More than 650 cities around the country, including Minneapolis, have formally agreed to honor the Kyoto Protocol and reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. That's very good news. The bad news is that many of these cities, according to a news reports, are counting too heavily on the federal government to pay for their efforts.
Mayor Douglas Palmer of Trenton, N.J., president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was quoted recently as saying, "A lot of cities don't have the money to do the kinds of things that are necessary." He added, "The budgets are tight; we just can't do it."
Certainly one can't blame these "Kyoto cities" for using their collective political force to go after some $24 billion of proposed federal money that would be used for local global-warming initiatives and planning over the next five years. But even if they manage to persuade Congress, you can envision that this money will come with many strings and a whole lot of paperwork attached.
These cities should not wait to take action. They should do what they can on their own, and they should do it today. Palmer thinks they don't have the money. They do have money. Lots of it. Cities should leverage their bonding authority to create a substantial pool of money for citizens and businesses to implement a massive community-wide energy conservation program.
Addressing global climate change, from a local perspective, must focus on reducing energy consumption. The economic benefits are clear. The options are many: Make buildings tighter. Maximize passive solar applications. Substitute higher-efficiency appliances and motors. Encourage telecommunications instead of physical travel. And the list goes on and on.
Expenditures to fund these initiatives should be included in cities' capital budgets. And they should be considered investments, with the knowledge that they will often have dramatic paybacks. Cities should be willing to provide low-interest, long-term financing for any measure that would repay itself in half the life of the bond used for that financing. Loans for these projects would be paid off through energy savings. And once they were paid off, the homeowner or business would accrue the financial benefits for the remaining life of the improvements.
A small increase in construction cost (2 to 5 percent) can cut energy consumption in half. The additional cost will pay itself back several times over the life of the bond and many times over the life of the building. Many existing buildings can reduce their energy consumption by 25 to 50 percent with investments that also repay themselves from energy savings.
According to building industry estimates, up to 80 to 85 percent of all buildings will be newly constructed or rehabbed or renovated by 2035. Actions taken today will have profound impacts on the future stock of buildings and how much energy they consume.
When cities borrow money, they almost always do it to invest in a public infrastructure that is not expected to pay for itself. Thus they must raise taxes. But a city that invests in energy efficiency will achieve the opposite; in the long run it may need less money, because operational costs will be lowered.
As cities look for global-warming solutions, they should start looking no further than their own back yards. If the federal money ever does come in, these entrepreneurial communities will be far along the learning curve and will have the financial and psychic satisfaction of contributing a local solution to a profound global problem.
John Bailey is a research associate at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of the recent report "Lessons from the Pioneers: Tackling Global Warming at the Local Level," available at www.newrules.org.
© 2007 Star Tribune