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Chicago’s race for the future

Deborah Kelly Spillane
Deborah Kelly Spillane
10 June 2022

Much more than a stunning skyline, sustainability is something that’s taken very seriously by the City of Chicago.

The second Sail GP race of season 3 sees the catamarans speed on Lake Michigan, with the dramatic Chicago skyline serving as a fitting backdrop. As a climate positive sport with a strong purpose to act for a better planet, Chicago is the ideal battle ground for the event. The City of Chicago is also very focused on climate change and how best to mitigate it. In fact, Chicago became the first city in the US to develop a comprehensive climate action plan (CAP) in 2008.

Chicago’s first climate action plan was based on input from climate experts, community groups and residents – and this significant step was taken while the city was in the grips of recession. The initial CAP was certainly ahead of its time, highlighting tangible actions that local people and businesses could undertake to make a difference. But times have changed since 2008, and the need for climate action has grown more urgent with scientists and experts warning global leaders that bold action is needed without delay.

Creating a more resilient city – for everyone

14 years later, Chicago is still leading the way toward a resilient, safe and more sustainable future, and has recently updated the climate action plan to highlight the more dramatic action needed in the battle against climate change. The revised climate goals not only focus on reducing emissions but also on increasing household savings,  improving health, and creating a more just and equal society – all with an underlying goal to protect and strengthen communities both locally and globally.

Based on 2017’s emission levels, the City of Chicago aims reduce emissions by a minimum of 62 percent by 2040, based on five clear pillars:

Pillar 1

Increase energy savings, prioritising households

8 percent reduction

Pillar 2

Create jobs, develop circular economies, and improve air quality by pioneering clean last-mile logistics

3 percent reduction

Pillar 3

Enable personal mobility and well-being by providing access to clean transport options and a first-class walking and biking network

6 percent reduction

Pillar 4

Reduce household cost burdens and improve grid reliability by powering Chicago with clean renewable energy

45 percent reduction

Pillar 5

Reduce disparities in quality-of-life metrics across communities by integrating health and equity criteria in decision-making: Pillar 5 actions do not directly reduce GHG emissions, however; they enable co- benefits for individual Chicagoans

Chicago’s GHG reduction targets based on mitigation pillars

Each of the five pillars has multiple strategies and quantifiable actions, because accountability as well as ways to measure impact is vital to the success of the CAP.

Chicago – a LEED-certified city

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, commonly abbreviated to LEED, is the world’s most widely used green building rating system. In 2016, a programme called LEED for Cities was launched, and in September 2018, Chicago became the seventh city in the world to receive LEED certification for its sustainability efforts that focused on green buildings.

Meeting the criteria to become a LEED-certified city involves tracking energy usage patterns, reporting on progress emission targets – and adopting LEED-based strategies to reduce energy, water, waste and pollution. Chicago – a city known for taking action when it comes to sustainability – is already delivering on its environmental goals and making an impact across the city.

20181031 RWNA PHO 497

Over to the people

In Chicago, there is a realistic understanding that the low-income communities are those most impacted by climate change; they are the group most overburdened by pollution, that experience extreme weather most negatively and are likely to live in energy-poverty. So equality –  and ensuring a more just city for everyone – is a fundamental aspect of the updated climate action plan.

By participating in a special survey, Chicagoans also got their chance to share what it was they wanted most to see in the 2022 CAP. The survey focused on four of the CAP’s goals: using 100 percent renewable energy, increasing household savings, advancing environmental justice and improving community health, and the respondents could rank how important these goals were as well rating the different approaches. 

Realistic ambition

A climate action plan that dramatically reduces emissions, increases household savings, and improves access to public services might seems unachievable, even utopian, but the city of Chicago has undergone impressive transformations in the past. The current administration is known for action, not the hot air and empty promises the Windy City was one infamous for. Investing $188 million to kickstart the implementation of the strategy, the administration is focusing first on building renovations, expanding the air quality monitoring network, and planting over 75,000 trees.

In Chicago, there is a firm belief that the urgent need to reduce emissions while increasing the resilience of the city is also a huge opportunity; it’s a unique chance to invest in its people, communities and a shared and more sustainable future. Like SailGP, the city is undergoing their own race for the future – and like the grand prix itself, it’s bound to be a thrilling and inspiring ride.

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