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US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts

US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts
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The Biden administration’s move to reenter the Paris climate agreement this year has added momentum to existing efforts from U.S. cities to become more sustainable and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

Since former President TrumpDonald TrumpSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Navajo Nation president on Arizona's new voting restrictions: An 'assault' on our rights The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the global climate deal in 2017, city officials said they continued to plan and take action toward making and reaching their sustainability goals. 

More than 250 cities committed to the “We Are Still In” campaign that launched after Trump declared his plans to leave the Paris Agreement. That campaign has since evolved into “America Is All In” after President BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE rejoined the climate deal earlier this year.

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D.C. Department of Energy and Environment Director Tommy Wells said cities kept moving forward with emissions reduction plans, but without the Trump administration’s support, there was a lack of federal leadership to collaborate on bigger projects, such as implementing electric vehicle charging stations nationally.

“The federal government left the field, but the rest of us still coordinated and planned together,” he said. “But what we missed was federal investment, federal leadership, especially around coordination.”

Amy Bailey, director for sustainability and engagement for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), said cities worked hard over the past few years to show a “strong commitment” to the Paris deal, so the U.S.’s reentry is a “welcome development” for local governments.

“I think it just kind of added wind to their sails,” she said.

Matthew Gonser, executive director for the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency for the city and county of Honolulu, said Honolulu will be able to “respond to opportunities” from the federal government instead of “reacting to opportunities" because it has already put in the work to identify its main sectors for emissions.

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“Federal leadership couldn't come soon enough, but it's really a testament to the local community's vision and understanding of the need and the opportunity to improve upon conditions,” at home, Gonser said. 

City sustainability officials and experts have stressed the importance of local-level action because most of the country’s carbon emissions come from transportation and buildings, which many cities can regulate themselves. 

State and federal government “can set policy – they can have money available to do one thing or another, but at the end of the day, it's a whole series of local decisions around housing, land use, street design, things of that nature that dictate the modes of transport,” said Marc Schlossberg, a co-director of the Sustainable Cities Institute at the University of Oregon. 

Still, the U.S.’s return to the Paris agreement allows for the country to provide leadership for cities “hopefully through” the president’s infrastructure plans, said Andria Jacob, climate policy and program manager at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Biden recently proposed a $2.25 trillion infrastructure package that environmental advocates see as an important step toward sustainability.

“Just having federal leadership in the hope of federal funding again is really I think the biggest excitement that we are seeing,” she said. 

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Meanwhile, cities have partnered with each other as part of several different organizations aimed at increasing sustainability efforts, including C40 Cities, C2ES, the American Cities Climate Challenge, Sierra Club’s "Ready For 100" campaign and the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

ICLEI is running a campaign, ICLEI 150, through which the organization plans to provide local government leaders with a 2030 “science-based target” to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 as well as suggested actions to reach the 2030 goal.

According to the Sierra Club, 147 cities in the U.S. have committed to meeting the targets of the Paris climate agreement, which the U.S. officially rejoined in February. The Biden administration has said it will announce the U.S.’s new goals aligned with the agreement on Earth Day.

“Now cities have more of an opportunity to make those plans come to life with a less hostile administration, as well as the possibility of funding and the possibility of maybe mandates or regulations on utilities that could help them,” said Rachel Dupree, associate press secretary for the Sierra Club’s "Ready for 100" campaign. 

The Paris agreement, signed by almost 200 countries, aims to limit a global rise in temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial levels by curbing carbon emissions.

Several U.S. cities have instituted other policies in line with the spirit of the Paris agreement, including benchmarking policies to require owners of large buildings to track their annual energy use consumption to use in comparison to other buildings and previous years. Some cities, such as D.C. and New York, have taken further steps to limit building owners to a certain level of energy through building energy performance standards.

Most of the higher-ranking cities on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) 2020 City Clean Energy Scorecard have “strong” building energy codes and have taken action to reduce energy in existing buildings, said David Ribeiro, the director of the local policy program.

But “there's a lot of room for improvement across the board,” he added, noting that the bottom-ranked cities are “years behind the policy efforts of the leaders.”

“More will need to adopt and implement impactful, clean energy policies,” he said.