3 Cities Fighting on the Front Lines Against Climate Change

In the battle against climate change, cities pose both the greatest challenge and opportunity — they produce 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than half of the world population lives in them. By 2030, global urbanization is expected to hit 60%.

Cities face plenty of environmental and social sustainability challenges — including energy, water and air quality concerns, as well as municipal waste and social equity problems — which city governments are hard-pressed to tackle alone. To successfully meet ambitious sustainability and resiliency goals, cities will need to get creative. Many already are.

Here are three cities taking strong action to counter climate change:


Chicago is known as the “Windy City,” but its official motto, “City in a Garden,” describes the image it is striving for. Despite its industrial roots, the city long has been a stalwart protector of public parkland and, more recently, a champion of resilient infrastructure and sustainable development.

Building on this green history, Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 launched Sustainable Chicago 2015 — a citywide sustainability initiative organized into seven categories including energy efficiency, water and climate change. It features 24 specific goals with key actions steps needed to reach those goals by 2015.

The city is taking a data-driven approach to solve sustainability problems. Chicago, like many municipalities, collects reams of data but lacks the resources to properly analyze and act on all of this information. That is why making city data publicly available has been such a useful strategy for driving innovation, Weigert said. To encourage private sector action with this data, the city has helped organize a series of hackathons.


The American South isn’t exactly known as a bastion of sustainability, but the Georgia home to some 450,000 people is looking to lead the way toward widespread regional change. In 2010, Mayor Kasim Reed entered office with a vision of making Atlanta a “top-tier sustainable city." To this end, Reed expanded Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability, which produced Power to Change (P2C), a citywide sustainability initiative that establishes a basis for measurable sustainability action around 10 impact areas — including materials management and recycling, air quality, energy efficiency and renewables and water management.

So far, the city has made inroads on improving energy efficiency, although renewable energy adoption continues to lag. Atlanta also is working on creating a culture of recycling — currently, only 30 percent of the city’s waste is recycled, putting it just below the national average of 34 percent. In other words: the city still has a long way to go before reaching its aggressive goal of a 90 percent waste-to-landfill rate by 2020 and, eventually, to zero waste.

Washington, D.C.

The United States Congress has proven time and time again its disinterest in promoting policies aimed at tackling climate change through community sustainability and resilience initiatives. But the same can’t be said about the government of the District of Columbia, just a few blocks away from the U.S. Capitol at D.C. City Hall.

In 2012, the city launched Sustainable DC, a citywide initiative aimed to address four critical challenges — jobs and the economy, health and wellness, equity and diversity, climate and environment. It pursues seven solutions focused on the built environment, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste and water.

The District also issued an updated Climate Action Plan, which outlines specific measures to reduce emissions 50% below 2006 levels by 2032, and 80% by 2050.

Taking a three-pronged approach to reaching those goals, the plan addresses the ways residents, businesses and the District government can work together to reduce climate impacts by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. A positive side effect the city also hopes to realize: ensuring economic competitiveness.

(Image at top: A view of central and north Chicago. Source: Wikimedia)

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