Interview with Timothy Burroughs of ICLEI USA: Local Government Climate Action

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Timothy Burroughs is a Program Officer at the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) USA Office based in Oakland. ICLEI is the leading global organization and network of local governments promoting sustainable development. I first met Timothy last November when he came to the Town of Moraga to speak about ICLEI's Cities for Climate Protection campaign and how the town can develop an action plan to reduce its community-wide carbon footprint.

Fascinated by his talk, I recently met Timothy in downtown Berkeley to learn quite a bit more about ICLEI's work with cities in the Bay Area and nation-wide. He shared insight on the role cities can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions through planning, the benefits cities receive from reduced emissions, the Sundance Summit for mayors, and the importance of regional cooperation, community buy-in, and city staff.

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Matthew Waxman: When you came to Moraga, I was really impressed with your presentation highlighting what cities can do about climate change. The event was an opportunity for residents to come together and get excited about their community and sustainability. In the US your main program is the Cities for Climate Protection campaign, and internationally ICLEI has over 500 members. How has the Cities for Climate Protection campaign been helping cities locally, nationally, and abroad?

Timothy Burroughs: For the US, the Cities for Climate Protection campaign is the main campaign through which ICLEI provides assistance to its members. The main way the campaign assists cities is by providing them with a methodology by which cities can measure the emissions a city is responsible for in a given year, manage those emissions and reduce them. We call this our five milestone methodology.

The first milestone is conducting a baseline greenhouse gasses emissions inventory. The inventory is a snapshot of a local government’s emissions in a given year. Those emissions result from transportation, waste, and energy consumption within the geographic boundaries of the community.

The second milestone is setting an emissions reductions target. The target is important for a number of reasons. One really important reason is that it tends to rally community support. A city like Berkeley, for example, has set a really aggressive target, and now community members are getting excited about how they can reach that target. It also means the city has to be accountable: they have set a target and now they have to figure out how to meet it. And the people are going to hold them to that.

The third milestone is developing an emissions reductions action plan; this consists of policy measures that, when implemented, will get the city to its targets. Policy in the plan could be transportation measures, waste prevention measures like recycling, and energy measures like giving residents incentives to increase energy efficiency.

You put all this into the plan and have to figure out how to implement it – this is the fourth milestone. Implementation is key. I mean, you don’t want everything to just be recorded and then sit on a shelf. Its great to have an action plan but it’s meaningless unless you actually implement it.

The fifth milestone is monitoring, verifying, and recording the results of the policy being implemented. Basically this consists of doing another inventory. So it comes back to the first milestone of conducting an inventory. What the inventory allows a city to do is to establish a trend for what its emissions are doing over time. If I take a snapshot of emissions in 2005, another in 2006, and one in 2007, I’m able to establish a trend for what the emissions over time.

We assist cities through each of the milestones in a number of different ways. One is we provide a software tool that enables cities to quantify their emissions and conduct the emissions inventory. The software -- designed specifically for cities – is basically a big calculator. You plug in a lot of data that includes how much energy your city is consuming and how much waste your city produces. The software tool gives you numbers on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions your city is producing.

As you said, we have member cities all around the country and world, and all of them are in a process of implementing one policy or a number of policies. When a city becomes a member, they gain access to the entire network of member cities. This is a huge benefit. Some of the first questions a city always asks when thinking about what to do when reducing emissions are “what have other cities done?” “How much has it cost in other cities?” “What has the benefit been to other cities?”

MW: How do you network cities together?

TB: A couple of different ways. We have workshops throughout the year, and sometimes we have them on specific topics like green power purchasing or increasing energy efficiency of your buildings -- trainings. And we’ll bring cities together from throughout our network either virtually or in-person. We really try to create a lot of time for cities to network together.

MW: Is this related to what recently happened at the Sundance Summit last November? What was the Sundance Summit?

TB: Yes, one of the benefits of the Sundance Summit was that ability to network between governments.

The Sundance Summit is pretty unique. It’s an event hosted in partnership by Robert Redford, ICLEI, and the mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson. Those three entities came together and realized that there are a lot of mayors out there that still don’t get it yet. There’s still doubt about if climate change exists, there’s doubt whether the municipal level is really the appropriate level to address climate change. The organizers said, let’s design an event bringing those mayors together! We’ll get a bunch of mayors to come to Sundance who are doubters still, and we’ll get also get a bunch of mayors to come to Sundance who are already progressive, and we’ll get all those guys to mix together and share ideas. The idea of the event is to target the naysayers, the ones who are a little bit behind. The event has been really successful and inspiring. Everybody has an opportunity to network. And it gives mayors from less progressive towns the opportunity to figure out that there are a lot of benefits to climate protection at a local level – it’s not just reducing emissions, there’s also cost saving benefits, and public health benefits.

MW: Along with bringing mayors together at the Sundance Summit, is any of ICLEI’s work related to the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement? Do these programs work together?

TB: Yes, definitely, there is a lot of synergy there. The US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement was popularized by Mayor Nickels of Seattle. He said, okay, the federal government is not going to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol but as municipalities we should show the country and the world that at a city level we can reduce our emissions to Kyoto level targets – which was seven percent below 1990 levels. And he really rallied a lot of support at the city level and very much in partnership with ICLEI; we assisted the mayor to do that. ICLEI and the mayor wrote an agreement that said “yes, I’m a mayor of X city, and I commit my city to reducing emissions to this level.” This commitment is really important but you need more than just a commitment, more than just an agreement that you sign, you need to figure out how you’re actually going to fulfill that commitment, and that’s really where ICLEI comes in. Once a mayor commits, we’re the organization that says, okay, now that you’re ready here’s how we can help. We provide the technical assistance, the actual nuts and bolts for how a city achieves reductions at the municipal level.

MW: What is your role at ICLEI?

TB: My role -- I wear a lot of hats at ICLEI -- but I guess my main role at ICLEI is to be that guy working directly with cities to achieve reductions. The assistance I provide varies. I mentioned the five milestones, and part of my job is really to help cities walk through the five milestones. From the basics of explaining our software, how to use it, and what type of data you need to collect. I also provide a lot of organizing and coordination assistance. For example, like what we’re doing in Alameda County and what we’re trying to do in Contra Costa County: helping cities come together and realize that together they’re going to accomplish more than they can apart.

MW: It was a community organization, Sustainable Moraga, who invited you to come speak in Moraga; is that usual? Do most cities first get involved at a community level? [Full disclosure: I'm a member of Sustainable Moraga.]

TB: It’s kind of true, but I wouldn’t say it’s always the case, I don’t even know if it happens that way a majority of the time. It can come from the political level. Sometimes it’s just a mayor who signed the Conference of Mayors Agreement and knows ICLEI can help them. And then the city tries to figure out how to get the community involved. Sometimes it happens the way it seems to be happening in a lot of the Contra Costa County towns, where it’s really community members who are going to the town or city council, saying we need to do something about climate change with the city and pointing the town to ICLEI. It can happen bottom up; which I think is a great model because one of the greatest challenges a city has in achieving reductions is getting community buy-in and involvement. If you start with community involvement you’re already jumping over a pretty big hurdle.

MW: What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in getting community buy-in when it may not immediately seem to be there?

TB: The biggest challenge is just building an informed and educated community, right? I think at this point, especially in the Bay Area and in California, most of us know global warming is a problem and that we should do something; but this doesn’t always translate to us actually doing something about it. For a city government, whose city owned facilities and fleet represents only maybe two percent of total community-wide emissions, it’s really important for the city to get community involved because they represent about 98 percent of total emissions.

But how do you get community buy-in? That’s an age-old question. How do you get the community involved in the policies you want to implement? Cities try a number of things; they try incentives. The city of Berkeley, for example, is giving free energy retrofits in the residential community, which is a good way to educate the community and get them involved. You can also try regulation at the city level; there’s a lot of different ways to do it. But the challenge itself is getting people to pay attention and having them want to do something about climate change, and getting them to commit to doing something about it. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort -- a big challenge.

MW: You’re taking about a political process that goes into gaining community support. What are some of the interesting political situations and challenges you’ve experienced when helping cities get started and set emissions targets?

TB: The first challenge is that very few cities have a person or a staff of people who were hired to specifically to work on the climate change issue at a municipal level. You have city staff doing thirty different things and a lot of time the work on climate change is just another thing they're supposed to do. So that’s the big challenge, cities have very few resources and staff time is at a premium. You have to be sensitive to that. This is also why it’s so exciting when a city, with all its resource constraints, takes the challenge on and does a lot with it. I see this a lot in Alameda County. Just the other day we helped the City of Alameda conduct its greenhouse gas inventory. The city has their baseline and now wants to figure out what targets to set and what kind of policy to put into an action plan.

Alameda invited me to this meeting to talk about ideas and it was many community members and city staffers, a whole cross-section of the community. Everyone was really committed to moving forward, and it wasn’t me pushing them to do it. It was them deciding that it was something important for the city to do. You know the project will be really sustainable in Alameda, now that they’re off and running. ICLEI will always be there to provide some assistance, but whether we were here or not, they’d be trying and that’s the mark of sustainability. It’s those kind of things that are really cool to see! There’s a couple of other cities in Alameda County like that: Emeryville has a great city staff committed to addressing the problem and diving in and trying get started, and the City of Oakland has an amazing staff.

Notice that I’m talking a lot about staff. It’s important to have a very strong staff, or at least one individual at the city pushing emissions reductions. If I was an organization pushing emissions reductions from the outside and there was no internal buy-in, I’d know that it’s not going to go anywhere.

MW: Are emissions dropping in cities that have adopted the assistance of ICLEI and the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement?

TB: It’s very much a city-by-city answer to that question. Generally the answer is that most of the cities addressing the issue are just getting started, just figuring out their emissions, and finding how to reduce their emissions.

Most cities are finding it takes substantial commitment to reduce emissions. The way we function as a society is very much dependent on the automobile and fossil-fuels, and the result is a significant amount of greenhouse gasses. Unless there is significant change in the city for that type of dependency, it’s really difficult to reduce emissions. I think a lot of cities are beginning to realize this, and a lot of cities haven’t actually been able to achieve reductions in emissions yet.

But a lot of cities also have. The City of Portland has achieved amazing reductions; they’ve gotten down to their 1990 levels, and they want to get significantly past that. The reason Portland has been able to do it is by getting people out of their cars; they’ve planned their community in a way that allows people to get around without having to drive.

MW: And that makes me think regional cooperation is really important. If the Bay Area were to really work towards these things, each of the cities would need to work together, address regional transportation, and make a larger-scale transportation system able to function.

TB: Yes, that’s true. Transportation and land-use policies are the type of policies that are much more effective when implemented on a regional scale rather than a city-by-city scale.

MW: Can you also address what might be some economic benefits of reducing carbon emissions? There are many different programs and businesses basing their business model around a more healthy, sustainable future. Can you explain how cities and local governments find financial savings, as well as generate revenue, when investing in a sustainable future?

TB: There are a lot of examples. You hit on something that’s really important to emphasize. As we are trying to get more cities to join, it is becoming increasingly important to emphasize the co-benefits of emissions reductions. One of the co-benefits is cost savings and revenue generation. It’s pretty hard to argue with that. If I offer a set of policies to a city that saves the city a lot of money, it’s pretty hard to say no.

One of the obvious ways for the city to reduce emissions and save money at the same time is to increase energy efficiency. The City of Oakland is a good example. Many cities have done work similar to Oakland, as well. For example, all of Oakland’s stoplights in the city were changed to energy efficient bulbs and saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The Oakland Museum -- they did an energy retrofit -- switched out all the light bulbs and made sure all electrical systems were working efficiently, and again they saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and reduced emissions. Energy efficiency can achieve reductions and save money.

Another example is to utilize alternative fuels. Landfills for example can be a really good source of renewable energy. When you send waste to a landfill, it breaks down and releases methane. The methane can be captured and turned into electricity, or even fuel for use in your trucks. Not only are you reducing the emissions going in the atmosphere, but you’re reducing the emissions that would have come from regular diesel used in the truck or grid electricity you would get from PG&E. Utilizing renewable energy -- especially local renewables  -- is very cost effective and can generate revenue for the city.

There’s a city in Georgia, LaGrange, that’s actually selling its methane to a couple local companies who use it in their boilers. This is giving huge revenue to the city, and reducing emissions.

MW: Earlier you mentioned that the fourth ICLEI milestone is about implementation. What goes into implementing the plan? You use computer software to set emissions standards, as well; how do you use this to get the ball rolling?

TB: Well the software comes in handy; not only does it enable a city to conduct an inventory of their emissions, but it also enables a city to model the impacts on emissions of a given policy. A city can say, for example, we want to convert our city fleet of diesel to biodiesel. The software can be used to compare the impacts of those two policies -- diesel and biodiesel. I can tell the software I’m going to convert ten vehicles to biodeisel and the software will tell me how much emissions reductions will result. You can also enter cost information to find the cost impact, as well. The software is very helpful to cities in visualizing what the actual benefits on the ground will be through implementation of certain policies.

Especially as a municipality, you need numbers to back up any argument. Resources are very scarce and to implement a policy that might not actually reduce emissions, or raise expectations about something actually false, is very irresponsible. The software tool is very helpful in giving cities a good idea about what the impact of certain policies will be; it’s a very big implementation tool. A staffer could then go to the city council and argue for, say, switching city fleet to biodiesel. She could explain how biodiesel will save the city money in the long run and reduce emissions.

A lot of big policies or measures cities may want to implement have probably already been done somewhere else. It’s really handy in implementation phase for a city to look around and see what’s worked elsewhere. We help cities figure out what’s worked, what hasn’t, what’s been cost effective, what hasn’t been cost effective, to guide their implementation.

MW: Once you’ve got everything implemented, the fifth milestone is about assessing and keeping the city up-to-date. How do you keep people involved? Have you ever had an experience where the city is at first very interested, begins the milestone process, and then something happened in the community and things go down hill?

TB: It definitely happens. Some cities have started out very gung-ho with a strong mayor with political will at top and strong staff, and maybe a year later there’s a big staff turnover and a new mayor, and climate change isn’t a priority anymore -- it happens. I mean, sometimes there’s not a whole lot one can do about it, other than what we always do, which is talking to the city about the benefits of doing this type of thing. Frankly, there are cities who’ve totally dropped-off, were once members of ICLEI or are still members, but are no longer active. Normally when a city becomes a member, they stay and enjoy the assistance we provide and keep it going. But city staff does change all the time.

I think this problem will happen less and less as the issue of climate change is in the forefront of people’s minds. Very few cities will go backwards now. I think we’ll see more and more attention to it at the municipal level. We do the best we can do to keep cities engaged.

We’re a non-profit, and we don’t always have the resources to call a city up every month and check-in. I wish we had enough staff to consistently hand-hold every member city. Sometimes we have to be more reactive than proactive when helping cities. It’s always a constant battle to maintain our resources such that we provide as much assistance as we can.

MW: How does ICLEI-assisted emissions reduction plans take into account existing planning and development projects?

TB: That’s a really good question. When we assist a city, we really emphasize looking at what’s already going on first. Most cities are doing something -- whether they know it or not -- that has an emissions reduction benefit. And most cities have already tried to do something with energy efficiency because it saves money. We really emphasize looking at doing an inventory of existing policies and plans in place. And asking, what impact do those policies have on emissions? Sometimes cities will find that they’re doing something pretty good, maybe in the building sector, for example. We recommend they quantify the benefits of those policies. Let’s look at emissions reductions available from what’s already in-place, and see if we can build on them to achieve further reductions. We emphasize the importance of starting with what you’re already doing, see how far it gets you, and then fill in the gaps with any new, proposed policies.

Ideally a city’s climate-related policies would be really well integrated into a general planning process or existing strategies. You don’t want to isolate climate policies into a separate category because then it can get cut when budgets get tight. You really want to tie it into a General Plan, so it becomes part of the fabric of the town and what the town is doing. The County of Marin is a good example of a local government that has integrated its emissions reductions efforts into its comprehensive and strategic planning efforts. Now it is just part of what Marin does, it isn’t something separate.

MW: I know the City of San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area will be growing, as well as other urban centers such as the City of New York. How can a city be inclusive to both urban growth and emissions reductions when looking to solve the situation of climate change?

TB: Population is a contributing factor to emissions, but it isn’t only about population growth, it’s about how the individuals in the population act. But it’s important, as cities grow, for cities to achieve emissions reduction goals while dealing with a growing population. Cities need to make sure new residents live close to the center of the city. Sometimes this is called smart growth planning, dense planning, infill development, brownfield development. You really want residents to live downtown where they can walk, ride their bike, get on the train, ride the bus. Cities designed in a way where people are dependent on their cars to get around are the cities with the most greenhouse gas emissions. If you can design a city in a way where people don’t have to drive to get around, then you will receive substantial emissions reductions. The City of New York is very good at this; they have a very dense urban environment where people don’t have to drive much to get around.

Population growth is becoming increasingly important; you can grow out or infill. And the transportation factor is probably the single most important factor with a growing population. Make sure we’re living downtown, close to where we work, close to where we shop.

MW: Urban design becomes very important. What is your vision for a “climate protected” city? What do you see in the future for the Bay Area? What physical changes might there be fifteen, twenty, thirty years down the road?

TB: One is what I just mentioned -- increased residential areas in the downtown. We’re in Berkeley right now, and the City of Berkeley is trying to do that, move more residents downtown and drive less. This is a big part of the vision. Better, more efficient bus routes, more bike lanes, increased residential areas downtown. Hopefully more people will move downtown, and less and less people will be moving out to areas like Sonoma and Marin and then driving to downtown Berkeley; there’s a huge emissions impact from that type of transportation.

Another big piece in the Bay Area that’ll be key is to shift away from a fossil-fuel based economy -- ultimately this is what we have to do. And mix the improved transportation habits with better technologies, such as more hybrids and more alternative fuels.

Doing something more with our waste is also important. The waste we send to the landfill breaks down and releases methane, and we need to find a way to channel that from all of our landfills and create a waste-to-energy process.

More energy-efficient water consumption.  Almost all of our water is purified to the degree of being drinkable. We water our lawns and wash our cars with water that we could drink; we don’t have to do this. We need to have better systems for using greywater. It takes a lot of energy to pump water around the Bay Area. We need to find out how to recycle and reuse water better; that’ll have a big emissions reduction impact.

Green building will be a part of it as well. The green building movement is huge and the technologies are coming out of the woodwork. Buildings can incorporate renewable power such as windmills on tops of buildings and solar panels. Mix that with energy efficient upgrades and retrofits on existing buildings, and we will achieve significant emissions reductions.

MW: How did you get involved in all this?

TB: I worked at the US EPA in Washington D.C., and worked on a program called Climate Friendly Parks. The program is basically what ICLEI does for cities but for National Parks. We developed a software tool for national parks to quantify their emissions and develop action plans; I was familiar with the type of model ICLEI uses. I became very interested while at the EPA in what cities were doing. I said to myself, I know I want to work on the climate issues – the issue of our time – and contribute to the solution, and I feel like working at the municipal level could be the most effective way tot do that. All this mixed with a desire to move to the Bay Area was what brought me to ICLEI. It was a quality of life choice and a professional development choice.

ICLEI is pretty unique in its mission. There are not many organizations providing the assistance we do. I actually don’t know of any other organizations that provide exactly what we provide. Working for ICLEI was the perfect fit.

MW: I’m curious, how did ICLEI’s USA Office end up in Oakland?

TB: The founder of ICLEI USA is a Berkeley resident, her name is Nancy Skinner. Around 1993, I believe, she started ICLEI USA out of her garage in Berkeley. Nancy and one other staffer, a woman named Abby Young, who worked at ICLEI for a long time, slowly grew the organization, and eventually moved from the garage to downtown Berkeley, and then to Oakland about two years ago. The office is right in downtown Oakland so we can get there by BART and bike. It all started with Nancy.

MW: What materials are available for residents and cities to use in getting involved? How can people bring ICLEI to their city?

TB: Our staff is really good at talking to cities about what to do, so our best resource is our staff. So for somebody who wants to get their town involved, the best thing to do is give us a call or send an email. Tell us about the situation in the town, and if you want the town to join ICLEI. Once you call us, we’re often able to come to the city, give a presentation about what cities can do, and start the process of talking to the city council and the mayor about joining. Our website is also a good place to go for cities to figure out what resources are available. One of the cool things we have is a series of case studies about what cities have done. An effective resource is to show cities what’s been done successfully elsewhere. And once a city joins, then it has access to everything including the software and on-demand assistance from our staff.

MW: Thank you very much!

TB: Thank you, it was fun!

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