This article is from the In-Depth Report How to Green Your Office

Chicago's Plans to Go Green

Mayor Richard Daley has unveiled an aggressive plan to transform the old, gritty city. If he can pull it off, other cities might follow

Daley recruited Johnston from the Cleveland Green Building Coalition about five years ago. Together they are attempting to rebrand the Chicago of the mob, the meatpackers of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the 1919 Black Sox Scandal as the vibrant hub of the green economy. A revamped Chicago would attract alternative energy manufacturers and the thousands of new jobs such companies stand to create. The Windy City already serves as the North American headquarters to seven wind power companies and will host the industry’s annual conference in May. The largest turbine manufacturer, Suzlon Wind Energy, originated in India and came to Chicago in 2005 with 10 employees. It now has 900 workers stateside and expects to add 100 in 2009.

Under Johnston and Daley, Chicago has already taken some green strides. The city has extended bike lanes for 120 miles, encouraged 400 building owners to plant vegetation on their roofs to soak up carbon dioxide and reduce storm-water runoff, and developed a “waste-to-profit” network that turns leftover plastics and chemicals from one company into useful raw materials for another.

But in the fight against global warming, such strides are rather small steps. Chicago will churn out about 37 million metric tons of greenhouse gases this year. Covering the city with 6,000 green roofs, as intended, would trim emissions by only 170,000 metric tons. Carving out 500 miles of bicycle trails would eliminate a mere 10,000 metric tons. Together these strategies would lower total emissions by a grand total of half of 1 percent.

To make a real difference, the Daley administration has embarked on an effort rivaling the city’s reconstruction after the 1871 fire, which gutted 18,000 buildings and left 100,000 homeless. Johnston, nonprofit officials and energy industry executives crafted a plan that aims to cut total emissions by 15 million metric tons by the 2020 deadline. The plan includes no sweeping mandates or legislative proposals. Its success hinges primarily on the government encouraging dramatic actions in the private sector.

One third of the envisioned cuts result from landlords and businesses that are renovating buildings to make them more energy-­efficient. Another third come from upgrading pollution-preventing technology in existing power plants, in addition to receiving more clean power courtesy of a state mandate that 25 percent of electricity output be renewable by 2025. Of the final third of cuts, more than 20 percent come from better public and commercial transportation, with the rest owed to reductions in industrial pollution and the recycling of old refrigerators and air conditioners that leak hydrofluorocarbons.

Leading without Authority
Supporters—and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Chicago environmental community willing to openly criticize the plan—say it is feasible, but previous experience justifies skepticism. Seven years ago Daley promised to reduce the city government’s carbon emissions by 1 percent a year beginning in 2003. But in 2006 the city generated about 70,000 more metric tons than it did in 2003, according to records obtained by the Chicago Tribune. Johnston claims the city was under its targets in the first few years and banked the credit, keeping its average reduction to 1 percent a year. He is unapologetic. “Sometimes I think the media feels it needs to be the cynic or critic of government action,” he says, adding that the city is now meeting its reduction targets.

Environmentalists were disappointed that the plan does not address the city’s biggest polluters. The half-century-old Crawford and Fisk coal plants, located within city limits, spew 4.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year—that’s one third of the desired reduction right there. Chicago could ensure the plants’ closure by approving an ordinance that orders them to install costly scrubbers for nitrogen and sulfur oxides emissions, effectively putting them out of business. But some question the legality of such an order. The plan only suggests the plants could improve—likely because tangling with Midwest Generation, which owns the plants, would be difficult. Emissions from O’Hare and Midway airports are also spared—common practice in large cities, presumably because thriving airports are central to prosperity.

This article was originally published with the title "Chicago Goes Green."

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