It was a sparkling spring day Wednesday when former U.S. President Bill Clinton announced his foundation's new "Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program" at the C-40 Large Cities Climate Summit of big city mayors, business leaders and environmental experts. Under the initial plan, 16 cities around the world will share $5 billion in private funds to help them go green with environmental upgrades that include the installation of more efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems, and architectural enhancements that would save enough energy to cover the costs.
"We now have the technology to reduce energy consumption in buildings by 25 to 50 percent," said Clinton. "If all buildings were as efficient as they could be, we'd be saving an enormous amount of energy and significantly reducing carbon emissions. Also, we'd save a ton of money for people who pay utility bills!"
The recipient cities included Bangkok, Karachi, Seoul and Climate Summit host New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already produced an ambitious proposal to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions. Dubbed "PLANYC," it calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, by focusing on cleaner power sources such as solar; energy efficiency in the city's 900,000 plus buildings; and reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants from the transportation system. "You do those three things, and we will reach our target," said New York City official Jeffrey Kay, who helped develop PLANYC.
An estimated 75 percent of the carbon emissions that cause global warming come from cities, where most of the world's population now lives. But each city in the world has its own combination of challenges to consider and solutions to share.
Conservation can be a hard sell in developing countries where electricity and other resources are already spotty, or, in some places, non-existent. "People have to start where they are," said Donald Palmer, the mayor of Trenton, New Jersey and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Those who don't have electricity now, Palmer says, should develop it "in a green, energy-efficient way so they can save money!"
A green approach can meet with resistance among the emerging middle classes of boom economies such as China's, where large new cars are fashionable, and large new homes denote enhanced status and economic progress. Those homes are usually powered by coal-burning power plants that emit greenhouse gas.
With China in mind, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg cautioned that the question should not only be whether you develop, it's how you develop. Creating jobs isn’t enough he said. “It’s also important for people to “stay healthy and enjoy the fruits of [their] labor. And more and more you're reading about the Chinese government understanding this and trying to do something about it."
Bloomberg acknowledges that the changeover to a green approach will not be immediate and it will not always be easy. "But if you make a little step every day, after a period of time, you look back and are shocked at how far you came."
Indeed, even today's greatest and most powerful optimists, such as President Clinton, urge caution alongside their hope that the mayors' initiatives will help cities save the planet. "Look, this is like everything else. Some of these programs will work better than others. Some cities will be more successful than others," Clinton said at the meeting. "The exhilarating thing to me is we're back in the solutions business."
The mayors themselves seemed energized by the spirit and the substance of the conference. "Agog with ideas" was how London Mayor Ken Livingstone put it.
Many mayors say that the world's national governments have been slow to address global climate change with the urgency it deserves. They ended the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit with a communiqué to the G-8 Summit to be held next month in Germany. The mayors' next climate summit will held within two years in Seoul, Korea.