Monday, October 15, 2007

Local solutions to climate change

Tip O'Neill, the legendary Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts is best known for coining the phrase: "All politics is local". So too are the causes and many of the solutions to climate change. Unlike the United States, political leaders in the European Union are taking the threat of global warming very seriously. They have undertaken studies, established goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enacted policies designed to achieve those goals.

Still many local governments and their residents are impatient with the rate of process at the federal level and have decided to take matters into their own hands. The results are encouraging. Cities are a major contributor to the climate change crisis. Now local governments are taking the lead to show how they can be a major part of the solution. While the EU has been in the forefront of this movement, it has clearly made its way to the U.S. Here in Massachusetts the city of Cambridge, with help from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation has organized an Energy Alliance designed to reduce its energy consumption by 50% using energy efficiency and conservation measures. Other municipalities including Boston are preparing to enact similar programs. (GW)

European cities fight climate change at home

VAXJO, Sweden - When this quiet city in southern Sweden decided in 1996 to wean itself off fossil fuels, most people doubted the ambitious goal would have any impact beyond the town limits.

A few melting glaciers later, Vaxjo is attracting a green pilgrimage of politicians, scientists, and business leaders from as far afield as the United States and North Korea seeking inspiration from a city program that has allowed it to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent since 1993.

Vaxjo is a pioneer in a growing movement in dozens of European cities, large and small, that aren't waiting for national or international measures to curb global warming.

From London's congestion charge to Paris's city bike program and Barcelona's solar power campaign, initiatives taken at the local level are being introduced across the continent - often influencing national policies instead of the other way around.

"People used to ask: Isn't it better to do this at a national or international level?" said Henrik Johansson, environmental controller in Vaxjo, a city of 78,000 on the shores of Lake Helga, surrounded by thick pine forest in the heart of Smaland Province. "We want to show everyone else that you can accomplish a lot at the local level."

The European Union, mindful that many member states are failing to meet mandated emissions cuts under the Kyoto climate treaty, has taken notice of the trend and is encouraging cities to adopt their own emissions targets. The bloc awarded one of its inaugural Sustainable Energy Europe awards this year to Vaxjo, which aims to have cut emissions by 50 percent by 2010 and 70 percent by 2025.

"We are convinced that the cities are a key element to change behavior and get results," said Pedro Ballesteros Torres, manager of the Sustainable Energy Europe campaign. "Climate change is a global problem but the origin of the problem is very local."

So far only a handful of European capitals have set emissions targets, including Stockholm, Copenhagen and London. Torres said he hopes to convince about 30 European cities to commit to targets next year.

While such goals are welcome, they may not always be the best way forward, said Simon Reddy, who manages the C40 project, a global network of cities exchanging ideas on climate change.

"At the moment a lot of cities don't know what they're emitting so it's very difficult to set targets," Reddy said.

More important than emissions targets, he said, is that cities draft action plans, outlining specific goals needed to reduce emissions, like switching a certain percentage of the public transit system to alternative fuels.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone's Climate Action Plan calls for cutting the city's CO{-2} emissions by 60 percent in 2025, compared to 1990 levels.

Barcelona has, since 2006, required all new and renovated buildings to install solar panels to supply at least 60 percent of the energy needed to heat water. The project has been emulated by dozens of cities in Spain and inspired national legislation, said Angels Codina Relat of the Barcelona Energy Agency.

It's not only in Europe that cities are taking action on climate change.

Several US cities including Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle have launched programs to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In Vaxjo (pronounced VECK-shur), the vast majority of emissions cuts have been achieved at the heating and power plant, which replaced oil with wood chips from local sawmills as its main source of fuel. Ashes from the furnace are returned to the forest as nutrients.

"This is the best fir in Sweden," said plant manager Ulf Johnsson, scooping up wood chips from a giant heap outside the factory.

He had just led Michael Wood, the US ambassador to Sweden, on a tour of the state of the art facility. Not only does it generate electricity, but the water that is warmed up in the process of cooling the plant is used to heat homes in Vaxjo.

A similar system is in place in Copenhagen, where waste heat from incineration and combined heat and power plants is pumped through a 800-mile network of pipes to 97 percent of city.

Copenhagen cut carbon dioxide emissions by 187,600 tons annually in the late '90s by switching from coal to natural gas and biofuels at its energy plants.


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