(Image: Louisville, Kentucky, scored a spot on CDP's list thanks to broad-sweeping climate action and resilience plans.)
Today CDP released its latest list of “A cities” — cities around the world that are leaders in environmental action. To make the grade, a city must have, among other things, conducted a city-wide emissions inventory, set an emissions reduction target, published a climate action plan, and completed a climate adaptation plan to achieve their goals. Twenty-five of the 88 cities on this year’s list are in the U.S., showing that cities across the country are making ambitious plans to tackle climate change in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and in opposition to climate policies at the federal level.
A new entrant this year — Louisville, Kentucky — may not be what most people would point to as a sustainability leader, but the city's ambitious climate plans earned it a spot on the list. It’s a critical step to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change already being felt in the city.
A study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that Louisville was the fastest warming urban heat island in the U.S. Several factors have contributed to that, including its geographical location (it sits in the Ohio River Valley, which traps heat and pollutants), increased asphalt cover as the city grows, and reduced tree canopy. Climate models of Kentucky note that its future will be hotter and wetter.
The city has experienced extensive flooding in recent years, including in 2018, which saw record-breaking rainfall. In between flood events, longer droughts plague the city, increasing demands for water from the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Floods and droughts also increase pressure on already-stressed water infrastructure and will likely increase treatment costs for drinking water.
Heat is compounding the pressure. Historically, Louisville averages six days per year of a heat index over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That number is projected to increase to 45 days by 2050 and 76 days by 2100. Further, models predict about 10 days of heat indices of over 127 degrees by the end of the century.
Louisville released its Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan in April 2020, with a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. About 54 percent of the city’s emissions come from residential and commercial buildings, so a cornerstone of the plan includes new building codes and increased energy efficiency as well as initiatives like solar power systems, all of which are money- and water-savers, as well as job creators. Clean energy is especially critical in a coal-powered state like Kentucky since coal is both a high carbon emitter and a thirsty energy resource.
The urban heat island effect has intensified in Louisville because of the dramatic decrease in the urban tree canopy. The city’s tree canopy fell from 40 percent in 2004 to 27 percent in 2019. The Sustain Louisville plan includes tree canopy restoration, which is one of the reasons it scored so high with CDP. “By working toward its goal of increasing the city’s tree canopy to 45 percent, the city is not only tackling the effects of climate change, but it is also supporting the health and well-being of local communities," said Katie Walsh, head of cities, states and regions for CDP North America. "Mounting evidence [shows] the link between vulnerability to COVID-19, air quality, and the inequity in tree canopy in historically marginalized communities and communities of color.”
Louisville also released a resilience plan called Prepare Louisville, with particular emphasis on protecting vulnerable populations. Addressing longtime environmental justice concerns is one piece of tackling racial justice overall, something particularly salient in the hometown of Breonna Taylor. Residents in some predominantly African-American and low-income neighborhoods have life expectancies 10 to 12 years shorter than whiter, more affluent areas. The group of neighborhoods in West Louisville in the industrial area known as Rubbertown, for example, has long suffered poor air quality impacts.
The resilience plan includes efforts to improve stormwater management, reduce impervious cover (important for flood control), and reduce development in flood-prone areas. But it also includes measures to address historical inequities with initiatives such as improved access to energy-efficiency upgrades, creating more green space, and partnering with local nonprofits for more equitable solutions.
The CDP list of cities is an important indicator for not only showcasing the cities with ambitious plans, but also creating a database of initiatives that other cities looking to create their own plans can use as a resource. Louisville’s addition to the list proves that more aggressive climate action and resilience plans are possible in states that have historically relied on coal as both a power source and an economic driver. As renewable energy overtakes coal in cost effectiveness, investors and companies will be increasingly drawn to cities that provide a safe bet.
The emissions reductions and equity goals in Louisville’s plans are a good start to a bright future for the city and its residents. Both the public and private sectors will need to be inclusive and diverse in their decision making and implementation to ensure success. With any luck, the momentum for justice that built this summer will translate into cleaner air and water for every resident of the city.
Image credit: Karthik R/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.