Las Vegas, NV—Upon his reelection as mayor in 2015, Greg Stanton, a former Phoenix, AZ councilman and former Arizona Deputy Attorney General launched an ambitious tripling of the city’s light rail system. The rail line has brought some $9 billion in new public and private investment to the city while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, winning accolades from business and environmentalists alike.
A champion of urban sustainability, deeply concerned about climate change, the mayor is guiding the city toward the elimination of all net carbon emissions and landfill waste. His administration has ambitious emissions reduction plans for Phoenix and is currently overachieving them. He holds climate change responsible for worsening the city’s drought, increasing forest fires in the region, and intensified local heat waves.
Stanton was one of more than 60 mayors who announced in June 2017 that they would abide by the 196-nation Paris climate agreement despite President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the accord—the only nation in the world to do so. Stanton has denounced the President’s action.
While expressing passion and enthusiasm about his job as mayor and the opportunities for public service it affords, Stanton nonetheless aspires to higher office. In early October he announced his intention to resign from his position to run for Congress in the Spring of 2018.
I spoke with the mayor recently at the October 13th National Clean Energy Summit to learn what has inspired him to set Phoenix on the path to urban sustainability. We also discussed his major achievements, obstacles encountered, and his plans for the city. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Q&A with Mayor Stanton
John J. Berger: What have you achieved in the development of renewable energy and in advancing energy efficiency in Phoenix?
Greg Stanton: Probably the biggest thing we have done— which is going to be a game changer— is our transportation infrastructure investment plan that the voters overwhelmingly supported.
We’re a city of 550 square miles, but we were becoming more urban. We have already built a light rail, and now we are tripling our light rail. Already we have had nine billion dollars of public and private investment along the light rail, mostly in the form of residential development.
We set a very specific goal that when I became mayor, we are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2015. We blew that away! Leadership matters, and we have learned that if you set a goal, and you organize to achieve that goal, you go way beyond the goal. The city, the city staff, and the people— they want leadership! They want to see what the mayor wants. So, now we are at 40 percent reduction by 2025, ultimately leading to a zero-waste, carbon- neutral city by 2050.
JB: Have these goals been documented in some way by city council resolutions?
GS: Yes, we have passed it as a city council ordinance. Once we passed that ordinance, we set that goal. It included a very ambitious goal for the City of Phoenix of 40 percent waste diversion by 2020 and we are ahead of schedule on that. When I first was mayor six years ago, when I began, we were at 13 percent. We just passed the 30 percent mark in the last month. We are heading in the right direction. Mostly though public education. Just telling the people how easy it is to recycle. Participatory recycling. That’s been very successful.
A Circular Economy
GS:. The City of Phoenix has lots of palm trees. People were dumping palm fronds into our landfill. Now we’ve got a company called Palm Silage that has a $10 million-a-year business by taking palm fronds out, grinding them up as animal feed, and selling it.
We partnered with Goodwill. We put 60,000 mattresses into the landfill. All of that stuff is recyclable. And so, we are working with them, and we were able to make a ton of money based upon pulling mattresses apart and recycling the various component parts. You get the point.
[A] circular economy is so important. Phoenix is the first north American city in the Ellen McArthur Circular Economy 100 organization. She has got us rethinking everything. It’s all about the circular economy. You want zero impact— not just a 40 percent diversion. You do well [by adopting a] circular economy, and you can achieve a 100 percent diversion.
JB: What was the catalyst that started you on this path to come up with so many progressive renewable energy and presumably energy efficiency policies for Phoenix?
GS: Why does anybody enter public life? You want to use that office for the betterment of humanity. . . I love serving in public service. I love it. I want to have the most impact that I can. If you want to do that, you go to the highest impact areas. There is no other area where you can have the biggest impact long-term than sustainability. If there is, I don’t know what it is..
Secondarily, I’m an elected official and this is really popular! People want leadership on this issue. They understand that the impact they are having today is going to impact future generations. They get excited when we announce that we have successfully achieved our renewable energy goals or that we successfully reduced our greenhouse gas emissions. I go big with that! Press conferences and that sort of thing.
JB: Does it matter that Phoenix is blue?
GS: On the partisan side of it?
GS: Phoenix is a pretty moderate city if you look at the political makeup. But as mayor, I want to show leadership. We are in a red state, and one of the big challenges we have is that we want to be progressive and aggressive when it comes to climate change-related issues. . . . What we don’t need is our legislature coming in because some special interest group doesn’t like what we’re doing and trying to preempt us. We had that happen on occasion.
Sustainable Cities Attract Talent
Cities work best because people vote with their feet: They want to move to a community that reflects their values. Jobs want to go to cities that reflect their values. The number one economic development benefit is actually this: When it comes to economic development, more than anything, we are not chasing corporations, we are chasing talent. Talented young people want to move to a city that reflects their values. So you better have strong policies when it comes to sustainability if you are in the talent attraction business,.
JB: Can I infer that this type of political platform would work well even within a Republican city?
GS: That’s an interesting question. I am the mayor of Phoenix, and that is the best job I have ever had in government. I can’t really talk about other cities, but all I know is that whether you are a blue city or a red city or anywhere in between, you want to be a leader on economic development. You want to attract talent. It is the same reason why the City of Phoenix has very strong policies as it relates to non-discrimination against the LGBT community, or as we support the Latino community. High-wage companies, particularly technology companies, care about that.
JB: As a mayor of a leading American city, how could state governments and the federal government be more supportive of cities that want to go in the direction that you’re going in?
GS: I’ll start with the state. We’re not really asking much from the state—just don’t pass laws that stop us from doing what we’re trying to do. Economically, the City of Phoenix is doing great. We are one of the fastest growing economies in America. Our unemployment rate is well below the state average. Jobs and economic activity are happening in cities in part because we passed job sustainability policies.
At the federal level, look, it is disappointing right now. I am the mayor, but I am an American, and I am really concerned about American leadership in the world on a variety of issues. But the first one, unfortunately, was when the President did decide to take us out of [the Paris climate agreement).
Our Global Standing Suffers
GS: Can the rest of the world trust America that when we make a commitment we’re going to live up to that commitment? And are they willing and motivated then to make another commitment, because Paris won’t be the last agreement that has to be [up]held? Can they trust the U.S.? Once you lose that trust it is so hard to get it back. So, I am very disappointed the President made the decision he did to pull us out. Not because of the immediate impact on our ability to meet our climate goals, but also because of the drop in our standing in the world. Yes, mayors are going to do everything we can to pick up the new mantle and make sure we meet those agreements through smart policies in our cities. We are going to do what we can. But make no mistake, there’s no substitute for having a supportive president, a supportive Congress, and right now I feel like we don’t have that.
What the Feds Could Do
JB: Yes. Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. It’s really hypothetical at the moment, but if the federal government were more aligned with clean energy, energy efficiency, and progressive politics, what could a federal government do that really wanted to supercharge or set a national mobilization in place? As Al Gore says, and many people recognize, time is of the essence here.
GS: It’s true that you could pass incredibly smart and impactful public policies through use of tax credits, but also direct infrastructure investment. The U.S. cannot get out of the business of supporting cities throughout the country in these investments. The transportation industry that we talked about is only fully successful by leveraging federal resources.
As a country, to let our roads be in the condition they are, our airports are falling behind, bridges etc. You know, basic transportation. But then, what about advancing infrastructure? What about investments in clean energy and solar in particular? Other governments are getting this. Germany gets it. They’ve got an industrial policy that supports green renewable energy. . . . There is a lot that the federal government can do. And they’re retreating. It is very disappointing.
John J. Berger, PhD. (www.johnjberger.com) is an energy and environmental policy specialist who has produced ten books on climate, energy, and natural resource topics. He is the author of Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to the Climate Crisis, and Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, and is at work on a new book about climate solutions.
Follow John J. Berger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnjberger.