Chicago Commits to Bold Climate Action

March 31, 2022 | 2:29 pm
Jessica Collingsworth
Jessica Collingsworth
Former Contributor

Chicago just released its Draft 2022 Climate Action Plan (CAP), an update of the city’s 2008 CAP to reduce citywide emissions 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. Like many cities with CAPs, Chicago missed that target, largely because of insufficient funding, limited staffing, and lack of coordination among city agencies.

Chicago’s new CAP aims to remedy those problems and chart an equitable path to cut the city’s carbon emissions by at least 60 percent by 2040. To improve the lives of all Chicagoans, the plan prioritizes environmental justice, household savings, public health, and clean energy. To fund the plan, Chicago’s City Council dedicated $200 million last fall for climate resiliency and mitigation as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $2.5-billion Chicago Recovery Plan.

During the process of developing the new CAP, the city hosted public hearings last summer and followed up with community-wide town halls in January as well as public opinion surveys. The result? A majority of city residents said they wanted reliable transit, better air quality, more renewable energy, higher household savings, and improved public health.

UCS supports many of the new CAPs initiatives, including its strategy to achieve 100 percent clean renewable energy community-wide by 2035 as well as ensuring 150 megawatts of energy storage by 2025, but we are primarily focusing on the role that building retrofits and building decarbonization play in the plan.

Building Retrofits

Residential, commercial and industrial buildings account for nearly 70 percent of Chicago’s carbon footprint. Reducing energy use via energy efficiency would reduce carbon emissions, save residents and businesses money, and strengthen the city’s climate resiliency. It’s important to prioritize efficiency retrofits prior to electrification. Efficiency also would smooth the transition to 100 percent renewable energy by reducing the amount of new wind and solar installations required to meet all of the city’s energy demand.

The CAP includes a target of retrofitting 20 percent of residential buildings with five or more units by 2030, which would provide better efficiency and living conditions for many Chicago residents. Utility costs are the largest operating expense for multifamily buildings in Chicago. Energy burden, a household’s heating and electric expenses as a percentage of income, is a major issue for Illinois low-income families, who on average spend 13 percent of their income on energy. Retrofits, including weatherization, lighting and appliance upgrades, and high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment, can save families more money.

Building Decarbonization

Many buildings in Chicago use natural gas—methane—to run furnaces, boilers, hot water heaters and cooking stoves. Electrifying buildings and powering them with renewable electricity would reduce building carbon emissions and improve air quality at the same time. The city’s goal is to power buildings community-wide with 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035.

The Draft 2022 CAP also calls for:

  • Electrifying 30 percent of existing residential buildings by 2035. To achieve this goal, the city and its partners will help homeowners and landlords install new electric heat pumps and replace stoves and dryers.
  • Electrifying 90 percent of existing city-owned buildings by 2035.  
  • Electrifying 20 percent of existing industrial buildings by 2035. Industrial buildings often have fuel-intense processes for drying, melting and cracking materials. Assisting industrial facility owners to identify and invest in available alternatives is essential.
  • Electrifying 10 percent of existing commercial buildings by 2035. Smaller commercial buildings often can adopt a similar electrification strategy as residential buildings by swapping out appliances. Medium and large commercial buildings with central heating systems may have to upgrade electrical service to handle additional load, strengthen structural support for heavier equipment, and improve refrigerant management practices.

What’s Still Needed in the Plan

To achieve the ambitious goals of the Draft 2022 CAP, there needs to be strong accountability and reporting. UCS recommends the following:

  • Benchmark goals to ensure the city is moving in the right direction. It is critical for the city to adopt five-year benchmark goals from now through 2050 to document progress.
  • Progress reports on plan implementation that are easy to access and understand, and the city should provide them in multiple languages. Reports must track actions that are relevant to all Chicagoans, particularly those living in traditionally underserved communities.
  • A community-led climate advisory board and forum for regular community participation in CAP implementation, reporting and achievement.
  • Transparent access to data as the city evaluates air and water quality metrics to determine progress on environmental justice priorities.
  • Interdepartmental accountability across all city departments and agencies, which will be critical to meet CAP goals. It is important for the city to identify which department is in charge of implementing each CAP section.
  • Establishing a department of the environment that can consult with all city departments to ensure the CAP’s equity, community and sustainability goals are met.
  • Ongoing public input to determine community needs, utilize community leadership, and prioritize environmental justice.

Take Action

The city is accepting public comments on the plan until April 4. You can offer feedback by filling out this form or via the Draft 2022 CAP hotline at 312-744-0100. We encourage all Chicagoans to weigh in.