Chicago’s new climate action plan addresses emissions and environmental justice

Lake Michigan high water levels
Recent record-high levels on Lake Michigan, which have damaged Chicago's shoreline, have been linked to climate change. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lake Michigan high water levels
Recent record-high levels on Lake Michigan, which have damaged Chicago's shoreline, have been linked to climate change. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago’s new climate action plan addresses emissions and environmental justice

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Chicago will soon release a climate action plan — a comprehensive look at the effects of climate change in the city, and actions to address it.

It will be an update to a plan Chicago released in 2008, when it became the first major city in the U.S. to address the growing issue of climate change.

The plan set goals such as expanding clean energy and public transit, and it sought to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020.

But the 2008 plan — issued when Richard M. Daley was mayor — fell short of some of its top objectives. According to a 2017 report, the most recent data available, Chicago had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by only about 15%.

Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the 2008 plan, believes it languished under Mayor Rahm Emmanuel during his two terms.

“When Mayor Emmanuel came into the office, he was not as interested in the climate issues, and so a lot of that seemed to not make much more progress during his time,” Wuebbles said.

New goals for cutting emissions, engaging the public

In the 14 years since the last plan, climate change has grown in urgency and public awareness. Scientists have reported 2020 was one of the two hottest years on record on Earth, and Chicago has experienced extreme heat waves and precipitation events.

Kyra Woods, a climate advisor to Lightfoot, said there’s a need for a new perspective on climate change.

“We have a legacy of some leadership here in the city. So here in 2022, we are really grateful for an opportunity to set new targets that really meet the moment for Chicagoans — our residents, our businesses and the global stage as well.”

A draft of the new plan shows it focuses broadly on affordable clean energy, environmental justice and increasing access to public transit. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the city 60% by 2040.

It also sets goals of 100% clean energy community wide by 2035, and decommissioning fossil fuel plants within the city by 2025.

The draft also seeks to address financial barriers to climate solutions. Woods said there will be programs to reduce power consumption in homes and businesses, and to retrofit buildings to make them more energy efficient.

A wide range of partners are advising on the plan, including university scientists, environmental justice groups, legal clinics and land conservation advocates. And compared with the 2008 plan, it places more emphasis on input from the public.

The authors are “making sure the policies and interventions are designed with community input, so they can equitably and accurately address community needs,” said Stefan Schaffer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is working on the plan.

He said it’s important that “benefits are reaped by communities most in need or most vulnerable to climate change.”

Since the summer, the mayor’s office has held town halls and collected survey responses to understand what Chicagoans want to see from the plan. About 1,800 people have participated, and their responses show they want to see affordable and accessible renewable energy for people and businesses, and better access to reliable public transit in all neighborhoods.

Addressing disparities in climate change’s impact

Another significant focus of the new plan is the relationship between climate change and environmental justice, such as neighborhoods disproportionately affected by air pollution, flooding or heat waves.

“It’s no secret that the biggest impacts of climate change are borne by communities of color and low-income communities across the city,” Schaffer said. “And that often overlaps with the impacts of longstanding policy decisions.”

Chicago’s Southeast Side is largely Latino and working class, with a long history of heavy industry, and air and water pollution. More recently, the area has seen serious flooding caused by extreme rainfall events.

According to the Southeast Environmental Task Force, area residents make many of the 311 calls about flooding.

Olga Bautista, executive director of the group, said flooded basements and other water damage cause stress to residents, but also raise health concerns.

“We share the sewer system with the industry that’s located on the Calumet River,” she said. “So really, there’s nobody doing any research on the water that’s backing up into people’s homes.”

The climate plan aims to address this lack of data collection. It proposes the creation of an air quality monitoring network by 2025, and a soil and water quality measurement strategy by 2023.

It would also create quality of life metrics for communities across the city, to keep an eye on environmental health risks.

Bautista’s group is among the partners working on the plan, and she is optimistic. But she said a lack of city staff and resources devoted to climate and environmental issues only serves to benefit polluters.

“So if we’re serious about tackling climate change in the city of Chicago, it needs to be backed up with dollars,” she said.

In her latest city budget unveiled last September, Lightfoot included $188 million for climate-related goals, such as retrofitting city buildings with renewable energy sources and planting 75,000 new trees.

Indi Khera is a news intern at WBEZ and a senior at the University of Chicago majoring in biology with a minor in creative writing. Follow her at @KheraIndi.

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