Energy & Environment

U.S. Mayors on Climate: This Time Will Be Different

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (Reuters photo: Carlo Jasso)
Mayors who promise to meet the Paris climate targets have failed to meet existing targets

It happened in 2007, but it could have been last week. Climate change, Michael Bloomberg told the audience, is an example of cities’ “leading where Washington has not”: “We don’t wait for others to act,” he announced. “We lead by example.”

In 2007, New York mayor Bloomberg pledged his city would meet the emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol. Back then, more than 1,000 mayors signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. If President George W. Bush wouldn’t follow the Kyoto Protocol, the mayors proclaimed, they surely would.

When Kyoto’s 2012 carbon-reduction deadline arrived, however, virtually all these cities had failed to live up to the pledge their mayors had made, missing the Kyoto targets badly.

So now Bloomberg and mayors around the country are replacing those old promises with new ones. Cities are now signing the “We Are Still In” pledge to meet the Paris Accord’s CO2 emissions targets. Their history of failure demonstrates how hollow the new promises are.

Launched in 2005 by Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, the Climate Protection Agreement committed cities to the Kyoto targets to “reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.” Mayors signed on in cities across the U.S., including New York, Chicago, and more than 1,000 other municipalities. The results are instructive.

Seattle, where the effort was launched, missed the goal badly. In a 2015 report, the city admitted it “reduced GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by 1 percent from 1990 to 2012, falling short of the target.”

To be fair, at least Seattle tracked its own failure. In contrast, I called the more than 30 other cities in Washington that signed the Kyoto-targets agreement to see if they had lived up to their promises. Two-thirds of them said something akin to: “We don’t know what you are talking about.” After sending the initial press release proclaiming their environmental commitment, the vast majority of city officials simply ignored their commitments.

These results are not unique to Washington.

In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg went beyond the Kyoto goals, pledging that by 2030, New York would reduce the city’s CO2 emissions to 30 percent below the 2005 level. Thanks to the economic downturn, NYC got off to a good start. After 2012, however, emissions actually increased. At the current rate, New York will miss Bloomberg’s 2030 target.

Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, made the targets even more unreasonable by promising an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. After just a few years, the city is already more than 4 percent behind and will need to reduce emissions at more than four times the current rate to have any hope of meeting de Blasio’s promised goal.

Chicago’s results are even more dismal. Mayor Richard Daley pledged Chicago would reduce emissions in the city by 25 percent in 2020, compared with 1990 levels. According to the most recent data, Chicago’s emissions are 10 percent above where they need to be to meet that promise. The city’s “Climate Action Plan” web page admits: “If Chicago continues on its current path . . . its emissions would grow to 39.3” million metric tons of CO2 by 2020. That would actually be 22 percent above 1990 levels, and a remarkable 62 percent above the promised target.

Chicago’s only significant reductions during the last two decades came as a result of the economic downturn, not public policy.

Chicago’s current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, recently set a new goal. In an executive order on June 7, Emanuel committed Chicago to reducing citywide greenhouse-gas emissions to the levels in the Paris Accord — about 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Ironically, that new pledge is actually weaker than the previous goal.

Even with the weaker targets, Chicago is unlikely to meet the goal. As the city’s own report admits, emissions are likely to increase due to the continuing economic recovery. The only significant reductions during the last two decades came as a result of the economic downturn, not public policy. Previous laundry lists of “green” policies haven’t delivered meaningful results and the new ones are likely to see similar failures.

Despite these failures, Bloomberg has been joined by Emanuel, de Blasio, and about 200 other mayors in the latest pledge. “Today, on behalf of an unprecedented collection of U.S. cities, states, businesses and other organizations,” Bloomberg said in a statement, “I am communicating to the United Nations and the global community that American society remains committed to achieving the emission reductions we pledged to make in Paris in 2015.” Ringing words — just as they were in 2007.

The failure of these cities to achieve existing goals is a stark demonstration of the gap between environmental rhetoric and results from those who style themselves as environmental heroes. Yet rather than holding politicians accountable for these failures, environmental groups actually praised the new promises.

With such perverse incentives, we shouldn’t be surprised at these failures. Politicians benefit politically when they make dramatic — but unrealistic — environmental pledges. When those promises are broken, they are never mentioned again, and politicians pay no price.

By way of contrast, businesses pay a real price if they are not energy-efficient. Farmers pay for using water or fertilizer inefficiently. Drivers feel the hit at the pump when they use too much fuel. In the real world, personal incentives, not political motives, drive efforts to do more with less that improve the health of the environment.

Conservatives are often intimidated by the Left’s environmental boasting. Too often, conservatives respond to environmental concerns with arguments about the economic cost or jobs. These are legitimate concerns, but we should also call the Left’s bluff.

Despite their self-congratulatory press releases, the record of the environmental Left in the past few decades is abysmal, as environmentalism has become more about virtue signaling than about environmental protection. Businesses and individuals, with market incentives, have been the real conservation leaders, improving energy efficiency and reducing air and water pollution.

Bloomberg’s “We Are Still In” pledge promises that cities will “pursue ambitious climate goals” to “avoid the most dangerous and costly effects of climate change.” Mayors are feverishly sending press releases, hoping to burnish their image as committed environmental crusaders. But given the long history of failure, these promises are just more evidence that it is time for a change, and that much of our current environmental policy is political symbolism, not sincere environmental concern.


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