Chicago Climate Action Plan: An Urban Response to Climate Change
Chicago Climate Action Plan:
An Urban Response to Climate Change
The majority of the world population now lives in urban areas. Global urbanization continues at high speed. The Worldwatch Institute projects that the world’s urban population would increase by 2.6 billion people between 2011 and 2050, bringing the total urban population to 6.3 billion. Consequently, cities’ carbon footprints are getting bigger every year. 75 percent of total greenhouse gas emission is urban based. In response to their expanding carbon footprint, cities have been increasingly involved in finding a solution to this global problem. This paper analyses the Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP) as a case study for adaptation and mitigation projects managed by global cities. The City of Chicago believes that its adaptation and mitigation strategies and goals will ‘make a genuine impact’ and ‘can inspire similar initiatives in cities around the world.’ This paper assesses the CCAP’s five strategies –energy efficient buildings, clean and renewable energy sources, improved transportation options, reduced waste and industrial waste, and adaptation– and the implementation of their goals. The findings help us to assess if and how cities can become major actors in combating against climate change.
The majority of the world population now lives in urban areas. Global urbanization continues at high speed. The Worldwatch Institute projects that the world’s urban population would increase by 2.6 billion people between 2011 and 2050, bringing the total urban population to 6.3 billion. Consequently, cities’ carbon footprints are getting bigger every year. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns in its Fifth Assessment Report (WGI AR5): “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” In response to IPCC’s consistent warnings and cities’ expanding carbon footprints, municipalities increasingly involve in adapting to negative impacts of climate change and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
Cities and Climate Change
Since 1980s, cities have become part of the global efforts to fight against climate change. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiative’s (ICLEI) Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) program, the Climate Alliance and Energy-Cities, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the European Covenant of Mayors are major municipal associations that have been responding to climate change. Cities are implementing projects to curb greenhouse gas emissions by using energy more efficiently, reducing their waste and use of natural resources, promoting reusing and recycling, building roof gardens, managing public transportation more wisely, and using land more eco-friendly. At the same time, international climate change negotiations are deadlocked due to “tugs-of war” between “developed and developing countries over the distribution of responsibility to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions” and political problems related to addressing global climate change at the state level are frustrating the world community. In an effort to fill the vacuum created by the failure of states to address negative impacts of climate change with comprehensive centralized policies, cities have developed their own strategies to manage their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to dangers of climate change. Actually, cities understand that they have to respond to climate change since they have already suffered from its negative impacts.
As global average surface warming goes up and global average sea level continues to rise, it is very likely that climate change will continue to negatively affect cities socially and economically. According to UN-HABITAT, 54% of Asia’s urban population lives in low-lying coastal zones. A rise in sea level and an increase in intensity of tropical cyclones, higher winds and heavier precipitation, stronger storm will surge and increased coastal flooding will expand the vulnerability of coastal cities. Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Hai Phong, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Kolkata, Mumbai, Shanghai and Yangon are the world’s most exposed cities to increased flooding due to climate change. In Lagos, for example, a city of nine million people in 2006, with about 400,000 added each year, about 70% of the people live in slums, many of whom are located less than five meters above average sea level. A sea level rise of one meter could displace 3.6 million people in Lagos alone. Destruction by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, damages brought by hurricane Sandy to cities from Kingston, Jamaica to New York City in 2012 and the devastation caused by typhoon Haiyan in Samar, the Philippines in 2013 are still fresh in minds.
In addition, Mees and Driessen draw the attentions to the so-called Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. It may increase the temperature up to four degrees Celsius in comparison to rural areas due to the urbanization process, which replaces natural surfaces with ones that are paved and constructed upon. Rising average surface temperature enhances the UHI effect. Mees and Driessen add that urban environments are less healthy than rural areas, and again climate change will worsen this situation as a result of stress from heat waves and flood events, and increased occurrence of vector-borne diseases.
Bulkeley and Betsill underscore that municipality’ roles in implementing climate change policies and the support provided by international city associations could be essential in combating climate change. Especially in using energy more efficiently, municipal approaches to climate change mitigation are important. Based on the United States Department of Energy surveys, Pitt mentions that approximately 40% of end-use energy consumption is attributable to buildings, and 17% comes from passenger vehicle travel. These two categories are mainly affected by local land use regulations, building codes, and transportation plans. In order to fight against global climate change, a global effort is necessary that includes a concerted effort among citizens, businesses and institutions to reduce their respective energy use and carbon footprints. According to Pitt, local governments are well positioned to encourage and facilitate such efforts at the community level.
Romero-Lankao agrees on cities’ promising contributions to global mitigation and adaptation campaigns. She emphasizes that cities, as hubs of development, have, will, and must become sources of innovations and policy responses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Cities can trigger important synergies and create resources for developing and implementing innovative adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Considering cities’ increasing roles in combating climate change, this paper analyses Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP) as a case study for adaptation and mitigation projects managed by global cities. The City of Chicago believes that its adaptation and mitigation strategies will ‘make a genuine impact’ and ‘can inspire similar initiatives in cities around the world.’ The next section will cover CCAP and its five strategies. Then an assessment will be provided on the city’s challenges and potentials in combating climate change.
Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP)
The CCAP was prepared in 2008 by a task force upon request of the former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Dozens of experts, leading scientists and a nationally recognized research advisor committee were brought together in the body of the Chicago Climate Task Force. Their message was clear: “If Chicago continues on its current path, just like many other cities, its greenhouse gas emissions could increase 35 percent by the year 2050. If the world continues on its present path, Chicago could experience extreme heat in the summer, many more heavy rain storms, growing flood risks, stresses on our public health and threats to the city’s economy.”
The Chicago Climate Task Force planned to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below its 1990 level by 2050 in order to do its part to fight against climate change. To be able to achieve this goal, the Task Force set an initial goal of 25% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020, “a midterm goal that was far enough in the future to allow time for major infrastructure and behavioural changes, but soon enough to ensure we are on the right course.”
Click on the image for a larger view
It was thought that in addition to support global efforts in combating climate change, the CCAP will provide Chicagoans with better air quality, leading to improved health for city residents. The benefits would also include increasing energy efficiency of buildings, lowering housing costs for families and creating jobs in the city. Local economic development would get a boost as CCAP’s projects are conducted. Another positive externality of the CCAP could be the invention of new eco-friendly technologies.
The CCAP has five major strategies: Energy Efficient Buildings, Clean and Renewable Energy Sources, Improved Transportation Options, Reduced Waste and Industrial Pollution, and Adaptation (see Table 1). The CCAP sets up goals for each strategy and suggests actions for all related parties, including organizations, businesses and individuals. Oversight of the CCAP adaptation and mitigation projects are undertaken by a Green Ribbon Committee, a panel of business and community leaders who review progress and report directly to the mayor.
According to the City’s Progress Report, within just the first two years between 2008 and 2010, the CCAP achieved to reduce their emission of carbon dioxide by 1.2 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e), which account for 8% of its mitigation goal. 456 initiatives were developed by sixteen city departments and their sister agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to negative effects of climate change. Some highlights of accomplishments regarding CCAP’s five strategies were mentioned in the progress report:
- 13,341 housing units retrofitted to be more energy efficient
- 393 commercial and industrial buildings retrofitted to be more energy efficient
- 30,542 appliances traded in
- 20 million more Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) rides annually
- 35 million gallons of water conserved per day
- 8 million square feet of additional green roofs installed or under construction
- 120 green alleys installed
- 636 new car share vehicles available
- 208 hybrid buses added to CTA fleet
- 508,000 gallons of alternative fuel used
- 83 percent of construction and demolition debris recycled
After releasing the progress report, the City of Chicago provided an update in the format of a dashboard. Figure 1 shows this score card that contains the achievements in areas of Energy Efficient Buildings, Clean and Renewable Energy Sources, Improved Transportation Options, Reduced Waste and Industrial Pollution, and Adaptation.
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The City Hall’s ‘Green Roof’ has been used as a symbol for the City’s eco-friendly approach. This project reduces the amount of energy needed to cool the building in summer months, captures water during rainstorms, thus reducing the amount of water flowing into Chicago’s already overtaxed sewers, and decreases negative outcomes of the urban ‘heat island’ effect. According to a survey, air temperatures above City Hall are on average 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit lower than those above the neighboring black-tar roof of the Cook County Building. On hot summer days the difference can be as big as fifty degrees Fahrenheit. These garden roofs are just one project, among many other CCAP adaptation and mitigation efforts. Although Chicago is leading other global cities in roof gardening, it still has more than half a million buildings with the green roof potential. Right now, Chicago has almost 360 green roofs, covering more than 5 million square feet.
The City of Chicago released its Sustainability Action Plan, Sustainable Chicago 2015, which covers seven categories critical to the sustainability of the city. It sets twenty-four specific goals and identifies key actions to reach those goals by 2015. It is considered as a roadmap for how Chicagoans, at home and at work, can get involved. The seven categories are related and reinforce each other –success in one can lead to or amplify success in another. Climate change is specifically underscored as one the seven categories:
- Economic Development and Job Creation
- Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy
- Transportation Options
- Water and Wastewater
- Parks, Open Space and Healthy Food
- Waste and Recycling
- Climate Change
The City of Chicago is still in the early phase of implementation of its climate change action plan and there is a lot to do to achieve its adaptation and mitigation targets. However, its early achievements have been recognized. For example, in the category of large community, Chicago was awarded the 2012 Siemens Sustainable Community Award for its multi-stakeholder approach to implementing the CCAP. Area businesses, advocacy groups, philanthropists, utilities, government offices, museums and restaurants do their part in achieving results of the CCAP, which is an element of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s broad strategy to integrate sustainability throughout the city and its government. In March 2013, Chicago and mayor Emanuel were awarded the Earth Hour Climate Leaders Award and $30,000 to support efforts to engage residents in climate action. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called Chicago one of the nation’s leading cities addressing climate change. Chicago was among 29 US cities participating in WWF’s Earth Hour City Challenge, an annual initiative recognizing sustainable cities.
City of Chicago’s Challenges and Potentials in Combating Climate Change
Bulkeley, Broto and Edwards argue that through “low carbon urbanism” cities may be able to foster both their climate change objectives and their long-term economic development. Low carbon urbanism would bring new resources, innovative eco-friendly technology and know-how. Chicago, as a hub of finance, manufacture, technology, and service industries, has certainly capabilities to contribute to low carbon urbanism. Bulkeley, Broto and Edwards also address questions about complex ‘multilevel’ arenas of authority for governing climate change in the city. It is not clear how the City of Chicago will respond to pressures for urban development and growth and how it positions itself at the multilevel arenas of authority in local, state, federal and international levels.
Regarding discussions on potentials and limitations of cities in combating climate change, New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “Cities around the globe are taking the lead in making our world healthier, more energy efficient, less congested, less polluted, and less endangered by climate change effects” at a mayors’ roundtable in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conference in March 2012. He also underscored that cities could not solve the world’s climate problem and other resource management issues alone. “They need support at national and international levels,” he wrote in the blog for C40, a global cities climate leadership organization. It is not obvious what kind of external support the City of Chicago can get from the federal government in the implementation of CCAP strategies, if it gets any assistance.
Chicago’s main advantage comes from its leaders’ political will to make a difference and become a role model in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Both former mayor Daley and the current mayor Emanuel put their charismatic leadership on the table to make the CCAP a success story. Mayor Emanuel announced: “I want Chicago to be the greenest city in the world, and I am committed to fostering opportunities for Chicagoans to make sustainability a part of their lives and their experience in the city.” The motivation at the leadership level is a big asset for the city in its challenging task to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. The literature on climate change agreements among cities emphasizes the importance that leaders in city government can play as “policy entrepreneurs” in motivating participation in climate change agreements and actions in mitigation projects.
In densely built cities such as Chicago, where buildings account for 71% of greenhouse-gas emissions, energy efficiency and conservation will save money for the city and its residents. The city’s emphasis on improved transportation, which accounts about 23% greenhouse-gas emissions in Chicago, will also bring further savings in addition to curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. Mayor Emanuel summarizes these benefits in the Sustainability Action Plan: “A sustainable Chicago is a city that spends less on energy use with each passing year, creates good-paying jobs in up-and-coming industries, responsibly maintains and upgrades its infrastructure, and ensures every Chicagoan has the opportunity to live a healthy and active lifestyle.”
As a ‘green city’, Chicago is part of almost all major municipal associations that have been responding to climate change, from C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group to the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. This networking capability enables the City of Chicago to learn the best practices on zero-carbon or low-carbon urban applications and also contribute to these practices. According to Lee and van de Meene, the aim of such networks is not only to facilitate the learning of best practices, but also collaborate to address common pool resource issues. For example, the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) and New York City’s Long Term Sustainability Plan (PlaNYC) have offered good benchmarking tools for the City of Chicago and vice versa.
Cities, mostly in developing countries, face financial, technical, capacity-building, informational, and governance difficulties in their adaptation and mitigation efforts. Cities in developed countries, like London, Rotterdam, and Toronto, have relatively strong legal and political capacities. Mees and Driessen argue that their legal capacity is strong due to ample regulatory regimes for the conservation and enhancement of green space. Political capacity is generally strong because of existence of political will and leadership. They mention however, that their managerial capacity can be rather mediocre due to the presence of compartmentalization and fragmentation, which represent the two key barriers to governance capacity. This observation is not completely valid for the City of Chicago, since the sixteen city departments and their related agencies work in tandem under the leadership of Karen Weigert, Chief Sustainability Officer of the City of Chicago. In addition, businesses located in the city, like United Airlines, Boeing Company, Allstate Corporation and Exelon Corporation and civic organizations like Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and Civic Consultant Alliance, contribute to sustainability projects and support a healthy and green Chicago region as part Chicago Region Corporate Sustainability Working Group.
That said, like other cities, City of Chicago has a huge challenge to create sufficient financial incentives to promote mitigating behaviors due to budgetary constraints. Krause argues that cities are unlikely to implement their climate action plans in a comprehensive and coordinated manner in the absence of outside encouragement and assistance. In this sense, federal governments should shape their efforts to encourage local greenhouse gas abatement activities. Needless to say, if the US federal government ends its deadlock in its climate change policy and focuses on taking solid steps in curbing greenhouse gas emissions by supporting local level climate action plans, the City of Chicago will benefit profoundly.
This paper has analysed the CCAP with a consideration that it offers a benchmarking case to other global cities in developing their own mitigation and adaptation programs. Even if it is still in early phases, the CCAP has solid gains in curbing greenhouse gas emissions with its participatory approach and support of its stakeholders, including individuals, businesses and civil organizations.
Through its climate and sustainability action plans, the City of Chicago indicates that municipalities can ‘make a genuine impact’ in combating climate change. The CCAP’s five strategies –energy efficient buildings, clean and renewable energy sources, improved transportation options, reduced waste and industrial waste, and adaptation– can be adopted by global cities and customized in implementation stages according to their own circumstances.
Given the gridlock at national and international levels, cities can help each other to do their part in fighting against climate change. Their adaptation and mitigation efforts would create many more positive externalities, like healthier ecological systems, better public health and sustainable economic developments. Through its climate action and sustainability programs, the City of Chicago surfaces municipalities’ challenges, but more importantly it highlights cities’ true potential in dealing with this global problem. Its CCAP provides an exemplary case as an urban response to climate change.
Professor Konuralp Pamukçu, Chair of the School of Business, University of Phoenix-Chicago
Please cite this publication as follows:
Pamukçu, K. (February, 2015), “Chicago Climate Action Plan: An Urban Response to Climate Change”, Vol. IV, Issue 2, pp.47-62, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=7947)
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Climate Change”, Review of Policy Research, Volume 29, Number 5, 2012.
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City of Chicago, Chicago Climate Action, Available at:
The responsibilities of the Green Ribbon Committee are to provide an independent review of the Chicago Climate Action Plan performance, recommend areas where adjustments are needed, report progress and problems to the mayor at least annually and more often if needed, provide problem solving and thought partnership; and commit to action in supporting CCAP.
The list of City departments and offices which have a role in the CCAP includes: Chicago Department of Aviation, Chicago Department of Buildings, Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, Chicago Department of Environment, Chicago Department of Fleet Management, Chicago Department of General Services, Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development, Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology, Chicago Department of Procurement Services, Chicago Department of Public Health, Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, Chicago Department of Transportation, Chicago Department of Water Management, Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Public Building Commission, and Chicago Mayor’s Office.
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Damian Rogero Pitt, “Harnessing Community Energy: The Keys to Climate Mitigation Policy Adoption in US Municipalities”, Local Environment, Volume 15, No.8, September 2010, pp.717-729.
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For a further discussion on multi-level governance of climate protections, see Harriet Bulkeley and Michele M. Betsill , “Revisiting the Urban Politics of Climate Change”, Environmental Politics, Volume 22, Issue 1, 2013, pp.136-154.