Climate Action Planning in Chicago

On January 26th, the Barr Foundation sponsored a presentation by Julia Parzen, a consultant who had helped the City of Chicago create and manage a comprehensive, data-driven climate action planning process. BCAN members attended, along with dozens of others from a range of public agencies and non-profit organizations. The talk was fascinating, with numerous ideas for Boston and other Massachusetts communities to create more ambitious climate action plans.

The Chicago process began with a thorough analysis of greenhouse gas emissions for Chicago and the surrounding counties. Chicago’s overall carbon footprint was calculated in 2005 to be 36.2 million metric tons of carbon equivalent, or 12.7 tons for every Chicago resident (by contrast, the figure for Boston in 2005 was a slightly higher 14.2 tons per person). The local utilities volunteered building-level energy use data, allowing planners to map energy use across the city and identify geographic usage patterns, thereby enabling more effective strategic planning to reduce energy use.

The research team identified dozens of possible “mitigation strategies” and evaluated each for the size of its realistic potential to reduce emissions. Out of this analysis emerged a prioritized list of 35 actions, or as the report put it, “35 ways to ensure a resilient city” (including 9 actions for adapting to a changing climate). These actions included energy retrofits in existing buildings, building renewable electricity generation, updating and improving enforcement of the City’s energy code, and implementing a carbon tax. Each mitigation action corresponded to a projected carbon reduction with full implementation enabling Chicago to meet its goals of bringing emissions 7% below 1990 levels by 2012, 25% by 2020, and 80% by 2050. Each recommended action also included specific performance measures, such as retrofitting 400,000 residential units by 2020, with a 30% reduction in energy use/unit.

Chicago’s climate action planning process was overwhelmingly collaborative. While initiated by the City’s Environment Department, the process involved a wide variety of other City departments, local philanthropies, businesses, universities, community groups and residents through a series of committees, task forces, summits and individual interviews. A crucial bit of data–building energy use data–was supplied by local utilities, allowing planners to map energy use across the city and identify geographic usage patterns, thereby anebling more effective strategic planning to recude energy use. The planners estimate that they involved more than 500 local leaders and held more than 50 meetings, with 10 committees managing each segment of the process. Four research teams worked for aover 8 months at a cost of $500,000. (Parzen noted that other cities would likely be able to do similar work for much less, perhaps $200,000, now that the model has been established.)

The entire Chicago planning process was well-documented so that it might serve as a model for other communities. The final plan and additional details are posted at

by Viki Bok