By Sarah LaBrecque
With President Biden’s American Jobs Plan failing to deliver as promised, Sarah LaBrecque reports on how cities like Cincinnati are taking the lead on mitigating and adapting to climate change
In July this year, Ohio’s Governor, Mike DeWine passed a law preventing cities in the midwestern state from taking steps to ban property owners from installing natural gas or propane in new buildings. It was a reaction to a trend popping up in cities across the country: local action being taken to decarbonise the buildings that people live, work and gather in.
The trend started in 2019 when Berkeley, California, banned gas hook-ups in all newly constructed residential buildings and most non-residential buildings, on the basis that it gives the fossil fuel an advantage not offered to electricity, and amid health concerns about the combustion of gas in buildings.
Today, 48 cities in the sunny state have enacted similar bans or limitations, and municipalities across the country from Seattle to New York City have followed suit, or plan to. In Massachusetts, an ongoing battle rages between cities and state legislators, over plans to turn the state electric.
But Ohio isn’t having it. And neither are 19 other state legislatures. In a land where individual freedoms take priority over almost all else (in this case, the right to heat or cook with gas), it’s a prime example of how political and divisive energy is. And it shows how those working to decarbonise the country’s buildings are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Over 30% of the U.S.’s total greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to fossil-fuel combustion to heat, cool and power buildings
The good news is that efficiency gains from measures such as updated standards for appliances and climate-smart building codes in the U.S. have meant that energy intensity decreased by 19% in residential buildings and 15% in commercial buildings between 2007-2017. Less positive, however, is the fact that over 30% of the U.S.’s total greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to fossil-fuel combustion to heat, cool and power buildings. And efficiency gains won’t be enough to avoid total emissions rising, at least in commercial buildings, through to 2050.
So what’s being done to tackle this, despite the challenging political environment?
For a start, determined action at city level. In 2020, 157 U.S. cities disclosed their climate and emissions data to CDP, the global non-profit that helps companies, regions and investors manage their environmental impact. These municipalities, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Providence, Rhode Island, represent a significant chunk of all global participating cities: about 20%.
What’s more, the U.S. contingent is strongly represented in CDP’s A-list, a group of global cities leading on their efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, with 25 of the 88 on 2020’s A-list in the U.S. And among the top mitigation efforts reported by these cities, energy efficiency and retrofit measures, plus updated building codes and standards, featured strongly.
But money for such measures is certainly not flowing. CDP recently identified a $10.6bn funding gap, across 97 participating cities, to implement sustainable infrastructure projects such as building retrofit and energy efficiency upgrades. With nearly 20,000 cities, towns and villages across the U.S., the figure will be far higher. “Budgetary capacity is one of the major challenges for cities,” says Katie Walsh, head of cities, states, and regions for CDP North America.
Some federal funding would be nice. And things did look promising earlier this year: as part of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, $370bn had been earmarked to help decarbonise the country’s building stock. Through weatherisation programmes, grants for schools and public buildings or tax breaks on efficiency upgrades, such funding would go a long way to help lower energy bills for Americans, create jobs and provide more comfortable living and working spaces. Fast forward to June, however, and that $370bn had shrunk to, astonishingly, zero.
For those keeping a careful eye on the climate-centred aspects of Biden’s flagship proposal – the American Jobs Plan is part two of the President’s “Build Back Better” agenda – seeing that money disappear from the books was incredibly disappointing. “This is what keeps folks like me up at night,” says Jillian Neuberger, a U.S. legislative engagement expert at the World Resources Institute. “Buildings are everything. They’re where you grow up, where you live, where you go to school, where you work, where you go when you’re sick. It’s important to make sure that we get the full scale of funding that buildings really require.”
At the time of writing, some proposed funding had been reinstated, for example $500m over fiscal years 2022-26 in grants for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements at public school facilities, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (a new proposal that has evolved out of the American Jobs Plan).
But negotiations continue and the final package may not land on the president’s desk for several months, if it does at all. In any case, what has snuck back onto the balance sheet so far is still “a far cry from the scale and ambition of the $370bn in the American Jobs Plan, for energy efficiency and buildings”, says Neuberger.
Without federal funding, cities may struggle to play their part in a goal Biden himself has set: to halve emissions across the country by 2030. But places like Cincinnati are ploughing ahead, despite the odds. Ohio’s third most populated municipality, with around 300,000 inhabitants in the city proper, has set its own local goal that mirrors Biden’s: a commitment to reduce buildings’ energy use, water consumption, and transportation emissions by 50% by 2030.
The goal was set as part of the City of Cincinnati’s involvement with the 2030 Districts Network, an organisation founded by the non-profit Architecture 2030. Across North America, 23 “urban building districts” have formed their own chapters, “in order to drastically improve buildings’ environmental impact by 2030”. The Cincinnati chapter, which collectively includes over 300 buildings, is run by non-profit Green Umbrella. Alongside the city, participating members include the Port of Greater Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati.
In a state that is the sixth highest in the U.S. for CO2 emissions, a 50% emissions reduction target in less than nine years is perhaps ambitious. In terms of electricity, 24% of Ohio is powered by natural gas, 58% by coal and 14% by nuclear. Oil, wind and other sources make up the remainder (2017 figures). So what to do when you’re a green city in, as Walsh delicately puts it, “a state that doesn't have the same targets and ambitions”?
Get creative. From increasing tree canopy cover to counter the urban heat island effect, to contracting out the largest municipally run solar farm in the country, Cincinnati is not letting state or federal support (or lack thereof) stand in its way. And neither, it seems, are Ohio’s other leading cities. Interestingly, three of the state’s cities or counties appeared on CDP’s A-list: Cleveland, Columbus and Cuyahoga County.
Michael Forrester, director of the office of environment and sustainability for the City of Cincinnati, rattles off an extensive list of ways the city is decarbonising its buildings. Programmes include tax breaks on the incremental costs of building improvements in order to achieve LEED status, discounted rates on green energy achieved through “aggregating” all their customers, and grants for rental property owners to install energy efficiency upgrades.
After the record-breaking heatwaves that blasted through the north-west this summer, measures that not only relieve pressure on building’s cooling systems but also build climate resilience into a city’s structural fabric are needed more than ever. According to nonprofit Climate Central, Ohio averages about five “dangerous” heat days a year. By 2050, the state could see 30. In Cincinnati, increasing tree canopy coverage to at least 40% in every neighbourhood – a figure that impresses CDP’s Walsh – should bring myriad benefits.
Currently some neighbourhoods have 70% cover, while others have only 10%.
Forrester says the city has done temperature-mapping studies and found that areas with the least tree cover were, unsurprisingly, the hottest. “Cities can often be 10-20[F] degrees hotter than the surrounding areas,” he says, explaining that night-time temperatures are rising, particularly in areas with lots of pavement and buildings, but few trees. “Preventing heat-retention is very important for buildings’ overall performance and overall [energy] consumption,” he asserts.
Add in the benefits to air quality, mental wellbeing and stormwater retention that trees can provide, and it’s a no brainer. “It's also, frankly, an equity issue. Because a lot of our hotter areas are in our poor and minority neighbourhoods,” says Forrester.
Just as the natural world relies on a plethora of complex systems and networks to thrive – climate conditions, soil health, plant and animal interactions – achieving carbon neutrality in buildings will require a coordinated and complementary web of actions. With only 4% of a city’s carbon footprint falling under mayoral control, it may seem like the cards are stacked against municipalities. In terms of buildings, indirect emissions from embodied carbon, and fossil-fuel powered electricity grids and heating networks, as well as state-managed building codes, have a lot to answer for.
Cincinnati has benefited from some grants and technical assistance from the likes of Bloomberg Philanthropy and the National League of Cities to help its green transition. Its mayor, John Cranley, also joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, which includes representatives from over 10,000 cities in 138 countries, on the same day that President Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017.
Forrester says Cincinnati has one of the highest per capita number of LEED buildings in the U.S., which he attributes to municipal tax incentives. And the city is active in discussions with state partners around updating energy codes.
Together with other U.S. cities, Cincinnati is determined to show that local action by its leaders can create meaningful change to the built environment, regardless of what is happening in Washington D.C.