Republished with permission of Environment and Energy Publishing.
By Jean Chemnick, E&E Reporter
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is extremely unpopular right now with the city’s striking teachers, but he gets straight A’s from another Democratic constituency, environmentalists.
Since coming to office 15 months ago, the Democrat has handed city greens a string of victories in battles they’d been fighting for a long time.
One of the first things the pugnacious former congressman and Obama chief of staff did was to disband the city department that was responsible for environmental work under his predecessor,
Mayor Richard Daley (D). Emanuel instead has made agencies across the city responsible for aspects of the Chicago Climate Action Plan that fell within their purview.
Implementation of the plan was coordinated by the mayor’s own office by the city’s newly minted chief sustainability officer, Karen Weigert. In a recent interview, she said the shift has allowed the administration to move more quickly to deliver on a host of resource-saving improvements and build a green résumé.
Since he was sworn in as mayor in May 2011, Emanuel has:
• Accelerated plans to shutter two coal-fired power plants blamed for polluting two working-class, minority neighborhoods for more than 80 years. The plants stopped operating two weeks ago.
• Pledged to expand curbside recycling to all 50 wards by the end of next year.
• Launched repairs of 900 miles of water pipes aimed at stemming the waste of water drawn from Lake Michigan.
• Begun a voluntary initiative to slash emissions from the Windy City’s large commercial buildings by 20 percent over the next five years.
• Founded the Infrastructure Trust Fund, which the administration says will allow the city to borrow private money to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure without adding to the city’s debt. Environmentalists like that the fund’s first projects would improve energy efficiency at schools and other city-owned buildings.
• Pledged that all new public buildings would be certified as green under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
• Set a target of adding 180 acres of parkland, 18.5 miles of lakeshore trails along Lake Michigan and 100 miles of protected bikeways by 2015, and upgrading and adding to the area’s transit system.
• Helped secure upgrades to wastewater treatment systems for the Chicago River.
Taken together, Weigert said, these actions will help reduce Chicago’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and protect infrastructure from the increased precipitation, hotter summers and other shifts that scientists say climate change has in store for the Windy City.
Some of these efforts may even position Chicago to benefit as a changing climate affects the global economy, Weigert said.
By shifting away from coal and encouraging companies that produce emissions-reduction and renewable energy technologies, she said, Chicago can make sure it is in line for “the economic opportunities that are going to be created from this.”
“We want to ensure that it is part and parcel of how we’re delivering enhanced quality of life and enhanced quality of economic opportunity for the residents of the city of Chicago,” she added.
Environmentalists are giving Emanuel rave reviews, commending him for moving ahead on the two coal plants and on citywide recycling — two goals that have been on greens’ wish lists for years.
“We’re really impressed,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. “There’s been some very real stuff accomplished on some big issues that either are new since the Daley administration left or that were lingering and not addressed.”
Bill Abolt, who leads Shaw Environmental Inc.’s energy efficiency practice, said, “The city of Chicago had a green reputation, but there were a lot of undone things under the last administration. The current mayor has been just going through the list.”
Emanuel’s role in bringing about a deal to close the Fisk and Crawford coal power plants, in particular, showed that he was capable of delivering concrete results on the environment rather than simply producing nebulous plans, said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the region’s largest environmental group.
The cleanup or closure of the plants — which were the city’s largest sources of greenhouse gases and a major contributor of mercury and other emissions — has long been the top priority for the environmental activists (Greenwire, May 3). The plants burned their last shipment of coal two weeks ago.
Emanuel’s involvement in helping to finally cross them off the list in the early months of his tenure shows that he can get things done, Learner said, a quality that Chicagoans place above lofty goals or symbolic gestures.
“Chicago is a very practical, pragmatic, get-things-done sort of place,” he said.
Environmentalists give Emanuel’s predecessor, Daley, more mixed reviews for his record on the environment. On one hand, the two-decade-long Daley administration presided over the creation of the Chicago Climate Action Plan, which was adopted four years ago this month with a broad buy-in from local business and civic leaders.
The plan set an ambitious goal of reducing the city’s emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by midcentury, and proposes getting there through improvements to building efficiency, transportation and reductions to utility, waste and industrial pollution. It also touches on climate adaptation.
But however significant the plan, environmentalists say, it was just a plan. It required implementation, and some say Daley was too slow to put the bullet points into action.
Abolt, who once served as environment commissioner under Daley, said the former mayor “got a little diverted from recognition of the real kind of heavy lifting that would be needed to
“The last administration created a very aspirational long-term plan that for the first time addressed significant issues like mitigation in a serious and detailed way,” said Abolt, who stopped working for the city after a scandal involving a program to hire trucks to do city work.
“The plan did not, however, sufficiently focus on measurable achievable things that the government and others would need to do, not just over time but within shorter periods of time, to actually make progress,” he added.
‘Results are what matter’
The climate plan does not set hard and fast goals that add up to an 80 percent reduction for the city by 2050, Abolt noted. Seventy percent of the city’s emissions come from the built environment — something Abolt intimately knows from his current work in building efficiency.
But it was the Emanuel administration, he said, that “got serious” about cutting the energy consumption of buildings.
The push led to a tripling of the rate of retrofits for older, less-efficient stock through programs like the voluntary Commercial Building Initiative for large privately owned buildings. And the administration plans to use its newly formed Infrastructure Trust Fund to help raise private capital to retrofit public facilities. The bank received a brief mention as part of President Clinton’s address last week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Learner was less critical of the Daley administration, mentioning only a few specific issues like recycling and the power plant cleanups as its shortcomings. But he agreed that the Daley-era blueprint only got Chicago so far.
“Plans are nice,” he said. “Results are what matter.
“What happened was that Mayor Daley had a very strong commitment to making Chicago the greenest city in America, and depending on what day you talked to him the greenest city in the world,” he continued. “That was very sincere. The mayor believed it. And he put the wheels in motion to begin achieving that on a number of fronts.”
But the plan was announced less than three years before Daley’s retirement, Learner noted, leaving him little time to tackle much beyond short-term projects, like tree-planting initiatives.
Implementation was always going to be a long slog, though, he said.
“The solutions to our climate change problems aren’t made in a day,” Learner said. “It’s not flash-in-the-pan stuff.”
But while Abolt said that Daley left much undone in the climate realm, other environmental staff members who served the former mayor painted him as a pioneer on the issue.
Karen Hobbs, a former deputy commissioner of the environment under Daley who is now a senior staff member at the Chicago office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the former mayor “a visionary.”
When Daley installed vegetation on City Hall in 1999 to catch rainwater, “people thought he was crazy.”
“And now Chicago has more green roofs than any city in North America,” she said. As for comparing Daley and Emanuel, Hobbs said, “I see how they are alike more than how they are different.
“They’re both strong personalities who want to make Chicago a better place,” she said.
Not a ‘tree hugger’
Meanwhile, Emanuel has his own critics.
“I’m an Emanuel skeptic,” said Larry Bennett, a political science professor at DePaul University and an expert on Chicago politics.
Bennett said Emanuel is moving too far in the direction of privatizing public works, especially in education and economic development — arenas where he sees the city ceding responsibilities to the private sector. His “unconsultative” approach to decisionmaking has also ruffled feathers, especially among community leaders who are not part of his inner circle, Bennett said.
Some of the effects of this can be seen in the breakdown of the city’s contract negotiations with teachers, which led Chicago’s teachers to go on strike for the first time in 25 years.
“I think that the reactions to him vary substantially,” he added.
Some of Emanuel’s apparent enthusiasm for public-private partnerships to perform various tasks may be prompted by the fact that Chicago is deeply in debt. Programs like the Infrastructure Trust Fund are intended to provide alternative ways of raising money for projects that might otherwise be impossible for the over-leveraged city to finance.
For example, the first $225 million from the trust fund is intended as a down payment on the Emanuel administration’s goal of retrofitting all existing public buildings for better efficiency. Weigert said during the interview that the retrofits would allow the city to save money on its energy bills, and those savings would go to repay private lenders.
“We’re trying to be creative,” Weigert said. “We’re trying to think about new ways of getting things done.”
But Bennett said the funding mechanism might put the city on the hook for a larger share of interest than an ordinary bond measure would have.
Emanuel has also taken on Chicago’s convoluted municipal trash collection system, aiming to make it more efficient even if that means increasing the role private contractors already play. In the process, he has been able to expand recycling.
Bennett said privatizing trash collection might be a good idea, depending on how it is implemented.
“Is the savings from privatization simply a function of driving down the wages or benefits of garbage collection personnel?” he asked. “If so, I can imagine a city government or local citizens opting for somewhat higher sanitation collection costs in order to maintain some version of a living wage for sanitation workers.”
But Bennett said Emanuel isn’t a “tree hugger.”
“To the extent he is green, he is green in a very pragmatic fashion,” Bennett said. “It’s essentially about the city’s earning a reputation for being a green city as a way to stimulate economic development and external investment in Chicago.”
Emanuel’s efforts on sustainability have not made much of an impression on his constituents yet, journalist James Warren said.
“With all of the aggressive promotion of his achievements — with his daily press releases, with his underscoring of what he is trying to do — that subject has certainly not seeped into any public consciousness,” said Warren, former managing editor and Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune and current national correspondent for the Atlantic.
This could have less to do with Emanuel and his team than with the fact that a bad economy, municipal debt and crime are much higher on the average Chicagoan’s list than city greening initiatives, Warren said.
But he said there is also evidence that Emanuel has used “hyperbole” in estimating the number of jobs that have come to Chicago on his watch. Warren cited a recent Tribune article that reported the mayor had overestimated the job-creation potential of some companies that have recently relocated to his city. And then there’s the teachers strike.
“And if it’s true with jobs, which is so theoretically easy to check,” he said, “who knows what it would be like for something that is totally off the radar screen by this?
“There may be a difference between what the press operation puts out and what’s actually on the ground,” he added.
But many of the results Emanuel promised are already in plain view, the Sierra Club’s Darin said. More Chicago residents have curbside recycling service and water meters than did in May of last year, and Emanuel helped pressure the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to invest in modern pollution controls for sewage entering the Chicago River.
“The mayor using his bully pulpit was part of what created the political consensus to get that done,” he said.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Learner said the city was moving along at a good clip when it came to implementation of the Sunshine Initiative, a U.S. Energy Department-funded program aimed at advancing rooftop solar power. Fisk and Crawford are effectively closed, and the infrastructure bank is taking steps to get running.
“Hey, I’m not a shrinking violet either,” he said. “If it’s a year from now, and [the city] shows spinning wheels on the energy efficiency retrofit fund I’ll ask what’s going on. But at present, I think they’re moving at a pace that indicates serious intent and thoughtfulness. I don’t have any reason to be at all critical.”
Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who now heads the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism, which promotes sustainable development, said Emanuel gets less credit for his green initiatives than he should.
“He’s a tough guy. So he likes to just do stuff,” he said. “That can be a fault.”
Emanuel has a reputation for being highly political, he said, when actually “there are mayors that have done a lot less that have a reputation for doing stuff.”
Norquist said that Emanuel’s office should do more to tout his efforts on sustainability, including his attempts to make Chicago a more appealing place to walk and bike. Prime example, he said: the Bloomingdale Trail, a 3-mile-long elevated park that the city will begin building on an abandoned railway as soon as this fall. The park would connect several Chicago neighborhoods with the downtown area. Emanuel announced in May that the city had secured funding to finish the design and begin construction.
Business gets involved
Chicago is breaking ground on the trail in part with funds donated by the utility Exelon Corp. Corporations in general play a significant role in the Windy City’s environmental and land-use planning.
While DePaul political scientist Bennett sees significant risks associated with Emanuel’s private sector-friendly approach to the city’s education and economic development functions, he said he saw nothing wrong with Emanuel’s choice to carry over Daley’s Green Ribbon Committee to provide feedback on whether the city is meeting goals of its climate plan.
The panel draws its membership from nonprofits and businesses. Its membership has included such local commercial leaders as Chris Kennedy, president of the retail behemoth Merchandise Mart, and Sunil Garg, president of Exelon Power.
Bennett said that while Chicago businesses are no more apt to want environmental quality controls than businesses in other large, metropolitan cities, business leaders are more likely to take a progressive view on the environment than the Chicago City Council, which is driven by ward-level interests rather than big-picture issues.
Abolt, a member of the committee since the start of Emanuel’s term, said the business community in Chicago has a history of civic engagement going back to the decision 100 years ago to preserve the city’s Lake Michigan shoreline as a public commons, rather than allowing businesses to locate on the waterfront.
“We have benefited not only in our quality of life but in our economy as a consequence of that decision around stewardship,” he said.
Learner noted that his group has businesspeople on its board of directors and regularly collaborates with the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce on efforts to expand renewable energy.
“There are some places in which there’s the civic community and there’s the business community and there’s government and they’re all always at war with each other,” he said. “That’s not Chicago.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of parkland Emanuel aims to add.