The Real Results of Copenhagen Will Be Seen in Our Cities

As the giant climate classroom in Copenhagen moves toward its closure, some will come away frustrated and even angry while other folks may be satisfied or at the very least relieved. Whatever documents may be signed at the end of the meeting, I think that these two weeks of December will have a lasting impact. The stresses on our planet caused by its nearly seven billion people must be better understood and managed. We are going to need to develop the institutions, mechanisms of governance, management systems and, most importantly, the technology to manage this planet sustainably.

What does that mean? The planet of the future will necessarily be different from the planet of the past. Just as today it is vastly different than the planet that we grew up on or the one on which our parents and grandparents lived. Some of the change will be bad, but with some skill and luck, most of it will be good. At a meeting here at Columbia University's Earth Institute about a month ago, Bill Gates questioned the goal of sustainability and urged us to do better. He challenged us by asking: Why would we want to sustain a world where millions of children die from preventable disease?

Indeed, why would we? While we must solve the problem of dire poverty where it exists throughout the world, most of us would not trade the time we live in today for a time in the past. In fact, most of us could barely function in that world. The high throughput and resource-intensive urban lifestyle that many of us currently live is here to stay. A sudden or dramatic end to this way of life would create unimaginable political instability and violence.

We like our lifestyles. We like the lives we lead and how the widespread development of electricity and technology in the 20th century has transformed them. Imagine a world without refrigerators, air conditioning, central heating systems, the automobile, the subway, movies, radio, TV, computers, cell phones, the internet and iPods. The technology and ease of life that we have is seductive and has worldwide appeal. We are not about to turn back the clock and go back to nature.

All of this is obvious. But what is less obvious to some is that we can't keep this global economy running by using the planet's non-renewable resources once and then dumping the waste we produce into a hole in the ground. The conference in Copenhagen and all of the worldwide efforts to address the crisis of global environmental sustainability are strong indications of the growing awareness of the need to shift to a green economy. President Obama's effort to link sustainability to the nation's economic revival is another strong sign that the issue of global environmental sustainability has moved from the fringe to the center of our political agenda.

More important in my view are the actions of the world's mayors as they confront this crisis of sustainability. International politics is often symbolic with just a little action thrown in the mix. National politics also can be quite symbolic but with enough money and law to make it a bit more real. However, local politics is the ultimate 24-7 reality show. Fires must be put out, garbage must be collected, water pumped and sewage treated, kids educated and potholes repaired. These are the non-ideological and non-optional tasks of government. The fact that we are seeing a large group of mayors gathering in Copenhagen is the surest sign that sustainability has become a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts issue for the world.

We see evidence of that here in New York City as our energy utility, Con Ed, and the New York City government itself puts in place a set of ambitious programs to improve the city's energy efficiency. Because of our mass transit system and the widespread use of multi-family housing, New York City is already the most energy efficient metropolis in the United States. However, Mayor Bloomberg and a wide variety of civic and business leaders are pushing the city to do better. We know that the city will add a million more residents by 2030, and we need to ensure that we can do that without building new power plants and employing unsustainable practices.

This is not a theoretical issue for the city and its leaders. There is no community in New York that will allow Con Ed to site a new power plant. While we can buy power generated elsewhere, the price is not likely to go down in the future. We not only need to avoid brownouts, we also need to use less energy to perform the same amount of work. Increased energy efficiency is clearly feasible because we waste so much energy.

The growth of our national economy requires that we reduce the proportion of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on energy. Back in 1970, we spent eight percent of the G.D.P. on energy. This grew to 11.6 percent in 1979 and peaked at 13.7 percent in 1981. In 1999 it dropped to an all time low of six percent due to a fast growing economy and low fuel prices. However, in recent years, this percentage has begun to grow once again. It jumped to seven percent in 2000 and to 8.8 percent in 2006, the last year for which we have government data. Reducing energy costs can and will enhance our competitiveness in the global marketplace.

While our energy use could be far more efficient, it is at the local level that energy actually gets wasted or saved. In New York State and California, energy users pay a tax on their utility bill that funds a wide range of energy efficiency projects. For the first time in New York, the state has allocated some of these funds directly to the utilities, who are in turn lining up private contractors to do energy audits and field energy efficiency projects. In New York City the most visible marker of the emerging green economy will be the growth of energy audits in our offices, stores and homes. Under a law signed by Mayor Bloomberg in early December, every building larger than 50,000 square feet must undergo an energy audit. And Con Ed is currently putting in place other programs to encourage audits in smaller buildings as well.

It is in New York City's buildings that the real impact of sustainability policy will be felt. As our homes and businesses are weatherized and our old appliances are replaced by newer energy efficient models, the sentiments expressed in Copenhagen become a reality here at home. That work is well underway, and while we have a long way to go, it will pick up momentum and eventually transform our economy forever.

For more commentary, please visit the State of the Planet blog.

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