CURRENTS: Unpacking the Paris Agreement: Implications and Inspiration for Local Governments

For those of us following energy and climate issues, December 2015 was an exciting month. The meetings in Paris held by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and by other climate action-focused groups that used the opportunity to also convene, drew global attention to latest climate forecasts, to the events we are already seeing around the world, and to the need for global collaboration and action. This twenty-first Conference of Parties, or “COP21” resulted in the approval of the Paris agreement, which commits to actions and investment for resiliency, sustainability, and a low-carbon future – by more than 190 countries.

The meeting was particularly powerful for those of us working in local government, who saw for the first time a focus on the responsibilities and leadership of those working at the city level. The Climate Summit for Local Leaders, held during the Convention in Paris’s City Hall, was the largest global mobilization of local and subnational governments, leaders and their networks since their first climate summit in 1993. Under the Compact of Mayors (originally formed by UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the 2014 UN Climate Summit, and bolstered in the U.S. with recognition from the White House in the lead up to COP21), numerous cities shared updates and made new commitments to climate at the Summit. By the end of the Summit 428 cities around the world had joined the Compact – including 22 from California – and 392 had conveyed commitments to take action to mitigate climate change.

Since Paris, a number of cities across California – from Chula Vista to San Francisco to Palm Springs to Yountville, to Santa Barbara – have been working to weave the lessons from the meeting into their climate planning, and implement energy and climate solutions at home. I recently had the opportunity to speak with both Tom Butt, Mayor of the City of Richmond and Daniel Hamilton, Sustainability Program Manager for the City of Oakland to hear about their experiences in Paris and learn more about what the true takeaway is for California’s local governments, for both elected officials and sustainability managers and planners.

A video of the interviews will be released online through SEEC later this spring. Read below for key excerpts from the interviews:

JD: This is conference that historically has been an international meeting, focused on the actions of national leaders. Can you tell me why your city, as a local government in California, felt it was important to attend? What was inspiring?

DH: We think that the innovations that are going to drive the solutions for climate change really do happen at the local level. Cities are responsible for the majority of energy emissions, cities are where most of the people in the world live, and cites are where the companies are that are going to drive these technologies and policy solutions – where they operate, where they thrive, and where they’re incubated. We think cities need to be part of the solution and that’s a big part of why Oakland was there. We along with 11 other cities were part of the Local Climate Leaders circle, advocating for formal recognition… recognizing that cities are a driving force for long-term greenhouse gas solutions.

What stood out most to me was that everyone was taking responsibility for their role in this. This is a challenge when you have some economies that are producers, some economies that are consumers, some economies that are more affected by climate change and sea level rise than others. Paris was a terrific example of everybody saying “we need to work together regardless of our role in this and come together and create a unified strategy.”

TB: What was particularly interesting to me was the emphasis on what they call subnationals – our states, our cities our counties. There was a particular interest and emphasis on cities, both because of the opportunities that cities have for being a major part of greenhouse gas reduction, and also the fact that cites have up until now really been the pioneers: they have pioneered a lot of the techniques and policies that are now spreading to other cities, other countries and coming up from the grassroots to national governments because the cities have proven that they can work.

It really had an effect on me – I was very much into trying to deal with climate change before I went, and I came back just totally committed to it; it’s not only something I have to do and will do, but I’m just not going to take no for an answer from anybody who’s opposing any of the policies – it’s just too important.

JD: The Agreement put in place during the Conference was the first of its kind that emphasized the role of subnational actors, and having a subnational call to action. Why do you think that local entities are so important in an international agreement? Is this particularly significant for local governments in California?

TB: Sometimes when you’re working on something that important you feel like you’re by yourself or just part of a few cities in California, but one thing I took back is that this is a worldwide movement. And it’s not just small cities like Richmond, we’re talking about all the great cities of the world and their leaders are totally committed to this. I think knowing you’re part of a huge movement gives you a lot of confidence and it also gives you a lot of resources – it makes it easier.

JD: As two of the 21 cities in California that signed the Compact of Mayors, both of your cities are clear leaders in the energy and climate space. Can you tell me a little bit about what each of your cities is doing specifically to further energy and climate goals?

DH: We’re in the process of constructing a 9.5 mile bus rapid transit (BRT) line that’s going to connect San Leandro to downtown Oakland through some of our most low-lying and vulnerable population areas, primarily non-English-speaking, and the most affected by climate justice issues. We’re also doing a number of changes to our solid waste programs, to reduce the amount of emissions coming out of our landfills and create a more comprehensive system that eliminates waste throughout our economy. But I think the biggest thing that we’re doing is finding better ways to work with our community to inform them and help everyone in the community lead a low carbon lifestyle. … We have a group called the Oakland Climate Action Coalition that formed around advocacy to the City on these issues. It [represents] more than 30 environmental organizations, and they work together to run community climate forums and created community solar cooperatives. The City is looking for ways to empower communities, not only to be part of the process, but to be driving the solutions; because they don’t need to be government-led, in a lot of cases they’re community-led, and we want to be supportive to those great ideas our community comes up with.

The City of Oakland has [also] committed to retrofitting its facilities to be both energy efficient, as well as to put as much rooftop solar, to create as much renewable energy as possible. We have more than 300 buildings, and we have 106 buildings that are large enough as energy users to get specific attention. We’ve looked at comprehensive lighting retrofits, energy efficiency throughout the buildings, modernizing HVAC systems and we’re recently contracted through an RFP to do solar on different rooftops – more than a megawatt (1MW) of solar. So we’re looking at a balanced strategy that increased renewables, and efficiency, but also looks at unique opportunities for things like our downtown campus (where city hall is located), where we might be able to grid-tie buildings in an island fashion and create opportunities for demand response that can help us reduce carbon emissions from the overall electricity supply – things we can do at the building level to affect things regionally, or even nationally.

TB: On [our] Civic Center project you can see most of the buildings have solar photovoltaic panel arrays on the roof, and as a LEED Gold project it has minimum energy consumption. …Rather than build a new project, we rehabilitated this entire campus that was built just after WWII; and not only is it LEED certified but it’s in a National Register Historic District. So we preserved a complex of historic buildings and got a significant LEED rating out of it. And there’s a lot of pride built into that that people appreciate: both the historical part and leadership in energy. Richmond was [also] the first municipality outside Marin County to be part of the expansion of [the clean energy provider and energy program administrator] MCE, and so far it’s not only paid off extremely well in saving energy and saving greenhouse gases, but also it’s saved the ratepayers of Richmond over $4M in the first couple years.

JD: City governments across the state face a number of competing priorities. Can you speak to how your city is working to connect climate and energy goals – health, housing, etc – with those other needs that the City and community face?

DH: Sustainability in Oakland really is seen as a social equity issue. We have the three “E”s of sustainability – equity, economy, and environment – and we really see equity as the primary lens that our sustainability programs try to work on. And that means that we prioritize projects and ideas that have co-benefits. So, we look at reducing emissions from our Port of Oakland, from our freeways, because we know these disproportionately affect lower-income residents in places like West Oakland and deep East Oakland. Our program allows us to deal with things like environmental justice issues, climate justice issues, things where we know citizens have been treated differently over the years and over the decades. We think that this can be part of the solution for increasing livability, increasing quality of life, and keeping people in their homes and reducing crime in Oakland.

TB: You can find something that everyone wants – whether it’s money, whether it’s housing, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s safe communities: there’s something for everybody there.  What are the fastest-growing job sectors in California? One of them is clean energy. The City of Richmond has created jobs and trained people for jobs and taken people from our city, some of whom were considered unemployable, and now they’re making good money because we’ve helped them get into that field.  How about housing? We just got one of the first grants for affordable housing through cap and trade which made a significant affordable housing project possible in Richmond. And for us that’s the triple bottom line because we get all of that.

We were [also] able to negotiate a $90M community benefits agreement with Chevron and a huge part of that is committed to things that result in GHG reductions. One part of it is a 10.5 megawatt solar farm that will be out on a Chevron property, on a brownfields site, and MCE will contract for that energy to be delivered. And that project will use over 50% local hires for the construction, who were trained by our RichmondBUILD employment and training department. We were able to provide the first employment for a whole cohort of Richmond residents and those people will go on to good paying jobs after this is completed; and then [the solar project] will be under contract with MCE for something like the next 25 years. That’s another example of the triple bottom line and how there are so many things that come out of these projects.

JD: If we can try to sum it up in a couple of sentences, what do you see as the main opportunity of the Paris Agreement for local government leaders? Why should local governments care about COP 21?

DH: The COP 21 agreement really is the first time national governments have gotten together and said “we accept responsibility for this.” For cities and counties especially in California, there’s the opportunity both to learn from things going on in the rest of the world, of things we can adopt here that will help reduce our emissions, and to lead.

Californians have the opportunity to not only learn from each other and from the global community, but to be the driving force in these solutions, not at their own scale but at a truly global scale.

TB: From what I learned in Paris, … if the agreement that happened as a result of COP21 is going to be successful, it’s going to be successful because cities have taken the lead. That’s where it’s going to have to happen. And if you’re a mayor or on the city council or in some leadership role with the city, then it’s in your hands. You know, you can’t sit back and let someone else deal with it. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with at home; it’s something we’re going to have to deal with city by city.

To learn more about what the City of Oakland and City of Richmond are doing to further energy and climate goals, visit and  For more from Daniel and Mayor Butt on building partnerships, cap and trade-funded housing, and advice for newcomers to the energy and sustainability space, check back for our video interview, coming soon.