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

There are also boundaries to Daley’s power. A large portion of the plan’s carbon reductions come from sources over which the city government has little direct leverage. For example, the extending of Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus and train routes—a move that is supposed to save 830,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases—will require state and federal funds that are seldom a sure bet. “Some of the things here you can’t mandate,” says Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an advocacy organization based in Chicago. “The city can push, the city can lead, the city can urge, the city can bring together financiers. But the city can’t require the federal and state government to rehabilitate the CTA.”

Essentially, the whole thing is an experiment in civic leadership, a question of whether Chicago can cajole its population to act out of choice rather than through the blunt force of law. Meeting the 2020 targets will require 40 percent of residential and commercial building owners to participate, well above the turnout Daley delivered for his own 2007 reelection.

Common Cents
Daley and Johnston knew that Chicagoans would be doubtful about an altruistic pollution prevention plan. The mayor’s constituents would have to see hard facts before buying in. So when the city began forming its climate change agenda, it performed a thorough analysis, precisely measuring what caused emissions in Chicago. The results proved surprising.

Planners used GPS and satellite imagery to map which parts of town were the hottest and which emitted the most greenhouse gases. Infrared pictures showed sections of Chicago where temperatures spiked, a result of poorly insulated buildings and the absence of greenery. Those images were overlaid with maps of existing tree canopies and areas prone to flooding. From all these data, the plan’s architects identified neighborhoods where emissions cuts would have the greatest impact.

They also determined that a huge amount of greenhouse gases were coming from the rail yards around the South Side. Why? A third of the nation’s rail traffic comes through Chicago, intersecting with tracks and roadways to form a bottleneck that can stall electric and diesel freight trains for days. It takes the “same amount of time for trains to get through Chicago as it takes to get here from Los Angeles,” the plan notes. A separate $1.5-billion private, federal, state and city partnership to eliminate the choke points would get rid of 1.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Johnston’s map also indicated that buildings account for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Only 21 percent came from cars and trucks, overturning the assumption that motor vehicles are the key villains. Still, 210,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide will be saved if the city replaces its buses, garbage trucks, taxis and delivery trucks with more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“One of the mistakes I’m seeing across the country,” Johnston says, “is cities and businesses are creating plans with all sorts of goals, without even stepping back and seeing where their emissions are coming from. Until you create a baseline, you’re not being strategic.”

At the heart of the plan is a deep and homegrown faith in the pragmatism of ordinary people. Decades ago professors at the University of Chicago developed what has become known as the Chicago school of economics, which argues that people behave rationally when given the facts. According to this framework, once a homeowner or business executive understands the financial benefits of going green, he or she should naturally choose to do so. “The economic argument is critical,” Johnston points out. “Some people are going to do something out of altruism and social conscience, but that’s a small percentage.”

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

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