the time at the grocery store don't want to know about what the aspirations are. I get asked really specific questions … What's happening with this specific policy that we have with respect to enabling EV charging stations? And why did I make the decision to fund this priority this way, and not another? It’s really real when you get to the city level.”

That level of engagement can help keep Adler’s administration as well as those that follow accountable. Many of the city’s net-zero aspirations focus on improving access to the technologies we need to reduce emissions rather than offsets or other accounting tricks. Buildings are currently the biggest source of emissions, for example, and the plan calls for interim targets in 2030 for all new construction to be net zero through a mix of better efficiency, more data on energy use and building codes that require the use of no- or low-carbon technologies like heat pumps.

The city also has a plan to reduce the embodied carbon of buildings by 40%. That’s a key metric because it takes into account the carbon emissions tied to the entire life cycle of materials used to make a building, not just how much carbon it emits once built. Focusing on embodied carbon also starts to connect Austin’s climate goals to supply chains that extend well beyond the city.

That reflects the reality that cities can’t decarbonize the entire world by themselves. But the policy innovations in Austin and elsewhere can speed up technological innovations and make them more widely accessible. Of course, that’s not a substitute for national policies or federal money that would help cities speed up their timelines.

“It would have good nation-states actually doing something,” Adler said, adding that “cities are places where people expect things to get done, and I think that that's a really important place to start.”

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