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Chicago Takes Fair Climate Action

Art in downtown Chicago. Photo by Christopher Alvarenga
Art in downtown Chicago. Photo by Christopher Alvarenga

Tackling climate change is a beast. Doing so in an inclusive and just way so that everyone benefits from a clean energy transition is crucial, and tough. Mostly because it’s a new way of thinking about systems change. Nevertheless, that’s the question at heart of Chicago’s most recent climate action plan: what does an equitable climate strategy look like?

On the one hand, there’s the existential issue of lowering greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst impacts and contributing to the solution. On the other, any of the necessary changes, such as transitioning to a cleaner grid and implementing energy efficiency measures, will impact individuals and their wallets. The critical question is how.

“In Chicago, we must be sensitive to all sides of the issue since our city is large and so economically diverse,” says Kyra Woods, policy advisor on climate and environment for Chicago. “We’ve made a commitment to the Paris Agreement and to actively advancing justice and racial equity. Therefore, we need to proactively ensure that our policies benefit residents who feel the burdens of current systems and impacts - even if those residents don’t traditionally discuss them as climate or sustainability impacts.”

Taking climate action is no longer uncommon for large U.S. cities. Cities are highly vulnerable to heat, storms, flooding and pollution. As central hubs of economic activity, they are major drivers of greenhouse gas emissions, but they also have the benefit of more flexible, responsive, community-focused policy instruments through which to address the problem. By the start of 2022, 35 of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. had adopted local climate action plans.

A while back it was believed that Chicago would escape the worst effects of climate change. But that’s not holding up to scrutiny. A recent IPCC report says the city won’t be able to hide from extreme weather. Precipitation, flooding, extreme heat and declining air quality are on the rise. These raise the health, safety, and economic risk for the city’s 2.7 million residents, especially those who already struggle.

“What we do know is that changing climate is a force multiplier on some of the burdens people feel” says Woods, “A key part of developing Chicago’s climate action plan was not hoping for equitable distribution of benefits. Instead, we sought to create goals that were clear about the intent.”

Equity is not a singular box that can be checked; it’s about an iterative process that seeks to repair, restore, and improve. "If the climate action plan doesn’t intentionally address legacy issues through policy or tend to the people who have historically been left out, then we’re not evening the playing field,” explains Woods.

That means more than just transitioning to clean renewables. It means ensuring that the energy transition serves as an economic opportunity and makes new technologies accessible to all people. That’s where the Greenlink Equity Map (GEM) comes in handy.

“GEM allowed us to see this world of data on a single map,” says Woods. “In part you have to look behind the data – then you start to see overlapping lines of inequities.”

For example, communities that have long experienced disinvestment may have an abundance of gray infrastructure for trucks, cars, or rail, but may not have well developed green infrastructure like trees or stormwater infrastructure. The area may experience greater heat during the summer and greater flooding, while also having higher utility bills and greater health burdens from various compounding environmental burdens.

For the first time in nearly 30 years, Chicago is currently revamping its franchise agreement with Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) for electricity delivery. The city sees an opportunity for a more sustainable future grounded in equity. The GEM data can support the prioritization of areas for more coordinated outreach. Placing support in these communities will change the map for the better.

On Aug. 8, Chicago announced a five-year agreement with Constellation Energy to purchase 100 percent renewable energy for all city-owned facilities and operations by 2025. This will help Chicago meet its climate action plan goal of a 62 percent carbon emissions reduction by 2040.

“I believe the 2022 Climate Action Plan is a step in the right direction,” says Woods. “The urgency of the issue can feel daunting, but we are living through an era of transformation that can bring about unity, wellbeing, and vitality.”


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