During a recent conversation with John Norquist, the Congress for the New Urbanism president told me, “Nations won’t matter much in the future, it’s the cities that are already leading the way.” It’s clear that while nations struggle to enact a coordinated response to climate change, individual cities, such as Toronto, Chicago, and Denver, have already taken the lead in setting ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions that meet and exceed those attempted by international treaties. Daniel Hoornweg, of the World Bank's Finance, Economics, and Urban Development Department, argued in 2009  that “cities are increasingly leading the climate change dialogue, sometimes at odds with the position of the national government.”

To wit, the United States has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but more than 1,000 U.S. cities have voluntarily agreed to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets. Denver was among the first to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2005. Signatory cities agreed to hold themselves accountable and to demonstrate leadership at the local level in seven broad areas: energy, waste reduction, urban design, urban nature, transportation, environmental health, and water. John Hickenlooper, at the time the mayor of Denver, told a conference of city mayors that, “In the United States, our federal government has shown no inclination to address this issue [of climate change]. As cities, we are going to conform to the Kyoto Protocol. Instead of top down in terms of our climate we perhaps need to tackle it from the bottom up.”

Subsequently, Hickenlooper established Greenprint Denver, a city office tasked with helping to develop and eventually manage the city’s sustainability program. The charter for Greenprint was to “position Denver as a national leader in sustainability by developing and implementing solutions to resource challenges; and working with city agencies, to ensure that all city policy and program decisions incorporate ‘triple bottom line’ analysis, balancing short- and long-term economic, social, and environmental considerations.”

In essence, the small, five-person Greenprint office he created was tasked with coordinating a broad, sustainable agenda, starting with a 10% reduction in per capita carbon emissions by 2012, followed by a more ambitious 2020 goal: Decrease total communitywide emissions to below 1990 levels. This amounts to a communitywide reduction of about 20%, or 4.4 million metric tons of CO2 annually, the equivalent to eliminating two small coal-fired plants or taking almost 500,000 cars off the road. To achieve these goals, Greenprint was to coordinate an array of programs ranging from a citywide green building policy to expanding the city’s Green Fleet, as well as promoting green initiatives in private industry and education.

In describing how far Greenprint Denver has come since its inception in 2007, director Michele Weingarden said, “We are a small but mighty office bringing all the elements together.” Indeed, Denver achieved its initial goals three years ahead of schedule, “But we have already picked all the low-hanging fruit. We’ve achieved a 10% per capita reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but in order to reach our 20% goal we will need to change people’s behavior, changing lightbulbs won’t be enough. We need to continue building strong partnerships to help people learn about reducing energy and water consumption. We especially need to improve our alternative transportation options so people will be able to use them conveniently,” said Weingarden.

To this end the city is working in conjunction with a broad, regional coalition under the moniker DRCOG, or the Denver Regional Council of Governments, coordinating transportation and planning efforts with five counties and 25 municipal partners toward a unified Metro Vision 2035, which includes developing the nation’s largest multimodal transportation system and reducing greenhouse gas and other emissions 60% to 1.8 metric tons per capita by 2035. But one of the first tasks Greenprint had to accomplish was establishing a baseline from which to chart progress. “We didn’t know our baseline,” explained Gregg W. Thomas, Denver’s environmental assessment and policy section supervisor. “So we started to make an inventory. We wanted it to be comprehensive and include communitywide consumption of electricity, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, solid waste to landfills, and even fuel consumed at Denver International Airport. There was no tool available to make such a comprehensive assessment, so we went to the University of Colorado, and they helped us develop it.” Since then, Denver’s comprehensive method of greenhouse gas inventory has been adopted by the United Nations for use in other cities.

“We take into account energy use within the city and upstream, not just scope 1 and 2, but including scope 3 emissions; for example, transportation impacts to and from gas refineries that supply the fuel consumed within the city, we take responsibility for all of it. Not many cities look at the whole spectrum. We’re not required to, but we do. We’ve been criticized for measuring per capita versus total output because all that the environment really cares about is overall output. Well, we achieved both, we got down 13 million cubic feet overall and achieved a 21.7 per capita rate, down from 23.6 per capita in 2005. And this despite a population growth of about 40,000 people,” said Thomas.

One negative aspect of Denver’s overall energy profile is a regional mix of coal-dependent utilities combined with fiscal policies that prevent the city from buying more expensive energy from renewable sources. But here the state is making an effort. In 2010, the state passed a bill revamping Colorado’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 30% by 2020, which will represent the second highest in the United States.

One unique and promising Greenprint initiative that bodes well for Denver’s success as a leader in sustainability is a strong education component in the Denver Public Schools. “We’ve been working with Greenprint to reduce our energy use 20% by 2020 by completing energy and water conservation renovations in the schools, installing 4 MW of solar power on buildings, and engaging our students in energy conservation programs,” explained Jim Faes, director of sustainability for the Denver Public Schools.

By Faes’ reckoning, 50% of the improvement in an overall environmental profile of Denver schools has come from student engagement. He described one elementary school “green team” that meets weekly to walk through their school and identify waste. The students note when teachers leave computers running or lights on, and then share the results with the school community using social pressure to influence behavior. “With that kind of enthusiasm and involvement of our students as proactive leaders we will see better and better results,” said Faes, adding that green teams now exist in 150 schools.

Greenprint Denver

1. Current Greenprint goals include:

a. Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction

Reduce Denver per capita greenhouse gas emissions 10% from the 1990 emission rate, in conformity with the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Preliminary estimates suggest that Denver per capita emissions have increased significantly since 1990. Therefore reductions from current (2006) levels will need to increase commensurately.

b. Energy Efficiency

Reduce energy use by 5% from 2006 levels, measured per passenger at DIA and per building square foot in other city facilities.

All new city projects are built and certified to LEED-Silver standards.

Fully implement all appropriate LEED-EB principles into city operations and maintenance.

c. Alternative Fuels and Vehicles

Biological content of diesel fuels used in all diesel vehicles will exceed 20%.

Attain a 15% total reduction in city fleet vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Increase the number of alternative fuel vehicles at DIA by 50% from 2005 to 70% of the fleet.

2. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol categorizes emissions into three broad scopes:

• Scope 1: All direct greenhouse gas emissions—consumption within the city.

• Scope 2: Indirect greenhouse emissions from consumption of purchased electricity, heat or steam—for example, energy consumed in a power plant that provides electricity to the city.

• Scope 3: Other indirect emissions, such as the extraction and production of purchased materials and fuels, transport-related activities in vehicles not owned or controlled by the reporting entity, electricity-related activities (e.g., T&D losses) not covered in Scope 2, outsourced activities, waste disposal, etc.