Cities are leading the way toward a sustainable and resilient future

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

Climate change continues to affect the United States, with record-setting heat waves, wildfires, winter storms and hurricanes causing billions in damage and affecting the lives of millions of Americans. In response to the increasing frequency and severity of these events, governments at the local level are working on strategies to reduce their environmental impact and prepare their communities for more extreme weather.

Miami-Dade County, for example, was the first in the world to have designated a heat chief to raise public awareness of the dangers and inequities of climate change in their region. And when the United States withdrew from the Paris climate accord in 2017, hundreds of mayors reaffirmed their individual commitments to meet the accord’s emissions reduction targets.

Cities are at the forefront of important efforts to reduce the rate of global warming and protect communities from current and projected climate change. The following three cities represent critical approaches to engaging the public using clean technologies and future-proofing communities.

Cupertino’s transparent data and public initiatives help engage the community

Cupertino is one of many cities in California working to lower its carbon emissions – and the city is already on track to surpass ambitious reduction targets set by the state. Among the city’s goals are plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. The city is already on track to achieve the former, and the latter exceeds expectations set by state policies.

By being transparent about its progress and making it easy to engage with its many programs, Cupertino demonstrates the power of community in creating a sustainable city.

But the city knows it can’t achieve these ambitious goals on its own — it will also take citizens supporting new policies and making changes in their own lives. To engage and encourage residents to be part of their community’s net-zero journey, Cupertino is openly sharing its data and what changes need to be made to meet its goals by their set deadlines. In August, the city adopted and shared its Climate Action Plan 2.0, which outlines the reductions Cupertino has achieved since the previous 1.0 plan, what current data and projections show, and what changes need to happen to reach the long-term goal of carbon neutrality.

In addition to these long-term climate plans, Cupertino also publishes periodic progress reports highlighting achievements in emissions reductions, energy efficiency, water conservation and more. Residents are able to get involved in many ways – for example, they can provide input on proposed sustainability initiatives such as single-use plastics online or benchmark their progress with Cupertino’s Climate Challenge platform. By being transparent about its progress and making it easy to engage with its many programs, Cupertino demonstrates the power of community in creating a sustainable city.

Orlando’s investment in technology produces renewable energy and reduces carbon emissions

Across the country in Florida, Orlando is also electrifying its city and using data collection technology to manage buildings’ energy use. Orlando launched its Green Works Orlando initiative in 2007 and has since worked to green the city’s energy use — while saving the city’s energy costs and improving their local economy.

For the past five years, Orlando has focused on renewable energy, setting a goal for its community to run exclusively on clean and renewable energy by 2050. In addition, the city set a more ambitious goal for all of its facilities to run exclusively on renewable energy by 2030. To meet these goals, Orlando doubled the amount of solar power capacity provided to government buildings between 2020 and 2021. Solar power powers Orlando’s City Hall, fire and police stations, neighborhood senior centers and major parks.

Orlando Solar.

The city is also investing in more innovative ways to harness solar energy across its landscape. Orlando has begun investing in “floatovoltaics,” or floating solar panels, in its rainwater catchment ponds. To date, more than one megawatt of floatovoltaics has been installed. Because ponds are common in Orlando—both natural ponds and man-made detention ponds created to reduce flooding—floating solar panels have the potential to be a key technology in meeting their 2050 goals.

In addition to these solar efforts, Orlando is also lowering costs by reducing energy use in its buildings. The city uses AI-assisted building management software to monitor energy and utility use in public buildings in real time, allowing them to make continuous improvements alongside weather and occupancy changes. By using this technology alongside efficiency upgrades to dozens of city buildings, Orlando is saving as much as $2.5 million annually in reduced energy costs. Orlando is an excellent example of the many benefits cities create when they focus on how their energy use can support their long-term sustainability and cost reduction goals.

Boston builds resilient buildings and shoreline infrastructure

Settled more than 200 years before Orlando or Cupertino, Boston must prepare for the effects of climate change while nurturing its centuries-old infrastructure. Alongside its efforts to divert CO2 emissions, the city is also preparing for the changing weather – higher temperatures, more storms and more flooding along its famous harbour.

Along its coastline, Boston is rebuilding its harbor to survive rising sea levels and flooding. Reinforced seawalls, flood barriers and elevated harbor promenades will protect against flooding. And to complement these efforts while providing park space for residents, Boston will develop protective waterfront parks. These will provide space for the natural coastline, access to water transport and shared beaches, while strategically reducing the port’s flooding potential.

Boston also measures the energy consumption of its buildings. Only 2,200 non-city-owned buildings are responsible for over half of the city’s carbon emissions, and they must publicly report their electricity and water use each year to the city. In addition, Boston is working towards a greener, more accessible electricity grid for all. Through its Community Choice Electricity program, the city provides clean, low-cost energy to residents who choose to participate. And with the understanding that Boston will soon face more severe storms and buildings will risk losing access to the municipal grid, the city is providing cost incentives to buildings that install a microgrid. All of these efforts combined have the potential to combat the worst future climate disasters and make Boston a highly resilient coastal city.

Cities meet the challenge of politics, technology and society

Addressing climate change means governments at all levels must work to protect their people and their infrastructure. Cupertino, Orlando and Boston are just a few select cities that demonstrate the impact cities can have. By prioritizing sustainability in their municipal regulations and infrastructure, using technology to track and reduce emissions, and empowering the community to participate, cities can lead the way to a brighter future in the face of climate change.


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