Pittsburgh Has Aggressive Climate Action Goals. Can They Be Accomplished?

Dec 7, 2018

World leaders are gathered in Poland this month to talk about how to fight climate change. The United States is not there.

While the Trump administration isn't prioritizing environmental protection, some cities, including Pittsburgh, are trying to pick up the slack. 

"We have the ability to address these issues on a local level," Mayor Bill Peduto said at an October press conference announcing a $2.5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. "We can discuss them on the national level and international level, but when it gets right down to it, it's implemented on a local level."

The city has three main goals, to be achieved by 2030: cut carbon emissions city-wide by half, cut water consumption in city buildings by half, and power the city's buildings with 100% renewable energy.

Ines Azevedo, co-director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making, said those are ambitious goals.

"And they may tend to be unrealistic unless you have an enormous amount of resources and policies that are tailored to achieving those goals in the expected timeframe," Azevedo said.

The city's chief resilience officer, Grant Ervin, said the goals are ambitious by intent.

"The challenge of climate change is one that should not be taken lightly," Ervin said. "It's a clear and present danger that we're dealing with as local government as well as residents."

Pittsburgh is packed with old buildings like the City-County Building, where Ervin attends many meetings. He said they've started to track power usage levels in the building.

"So you can see oh, these people over here in the west wing are really consuming a lot of power," he said. "Why is that? Well, there's servers over there."

Ervin said they've found lots of wasted energy: some offices had their heaters and air conditioning units running at the same time. Knowing where energy is wasted allows the city to increase efficiency, he said.

Old buildings like the City-County building are generally not very energy efficient, and buildings are responsible overall for about 80 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions.

Julie Hughes, a building energy expert based in Washington, D.C., acknowledges the challenge.  "Existing buildings are tricky to tackle because engaging building owners and investors in retrofits, it does take the education, it does take effort to raise awareness," Hughes said.

Pittsburgh's ambitious climate and energy goals are a product of the Peduto administration, which might not be around in 2030. Ervin said that's okay, because achieving these goals goes beyond city government.

"The city can't act by itself. We've had in years past a lot of investment by the university sector, the private sector, by nonprofit organizations," Ervin said. "I think that collaborative spirit will endure beyond the mayor's administration."

But the city's goal of moving to 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade is dependent on entities far outside city limits. Azevedo with CMU said the electrons that power city buildings and infrastructure can come from anywhere in a wide swatch of the eastern U.S.

"This really makes it important to look at the emissions of the region, rather than something more local," she said.

At the end of November, the Trump administration released a report on climate change, warning that a warming planet could devastate the country's economy and create a public health crisis. Trump himself disputed the findings.

"As we've seen, the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to act on climate," said Amanda Eaken, of the National Resources Defense Council. "So we need to be looking at all levels of government to lead on climate action."

Pittsburgh isn't alone in setting ambitious goals. Dozens of other cities around the globe are seeking to drastically cut emissions and energy usage. Though strategies differ, there's a shared sense of urgency. From landslides in Pittsburgh to flooding in Houston to wildfires in California, cities believe they have no choice to confront the challenges brought about by a warming planet.