Big cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of the world’s greenhouse gases, according to a United Nations Habitat report. So a city’s environmental policies can have a big impact on the climate’s future. We asked some local environmental experts to submit ideas to Mayor Lori Lightfoot on making Chicago a leader in environmental action.
1. Power CTA and municipal fleets with renewable energy
“In 2017, transportation took the crown away from power plants as the nation’s No.1 source of greenhouse gas pollution. Mayor Lightfoot can advance Chicago’s climate leadership by working to implement her campaign promise of an all-electric bus fleet by 2030. To clean up the entire city municipal fleet and CTA fleet, it’s also important to charge the buses and cars with renewable energy in order to avoid trading carbon for carbon. Electrifying the entire fleet of 1,864 buses will be the equivalent of taking almost 43,000 cars off the road. Imagine the impact if the 11,000 pieces of equipment and vehicles maintained by the Department of Fleet and Facility Management follow suit.”
— Howard Learner, executive director/ Environmental Law and Policy Center
2. Swap concrete for native plants
“Mayor Lightfoot should reallocate traditional landscape maintenance funds, which are wasteful and deleterious to our climate, to native plants and remove asphalt and concrete, which will build our resilience to climate change — by breaking up urban heat islands and capturing stormwater — helping people and wildlife immediately. Don’t start new programs, Madame Mayor, support the nature work of the park district and many regional and community-based conservation organizations, and direct the City and sister agencies to invest their limited budget to the hardest working landscapes in the city — natural areas!”
— Nat Miller, acting executive director/ Audubon Great Lakes
3. Ban food waste. Bolster composting
“Roll out a municipal food waste ban. U.S. cities that are leading the way on food waste bans include Austin, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.” To do this, the city will need to make it easier to start a commercial composting business, and “make backyard composting more accessible by subsidizing bins; provide technical assistance and financial support to small scale, local composting operations; build on the composting/Zero Waste work already being done at Chicago Public Schools by setting [compostable waste] diversion goals across CPS.”
— Jonathan Pereira, executive director/Plant Chicago
4. Put water where we need it when we need it
“The Great Lakes represent 80% of North America’s fresh surface water and 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. As our region becomes a critical resource for climate refugees who leave the coasts or escape the extreme heat further south — our water is going to be even more of a target. Through innovative water management, like creating more areas like permeable alleys and parks to hold water instead of just tunnels, and using grey water [relatively clear waste water from baths, sinks, kitchens] for non-drinking purposes we can reclaim an important environmental leadership role, for the region, the U.S., and the world.”
— Suzanne Malec-McKenna, interim CEO/ Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, former Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment
5. Replace all lead water service lines
“Mayor Lightfoot should develop a plan to replace all lead service lines by 2040, ban partial lead service line replacements, and begin fully replacing lead service lines in conjunction with the City’s massive water main replacement project. Steps should be taken to ensure residents know whether they have a lead service line connected to their home by creating and publicizing an online inventory.”
— Antonia Ornelas, senior director, energy and sustainability programs/ Elevate Energy
6. Smart meters for buildings
“Use smart meters to encourage better use of energy throughout the city. This advanced technology records energy consumption in short intervals of an hour or less, then automatically sends meter readings to the energy supplier.” This data can help suppliers and users target areas for improvement and opportunities for reduced use.
— Don Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric sciences/ University of Illinois
7. Bring back the Department of the Environment and fix recycling
“Assigning the commissioner of this department the responsibility of achieving the city’s climate commitments is one way to prioritize climate action and ensure accountability. The Department of Environment should also be tasked with improving the city’s abysmal 11% recycling rate and broader waste issues.” (Chicago’s Department of environment was dissolved by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011.)
— Jen Walling, executive director/ Illinois Environmental Council
8. Turn vacant lots into urban gardens to feed the community
“Communities form around food: producing, harvesting, preparing and eating together. Local, fresh vegetables can provide the excitement and fulfillment we’ve come to depend on meat to bring to the table, with probably less than one tenth the cost to our planet. Producing our food in a complete cycle that maintains our health and our soil, grounds us all. Creating five jobs on each of Chicago’s 40,000 vacant acres can cost as little as $5,000 each job, since most of what is needed comes from another waste — food and landscape waste.”
— Ken Dunn, founder/ Resource Center
9. Reduce hot time in the city with green roofs and trees
“Mayor Lightfoot needs to continue to focus on decreasing the urban heat island in Chicago. Several mechanisms to do this include increasing cool roofs that are painted white or otherwise do not absorb heat during the day and let it off at night. And to increase and maintain the current tree canopy.”
— Joyce Coffee, founder and president/ Climate Resilience Consulting
10. Create spaces to promote and teach environmental sustainability
“Bring the concept of the “Green Living Room (a space to learn about sustainability and sustainable communities) to every black and brown community, so neighbors can learn the risks and opportunities of our climate crisis and how to reinvent the ‘walkable village’ as a local living economy and greenhouse gas reduction strategy.”
—Naomi Davis, founder and president/ Blacks in Green
These recommendations were compiled by WBEZ reporter Monica Eng. You can follow her on Twitter at @monicaeng.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.