Rising to the Challenge

Cities around the globe are on the front lines of climate change. A new project in Los Angeles is bringing major resources and intellectual firepower to confront this challenge and help make America’s first major city 100 percent energy and water sustainable.

Smog covers downtown Los Angeles, April 2009. (AP/Nick Ut)
Smog covers downtown Los Angeles, April 2009. (AP/Nick Ut)

Cities are at the epicenter of climate change, responsible for as much as 80 percent of heat-trapping emissions and enduring the brunt of climate change’s effects. Unlike the polarized debate on climate change at the national level, American mayors are calling for carbon-pollution reductions and increased resiliency efforts to avoid the potential catastrophic effects of climate change. Now, a new effort in Los Angeles, California, is attempting to go a step further with a breakout plan for both the city and region to address climate change.

Climate mitigation and resiliency efforts at the city level have been building in recent years. In 2005, mayors of some of the world’s largest cities banded together to form the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, or C40, in order to work together to cut emissions and address climate risks. In 2009, the World Bank realigned its strategy for working with cities to ensure that climate change is being adequately considered and addressed. In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation launched its 100 Resilient Cities initiative to help cities around the world build the capacity they need to address the “shocks and the stresses” they face on a routine basis, including challenges that are climate related. Even the United Nations has brought focus to the city-climate connection. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointedC40 Chairman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) as special envoy for cities and climate change. Joint initiatives are working to bring this important work together and to the forefront of climate change policy. For instance, the Knowledge Centre on Cities and Climate Change, or K4C, provides a mechanism for the sharing of information and experience among cities throughout the world.

The University of California, Los Angeles, or UCLA, has launched “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles,” an ambitious project to turn the page on Los Angeles’ history of air pollution, troubled transportation systems, loss of wildlife habitat, and unsustainable water and electricity demands. In fact, the project’s goal is to make America’s second-most-populous city the most sustainable city in the country. To that end, UCLA has committed to developing a comprehensive plan for the L.A. region to achieve self-sufficiency in energy production and water use and sourcing with no loss of native biodiversity, by 2050. The plan will identify and develop ways to obtain 100 percent of the region’s energy from renewable sources and 100 percent of its water from local sources. The university has adopted this project as one of its “Grand Challenges,” defined by the White House as “ambitious yet achievable goals to solve society’s biggest issues.” UCLA will harness its substantial research and innovation capabilities, with more than 140 researchers from 30 university institutes and research centers and two dozen departments committed to contributing. The project will also solicit problem-solving tactics from regional stakeholders and decision makers, such as innovative business leaders and the numerous governmental entities with jurisdiction over urban planning, land, air, and water. UCLA will unveil its findings and recommendations by 2019.By developing a plan with a 37-year vision, UCLA is addressing one of the biggest challenges policymakers face: how to deal with the exigencies of today while thinking about the long-term needs of tomorrow. This monumental collaboration has the potential to transform the region, make a major contribution to efforts to cut greenhouse gas pollution, and inspire the world.

In 2013, President Barack Obama called on research universities and other institutions to implement an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackling the “Grand Challenges” facing the United States and its citizens. With the Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles project, UCLA has taken up that challenge and dedicated its brainpower to improving the city beyond its campus.

Los Angeles is a fitting setting for such a bold project, as the city has a history of tackling seemingly intractable problems. For example, L.A. smog is infamous and was such a challenge in the early to mid-20th century that its effects defied belief. In 1903, air pollution blocked out the sun, and some Angelenos mistakenly believed it to be a solar eclipse. In 1943, an episode of smog was so serious that “[r]umors spread that the Japanese had launched a chemical attack” on Southern California. With determination and ingenuity that spanned decades, Los Angeles and the state of California built the most effective set of pollution-fighting programs in the world. In 1959, the California Department of Public Health issued the first state-based air-quality standards. As a result of this work, the days in Los Angeles with “very unhealthy” ozone levels fell from 113 in 1980 to 37 in 1995 to less than 5 per year since 2006, with none occurring since 2012.

The Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles project will identify new technologies, innovative approaches, and programs that might otherwise be out of the reach of city planners and leaders. UCLA also will work to build momentum for a revamped, carbon-free public transportation system. It will harness its research capacity to match technical innovation with policy in order to promote electricity infrastructure that delivers on smart-grid potential and power storage to ease the challenge of intermittent renewable energy. The scale of this ambitious plan will of course exceed the scope of a city budget, so policy and partnerships are likely to be key to its success. UCLA will face the necessary challenge of getting businesses, governments, community groups, and homeowners on board, but the promise of a sustainable future should entice these entities off the sidelines. Unlike pending rulemaking, which various industries may unite against for different reasons, the Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles project is an opportunity to solve problems that are outside the bounds of any given agency or legal construct. It’s an opportunity to shape a vision and a workable, long-term plan. Anyone with an interest in the region has a good reason to get involved.

Thankfully, Los Angeles is not starting from scratch. California has led the nation in efforts to cut carbon pollution and boost renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or LADWP, has already cut its carbon pollution by 21 percent below 1990 levels and is expected to be 59 percent below 1990 levels in 2025. How does the city plan to achieve this goal? In 2013, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) announced plans to divest the city from two large coal-fired power plants that supply electricity to more than 1 million homes in Los Angeles. To rid itself of these carbon-intensive power plants, LADWP is first tapping into California’s growing capacity to generate renewable electricity, which now meets 22 percent of retail electricity sales in the state. LADWP plans to meet 35 percent of its demand with renewable energy by 2020. Second, Los Angeles is nearly doubling natural gas’ share of the city’s energy portfolio, from 24 percent to 47 percent. In the coming years, natural gas will serve the important role of providing a dispatchable source of power with lower carbon emissions than coal. However, the city will ultimately have to address the carbon emissions from the city’s natural gas-fired power plants in order to reach long-term sustainability goals, which is exactly the kind of question UCLA’s project can help answer.

In just over one year in office, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) has already demonstrated that he wants to work on climate change mitigation and resiliency. In September 2014, in advance of the landmark U.N. Climate Summit in New York City, Mayor Garcetti joined other mayors to announce that the nation’s largest cities would be taking action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to foster action at the local level. A key milestone will be Mayor Garcetti’s anticipated new climate action plan with specific strategies to limit heat-trapping pollution, adapt to its effects, and promote the city’s sustainability.

By leading the charge among sustainable cities, Los Angeles can provide a model for other metropolitan areas as they seek to implement changes to their energy portfolios and water use. The promise of the Grand Challenges project is that, with dedication and ambitious research, American cities can innovate to prevent and protect against climate change. This is a promise that must be realized.

Greg Dotson is Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Erin Auel is a Special Assistant at the Center.

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Greg Dotson

Senior Fellow

Erin Auel

Campaign Manager