Building sustainability from the ground up

L to R: Tom Cochran, CEO and Executive Director, The U.S. Conference of Mayors; Daniel A Zarrilli, Senior Director, Climate Policy and Programs, Chief Resilience Officer, New York City Office of the Mayor; Josh Sawislak, Global Director of Resilience, AECOM; Mayor Chris Bollwage, Elizabeth, NJ, Mayor Javier Gonzales, Santa Fe, NM; Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore, MD; Bob Perciasepe, President, C2ES.

 

Mayors know what’s going on in their communities. Businesses know how to get a good return on investment. So it seems like a natural fit to have them work together on innovative ways to finance clean energy, strengthen resilience to climate impacts, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To promote that collaboration, C2ES and The U.S. Conference of Mayors formed the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, which held its first public forum during Climate Week NYC.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, past president of the conference, told the gathering that cities are where the work is getting done when it comes to addressing climate change. “Nations talk about energy efficiency and climate action, but mayors are doing it every day,” she said.

At the same time, she noted, mayors need tools to get the job done. “We have to do more with less resources. We’re all in this together.”

That’s where business comes into the picture.

Josh Sawislak, global director of resilience for AECOM, a global engineering, consulting and project management company, said businesses want to get involved in building resilience, and they can do more on the local level.

He noted, however, that there needs to be a sound business case for clean energy investments, and for small businesses, the return on investment needs to be immediate.

“Climate change is costing us money. Not investing in these things is costing us money. We’re not doing the math right,” he said.

Some cities are already taking an innovative approach to bridging the gap between the two interests.

Santa Fe, NM, Mayor Javier Gonzales, the alliance’s chairman, explained how his city’s new Verde Fund taps into community needs and business expertise to help low-income residents access clean energy. “More well-to-do people can navigate complicated systems to get rooftop solar on your house,” he said. “The Verde Fund helps disadvantaged residents do the same.”

When low-income residents can save money on their electricity bills by going solar, he said, they have more money to spend on food, clothing and other essentials. The jobs created by these projects benefit the community as well.

Elizabeth, NJ, Mayor Chris Bollwage, whose city’s vulnerability to climate impacts was exposed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said some visionary leadership is also needed to imagine today what will be needed tomorrow.

“When we built Elizabeth’s midtown parking garage, we put in five spaces for electric vehicle charging,” he said. “No one used them the first two years, but now three cars are charging there every day.”

In New York City, officials are being proactive in other ways, like working through the city’s OneNYC plan to reduce energy use in buildings, the source of 70 percent of the city’s emissions. Daniel Zarelli, Mayor Bill de Blasio's senior director of climate and sustainability policies and chief resilience officer, said the city’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by 30 percent by 2025 and to retrofit one million buildings so they’re energy efficient.

All the panelists agreed that federal, state, and local policy must become aligned to move in the right direction. One way to do that is by citizens letting both their government and business leaders know that they value sustainability.