Sign Up

The Greening of Salt Lake City

How is Salt Lake City waging its own battle against global warming?

May 18, 2005

How is Salt Lake City waging its own battle against global warming?

It was February 15, 2005 — the day the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, and the mayor of Salt Lake City was celebrating at the local Ben and Jerry’s.

In a tie-dyed apron, Mayor Rocky Anderson stood behind tubs of “Cherry Garcia” and “Karamel Sutra” ice cream with scoop in hand. He asked, “Who would be here even if it weren’t for ice-cream, to speak out against global warming?”

Anderson promised a scoop of ice cream to every person in the packed shop who signed a pledge to use their cars less, recycle more, and replace their regular light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescents.

“Okay, who wants ice-cream?” He asked, getting ready to scoop. “Step on up here!”

Most mayors are preoccupied with potholes and property taxes. But Anderson’s passion is global. An unabashedly liberal Democrat in a solidly Republican state, he’s been outspoken in his criticism of Bush administration policies on everything from gay marriage to civil rights.

But the one that irks him the most is the president’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He remembers the day Bush declared that the United States wouldn’t sign.

“My thoughts were what a horrible shame for our future that he was our president and simply didn’t seem to understand or care about the long term ramifications,” Anderson says. “I felt that we have to do everything we can locally to cut greenhouse emissions.”

So on the eve of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002, Anderson announced that his city government would meet Kyoto’s goals by 2012 — cutting greenhouse gases by 21% from 2001 levels.

He’s not the only mayor to make that promise — 153 other U.S. localities have signed on. But most are in coastal areas — Democratic strongholds where it’s easy to imagine the impact of rising sea levels.

But this is Utah — a mountain state that handed President Bush his largest margin of victory.

Anderson says Utah will be affected by global warming. Ski resorts like Alta bring about $750 million a year into the state’s economy.

He cites a 2003 United Nation’s warning that climate change could put all the world’s ski resorts out of business by the end of the century.

It’s not his favorite argument, but it’s one he’s willing to make.

“It is remarkable. We talk about the melting of the polar ice caps and massive flooding, the millions of people that will die of starvation and the civil wars that will be fought over rapidly diminishing resources, resulting in total utter devastation and catastrophe.”

He says further, “Peoples’ eyes glaze over, but when you mention the destruction of the ski industry, people perk up and say, ‘You’re kidding me!’ That’s when they become really alarmed.”

Anderson is a fanatical recycler who reads stacks of environmental books.

He worked with city officials to design an ambitious plan for cutting the greenhouse gases produced by city vehicles, buildings and other facilities.

Vicki Bennett is the city’s environmental programs manager. She says installing compact fluorescent light bulbs in city hall alone cut carbon dioxide emissions by 344 tons a year, saving $33,000 dollars annually.

The money has been re-invested in wind energy to help power the building. She says, “As much as you may laugh at it – the first thing that we did was change the light bulbs.”

A bigger challenge, though, is methane, which has 21 times more greenhouse impact than CO2. The city has started to capture the gas here at its sewage treatment plant and convert it into electricity.

At the plant, Vicki Bennett says, “Right now we’re creating enough energy to power about half of the waste water treatment plant’s needs."

Mayor Anderson has aggressively pushed light rail — like the newly built commuter line linking downtown and the University of Utah — as well as bicycle lanes and walking.

City employees even have bikes available to ride to meetings. Traffic signals now operate on LED technology. The city added natural gas cars to its fleet and converted airport shuttle buses from diesel to natural gas.

On converting energy methods, Bennett said, “We didn’t use 151,000 gallons of diesel, and we saved approximately 1,600 tons of CO2.”

Vicki Bennett uses a special computer program to calculate greenhouse gas emissions for different sectors of city government. She says finding new places to cut isn’t easy. The goal is to reduce overall emissions by 26,000 tons — but so far — they’re 76% of the way there.

Mayor Rocky Anderson has staked his growing international reputation on the city’s meeting its goal.

He’s accepted awards from as far away as New Delhi and Buenos Aires.

But his sometimes abrasive style has alienated many people closer to home. For instance, he scolded suburban residents during this year’s “State of the City” address.

In the address, he stated, “We want our friends from the north to come to Salt Lake City. We just don’t want them to increase our City’s traffic, further foul our air, undermine the quality of our lives and make us sick simply because of the choices they make about where they live and how they get around.”

Those comments bothered Republican City Councilman Dave Buhler.

“He’s not just a one-man show,” he said. “He needs to realize that he’s representing the entire city and that his words carry impact, and when he makes comments that are offensive to the very people we depend on — whether it be legislatively or economically — it really hurts the people of Salt Lake City.”

But Buhler has little negative to say about Anderson’s environmental initiatives.

He said, “We have a lot of stereotypes that are negative and incorrect about Utah and about Salt Lake City. I think that whenever we can let people understand who we are, that’s a good thing. We’re not some backwoods peoples, but a modern city. We have paved streets, mass transit and LED light bulbs, and that sort of image can be positive.”

Rocky Anderson says he’s proud of those light bulbs. And of his natural gas powered Honda Civic with its ” I Love Salt Lake City” bumper sticker, he says, “We’ve got a tree within a green heart there, a blue sky with clouds, and then, down here under the exclamation point is the ecology flag symbol.”

Anderson says he’s just doing his part in what is fast becoming a global movement.

If all the cities and counties worldwide that have committed to meeting their goals are successful, their efforts combined could account for a 15% reduction in total greenhouse gases.