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U.S. mayors eye redoubled climate role as Biden prepares new policy 

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 20 April 2021 23:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Solar electric panels are shown installed on the roof of the Hanover Olympic building, the first building to offer individual solar-powered net-zero apartments in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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Local officials say their climate action was key during the Trump years and they are now looking to the new president to bolster that work

* Biden expected to unveil new climate policies this week

* Cities call for more flexible funding for climate action

* Mayors say their hands are tied on some low-emissions policies

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - During the four years of the Donald Trump administration, U.S. cities felt they were largely on their own to take action on climate change, officials said, even as many voters pushed for swifter change.

Now, as President Joe Biden moves into his fourth month in office and prepares to unveil his administration's updated climate plans this week, city officials say they feel relief and a sense of opportunity.

"I am so, so happy to have a partner in the White House again on climate action," Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison, Wisconsin, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She urged the federal government now to "trust cities" to help drive needed action.

Madison has been implementing a suite of climate policies, including switching to 100% renewable energy in its municipal facilities by the end of the decade, building a bus rapid transit system and training people to work in green energy jobs.

But on some needed action the city's hands are tied, the mayor said, pointing to building codes set at the state and federal level.

"That's a huge barrier to progress," said Rhodes-Conway, the co-chair of Climate Mayors, a national network that has grown from 40 to 474 cities since 2014.

During the Trump administration, when federal climate policy came to a virtual standstill, cities such as Madison "never stopped working on climate at the local level," she said.

Now "the federal government needs to catch up and listen to cities," she urged.

A report published Wednesday by Climate Mayors, a bipartisan network of U.S. mayors, calls for more direct, flexible federal funding for city climate action.

It outlines the need for shifted policies around making buildings and transit greener, adopting more renewable energy and protecting nature and the services it provides.

"It's a remarkable new day. We spent the last four years in some ways fighting off the federal government," said Daniel A. Zarrilli, chief climate policy adviser for the mayor of New York.

But that period also led to major recognition of how much can be done at city level, and how much cities can help meet national and international climate goals.

Now U.S. city officials say they're not stepping back from that leadership role just because the federal government is back in the game.

"That coalition is now standing up and saying … we're ready to run. We're not just going to hand the ball back to the feds," Zarrilli said.


A key preview of an expanded role for cities may take place this week, when Biden has invited 40 world leaders to participate in a climate summit on Thursday and Friday, with action in cities a key focus.

An updated U.S. pledge of emissions reductions by 2030 also is expected.

"Our hope is that will include a specific focus and investment strategy around urban action," said Amanda Eichel, executive director of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.

She said that while cities have become increasingly central actors on climate change in recent years, they have now reached a pivot point where those changes need to mesh with national policy.

"The need and urgency of the challenge in front of us requires moving in a much more collaborative way with the federal government," she said.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres this month called on mayors to commit their cities to net-zero emissions by 2050, saying at least 80% of power generation in urban areas should be from renewable sources by the end of this decade.

"Make ambitious plans for the next decade," he urged mayors in a speech last week, noting that cities emit more than 70% of global climate-changing gases and calling for a "revolution in urban planning".

A White House spokesman said the Biden administration views the work of states, cities and local governments as "integral" to meeting the president's climate goals.

Another official, Jane Lubchenco, the deputy director for climate and environment with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted U.S. cities have "stepped up" to combat climate change in recent years.

With the new administration, she said in an email, "cities have a strong federal partner that is committed to taking that momentum to the next level."

Kelly Schultz, the cities and climate lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said "it is so important for the federal government to think through how to really empower mayors and cities" as it tries to ramp up climate action to meet its new pledges.

While a 2016 government report found that U.S. city action on climate change could cut national emissions by around 3% to 7% by 2035, experts now think cities, states and other non-national governments could provide nearly a quarter of needed emissions cuts this decade.

"The playing field has changed since then pretty dramatically," said Alexander Dane, manager of the city renewable energy solutions program at the World Resources Institute, a think tank.

He cited a major increase in renewable energy investment and procurement by cities, as well as setting of tougher energy efficiency targets, among other goals.

Crucially, Dane said, the work has evolved from setting goals to trying to reach them.

"Cities (are) learning the 'muscle' of meeting commitments," he said.


Part of that process has been learning what municipalities can and cannot do.

In San Francisco, for instance, efforts to transform existing buildings to zero-emissions are being slowed by federal appliance standards, particularly on heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, said Debbie Raphael, director of the city's Department of the Environment.

The standards do not allow local governments to set energy codes based on carbon emissions or to set stricter local appliance standards, her colleague Barry Hooper said.

"Cities do need greater freedom to determine how best to phase out fossil fuels," said Hooper, senior green building coordinator for the city.

Other officials, such as Zarrilli in New York, caution that city efforts to use more electric transport or decarbonize the power grid will ultimately require federal participation.

So much action on climate change is already happening in cities that the Biden's administration's key role may be simply to help speed that up, said Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for Pittsburgh.

"They have the ability to help local governments accelerate," he said.

"I'm feeling hopeful right now. I think we have a partner in D.C."

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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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