sustainability for cities measuring impacts

Hundreds of cities, counties, and even states made (or renewed) a public commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some local governments made this commitment in response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Others re-affirmed an existing commitment. For more than a decade, cities – both large and small – have recognized the economic advantages associated with sustainability, and have set aggressive goals. At the same time, sustainability advocates have long argued that cities – with zoning authority and direct accountability to a local population – are best poised to lead on sustainability. From recycling policies, to planning decisions that make it easier to bike to work, cities are where change is happening. 

Measuring Progress Matters: Expanding Sustainable Efforts to More Cities

While there is momentum, there is also some skepticism. Critics note that previous commitments made by U.S. cities yielded little in the way of measurable results. And with the risks of climate change clearer every day, it’s important that city efforts deliver. In fact, as local leaders strive to still fulfill national commitments recently set aside by President Trump, measurement becomes even more important.

More broadly, measurement matters because, as we all know, what gets measured is what gets done. Therefore, it is vital that cities measure their progress in reducing emissions, in order to accomplish aggressive goals. I was very pleased to learn that the World Resources Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute, two of the premier thought leaders around measuring results, are working with cities on the issue of sustainability measurement.

A Holistic Approach to Reducing City Emissions

When it comes to a city’s emissions, it’s important that cities think holistically. First, there’s city infrastructure: buildings and fleet, a spot where city government has a great deal of control, as well as city operations – the way city staff uses that infrastructure. Second, there are the policies that city officials enact – the rules that encourage or discourage conservation. And third, cities must include all the infrastructure, operations, and activities associated with the local businesses and residents of the city. While cities have direct control over their own infrastructure, they will need to use various means of influence to reduce the emissions of their local businesses and residents.

Most cities focus first on their own infrastructure and operations, aiming to lead by example. That is an excellent place to start. Ultimately, though, the focus must shift beyond city operations to residents and businesses – the people living and working in the city, not the city itself, and where the majority of city emissions are associated. Sooner or later, city officials need to take on the task of inspiring residents and businesses to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as well.

How to Influence Sustainability Change at the Community Scale

Influencing change at the community scale is no small feat. Smart officials will leverage behavior science tools to inspire change. We write a lot about these strategies for making sustainability change happen on our blog. Indeed, local officials, typically well known and credible leaders within the community, have terrific opportunities to leverage their standing and influence the community when these strategies are utilized.

However, before applying influence, officials need a sense of which changes to promote. Should the city encourage people to bike to work or to retrofit their homes? Will bench marking commercial buildings deliver big savings, or would it be better to offer rapid transit options? City officials need to understand both the potential savings associated with a particular strategy, and the market opportunity – the portion of the population that can be persuaded to participate.

Are People Missing from Your City’s Sustainability Strategy?

When weighing options, cities must consider both technologies and practices. Too often, officials are excited about a shiny new technology, and miss broader, low-cost opportunities for savings. Relative to our climate change, it’s clear that technology alone is insufficient. Meaning, we need to change how people use the technology. There are great historical examples of this. For instance, as cars got more fuel efficient, people tended to move further from work, which increased their commutes. So, even though the cars used less fuel per mile, residents drove further, and the driving ate up the fuel savings. Similarly, we’ve seen numerous instances where consumers didn’t save energy at home because they never turned on the energy-saving features. It is of the utmost importance that people be part of the equation.

It’s easier to find information on potential savings associated with particular practices or technologies than to find likely participation rates. Various state and federal resources will offer estimates of the savings associated with particular equipment upgrades, or even sustainable practices. Replacing inefficient air conditioners will save X per household, whereas biking to work reduces carbon emissions by Y annually.

Even more difficult is estimating participation rates, especially associated with sustainable practices. What portion of households can be inspired to program their thermostats to save energy? What share of commuters will join carpools?

One way to get your arms around participation rates is to implement a Cool Choices sustainability engagement program. In our programs, we encourage participants to take a variety of daily sustainable actions, and then capture whether those activities are new or not – essentially creating a data set of both the propensity to adopt specific actions, and whether those actions are new to the participant. This program data creates a treasure trove of insights, coupled with documented real-time savings.

During a community-scale sustainability program that took place in Madison, Wisconsin, for example, we worked with both the sewerage district and the local energy utility to understand behaviors and opportunities for change. We saw that some practices were already widely adopted, while others had little or no adoption. This data provided both organizations with important insights for future sustainability program efforts.

The Madison effort also generated substantial local buzz. In fact, more than 700 participants adopted new sustainable practices and shared their experiences with friends and family, providing momentum for future city efforts. Again, this momentum was coupled with real-time data about who did what…the data cities need to plan a path forward and to demonstrate that they are delivering results. It’s the formula cities need to be the change we need on climate issues.

Learn more about accelerating sustainability efforts in your community by checking out our Waukesha County case study or contact us to talk about how we can help you make your efforts contagious.

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