Lagging Transportation Initiatives Hold Back Cities’ Climate Efforts

Most large U.S. cities have yet to institute strong policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, finds new ACEEE report.

Most large U.S. cities are not on track to meet their climate goals for the transporation sector because they have yet to institute strong policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation or have yet to set any, according to the 2021 City Clean Energy Scorecard. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) report ranks 100 major U.S. cities on efforts including reducing energy waste in homes and buildings and moving toward a cleaner power grid—and doing so equitably. It identifies the leading cities, the most improved, and those with ample room for progress, citing opportunities for each to advance.

San Francisco took top honors for the first time in the sixth edition of the Scorecard, followed by Seattle (#2), Washington, DC (#3), Minneapolis (#4), and Boston and New York (tied for #5). San Francisco launched a new program that provides free home energy-saving kits to residents in areas that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution and are economically disadvantaged. The city also updated its energy code for new residential and commercial buildings with requirements that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and it was the top scorer on transportation policies.

“I’m so proud of the all the work we’ve done in San Francisco to achieve the top City Clean Energy ranking this year,” said San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed. “Thanks to consistent investments in our city’s clean energy program, innovative policies to decarbonize our buildings, and advancing environmental solutions centered around equity, we’ve shown that it’s possible to drastically reduce our carbon emissions while growing our population and economy. I’m looking forward to our continued work with ACEEE and cities around the nation to continue striving toward bold climate action.”

Cities earned credit for policies and programs such as requiring large buildings to reduce energy waste or subsidizing access to transit and other efficient transportation options for historically marginalized groups, and for their success in reducing their overall greenhouse gas emissions.

climate goals
Source: 2021 City Clean Energy Scorecard, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE)

Making Moves In Transportation

This year was the first time ACEEE assessed cities’ progress toward their climate goals for the transportation sector—which are based on either greenhouse gas emissions or vehicle miles travelled—using a comprehensive review of their reported data. Twenty-five cities have adopted such goals, and only three are on track to achieve them. Seventeen of the 25 cities could not provide sufficient data to assess their progress. San Diego showed the strongest progress in this category, achieving a nearly 3% annual reduction in transportation greenhouse gas emissions since 2015.

The report also found that cities’ most recent clean energy policy actions have primarily focused on sectors other than transportation. Of the 177 new city clean energy actions scored in the report, only 23 were related to transportation, which is responsible for the largest share of U.S. emissions.

“Most cities haven’t set a goal for reducing vehicle travel or transportation emissions, and of those that have, only a few show progress, so that points to a big area for improvement,” said Stefen Samarripas, local policy manager at ACEEE and lead author of the report. “From investments in transit to incentives for installing electric vehicle charging stations and zoning changes that allow dense, mixed-use development, cities have to use all their tools to support an affordable transportation system that works better for all while slashing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Additional Findings

The report, which evaluated cities from May 2, 2020, to July 1, 2021, also found:

  • Seattle’s advocacy in the state legislature allowed its municipal utility to expand its electric vehicle charging initiatives; Washington, DC earned points for incentivizing the purchase of new electric vehicles by waiving the excise taxes on them.
  • Madison (Wisconsin) (#39), Charlotte (#42), and Honolulu (#24) are this year’s most-improved cities. Madison increased its investments in renewable energy and adopted requirements to install electric vehicle chargers in all multifamily and some commercial buildings. Charlotte created a program to train energy efficiency and renewable energy workers and directed city agencies to purchase efficient vehicles. Honolulu adopted a new climate action plan.
  • Many cities dropping in rank fell by not keeping up with peers who have adopted leading clean energy practices, increasingly rewarded in the Scorecard’s metrics.
  • Many cities encountered funding, staffing, and operational challenges for their clean energy efforts because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though a small number adapted their operations and plans quickly and effectively. Overall, the pandemic slowed many cities’ actions through 2020, but efforts generally recovered in the first half of 2021 with a renewed focus on the buildings sector.

“COVID relief and infrastructure funds from Congress provide a big opportunity for all cities to step up their efforts,” said Samarripas. “Cities can invest in upgrading buildings to cut costly energy waste. They can invest in efficient transportation, including public transit, to help lower-income residents reduce their travel costs and protect the climate. The leading cities provide helpful models for those at much earlier stages of their efforts.”

The Scorecard ranks cities in five policy areas: community-wide initiatives, buildings policies, transportation policies, and local government operations.

For the first time, the Scorecard grouped cities into six types based on the population of their metropolitan areas and their rates of growth, allowing for an examination of trends across city types. The Scorecard also includes a new analysis and scoring of cities’ smart growth strategies and a new tool (developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) to quantify the potential of a city’s transportation system to connect people to services and activities in an energy-efficient, convenient, and cost-effective way.

You can read the full report online, including individual fact sheets that describe each city’s performance and recommend ways to improve.

Read more facility management-related news from ACEEE here.