Is Rocky Anderson the Country's Greenest Mayor?

The following conversation with Rocky Anderson is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson is the mayor of Salt Lake City (SLC). He received a B.S. degree from the University of Utah and obtained his law degree from George Washington University. For twenty-one years, he worked as an attorney specializing in civil litigation. He also worked as a community volunteer, serving on the boards of several community-based nonprofit organizations. Anderson took office as Salt Lake City's mayor on January 3, 2000. He has initiated many innovative green policies in his city, and has been a leader in getting other city governments to adopt sustainability policies. He has also been a prominent voice calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush.

Q: Given that our book is titled Building the Green Economy, what are the green accomplishments in Salt Lake City you are most proud of?

Rocky Anderson: We focus on sustainability in everything we do. In our budgeting, in our day-to-day city operations, in planning for the future, in what we do with the local business community, in what we do with local residents, and even with our tourists. We started with our municipal operations. Just before the winter Olympic Games in 2002, I made a commitment that we would at least meet the Kyoto goals in our municipal operations. Kyoto uses 1990 as the base year for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, with a target year of 2012. We didn't have adequate data for that, so instead of saying 7 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 1990 level, we increased it to 21 percent from 2001. Nationwide, there was about a 13 or 14 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions during that period. The pledge was a 21 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. We reduced our emissions by 31 percent and we did it in just three years.

Q: How did you do that? Was it mainly city vehicles?

RA: It was across the board. It was changes in our fleet. I got rid of a number of SUVs; that made a huge difference. We downsized our fleet everywhere we could. We used to have sedans that did traffic enforcement. Now we have these little three-wheeled vehicles that use one-eighth as much gasoline. We even use electric chariots: little vehicles that run on electricity and take the place of an automobile. If we didn't need large four-wheel-drive vehicles, we got rid of them and put smaller vehicles in their place. At the same time, we are utilizing alternative fuels whenever we can.

We have 89 compressed-natural-gas vehicles in our fleet right now. My personal car is a CNG Honda Civic. I think that's really important in this region. We have the second largest number of natural gas outlets in the country in Utah. So it's very convenient. It costs about one-third as much for natural gas as regular gasoline at the pumps. It's all domestically produced. When you run natural gas there are almost no criteria pollutants: the kinds of air pollutants that create the air quality problems that we have in this region. Although I don't think natural gas is the long-term solution, it's a very good interim solution. It's much better than running on regular gasoline.

We retrofitted the lighting in our city and county buildings. We got rid of the incandescent lights, and we have a lot of them because we've got these beautiful chandeliers throughout the building. We put in compact fluorescent bulbs. That means saving about $33,000 per year. Much less electricity has to come from dirty coal-burning power plants, which provide about 96 percent of the energy in this region. Then we used about $12,000 a year from that $33,000 savings to purchase wind power. We not only dramatically conserved the amount of electricity that we were using but then we also shifted over to clean renewable production of the energy we do use. Those two things alone-changing out the light bulbs and then utilizing some of the savings for the purchase of wind power-reduces global warming emissions by the equivalent of about 1,100 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Then we changed the bulbs in our traffic lights, and we now save about $50,000 a year because of the massive reductions in electricity.

These are the sorts of things that make a big difference-lights all over town that are on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you are going to have some significant savings.

The largest savings in greenhouse gas emissions that we've seen has come from our methane recovery program. It's at our water treatment plant and our landfill. We used to flare off the methane. I think that's fairly common around the country. Now we capture the methane and we use it to fuel cogeneration plants that produce a lot of electricity that doesn't have to come from coal-burning power plants. At our wastewater treatment facility, it goes into a nearby municipal electric-utilities system. And at our wastewater treatment plant, it provides about half of the electrical needs for the entire wastewater plant.

These innovations were an outgrowth of a sustainability inventory we did throughout the city government in every department, assessing what we could do to make a difference in terms of local and environmental impacts and global warming. Then we took what we learned from that to the business community. We created what we call an E2 business program-E2 stands for "environmentally and economically sustainable". In that program we go to businesses and do the same thing we did in each of our municipal departments: we do an inventory of what the business is doing with lighting, with their waste disposal, with their transportation, recycling, water use, all of that. And then we make recommendations and show them what they can do to make a difference both environmentally and economically.

We now have around forty-five E2 businesses. They are very enthusiastic, their employees love it, their customers love it, and we give them a lot of really good recognition for it. And most of them see fairly significant cost savings by incorporating these measures in their everyday business.

We took it all one step further to our E2 citizen program. It's a lot like our E2 business program, but we encourage citizens to register online on our website, We give them a whole menu of choices: things that everybody can do to reduce their carbon footprint. We encourage them to calculate their own carbon footprint. We ask them to commit to at least five of these measures to reduce carbon emissions from what they do in their everyday lives. We have over 550 E2 citizens throughout the SLC community. So it's been a real consciousness-raising effort as well as effecting significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Also, we have massively stepped up recycling programs: in one year we increased the recycled materials in our recycling program by over 80 percent. That was done by replacing the smaller curbside containers, where people had to segregate recyclable materials, with one 90-gallon bin where you can put all recyclable materials except for glass, and then put it out with your garbage. A lot of people are like me, they are putting out a lot more in their recycling bin than they are in their regular refuse bin.

Q: Are you seeing these policies being copied in other cities? Is there a general trend going on?

RA: I think there is a real trend among cities, certainly in terms of the recognition of the problem of global warming and making an initial commitment. There are now over 400 mayors throughout the country that have sighed on to a climate protection agreement. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has a climate protection center. I must say that all the work that we have done has been done through ICLEI, the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives []. They have provided us with the technical expertise to establish our baselines to measure our progress and they are also providing us with ideas about how we can accomplish reductions. They've created a really good network among the cities that are really serious about this work. I think the one thing that has been largely missing in the discussion about global warming and climate change up until now has been the real hope we have, because solutions are available.

There are ways to conserve within our reach right now that make a huge difference. Corporate communities are saying that. Other nations are saying it. And as more and more cities get on board they are also experiencing a lot of the same kinds of successes we are.

I called Robert Redford before I went to the Buenos Aires UN conference on climate change. I knew of his longtime concern about global warming-he'd been a real activist very early on. So I called him and said, "How about we team up with ICLEI and bring in mayors from around the U.S. with a very action-oriented agenda?" We brought in the very best climate scientists and communication experts, and showed mayors best practices so they could go back to their communities and incorporate these things. And it has been successful beyond our wildest imagination.

We've done it twice now and we hope it will be an annual event. We brought in probably 70 mayors form throughout the U.S. And there have been some wonderful success stories with mayors who were either very skeptical about global warming and weren't doing anything or it just hadn't been on their radar before Sundance. They came to Sundance and now some of those mayors are doing some of the best work in the country.

A couple of examples: Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska. He came to Sundance the first year we held it. He left very well informed, and was completely sold on the necessity for taking local action. They now have methane recovery at their landfills. They have building standards that they have incorporated. They have gone through all of their municipal properties and have incorporated all these great measures. He has become one of the really great enthusiastic leaders among cities in this country. A few months ago he brought 30 U.S. mayors to Anchorage where they could see first-hand the dramatic devastation in the Anchorage area resulting form climate change: the receding glaciers, the destruction of forests. It was an amazing event. When I see this happening in just one year it's very heartening. John Hickenlooper, in Denver, is another standout mayor. He came to Sundance and has been a real star, doing some really great work on sustainability.

Q: Can you talk about the support you gave to the first buy-local week and how the SLC Vest Pocket business coalition developed?

RA: There are so many reasons why we should support our local businesses. We are seeing such a massive shift with all the big-box stores and the category killers, the homogenization or our nation in so many ways, with all these look-alike suburbs and even some cities, where you can't really tell one from the other because they're just covered with Starbucks and Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart. We are really losing a lot in terms of our local economy. We know that locally owned enterprises have a better impact. They use local lawyers, local accountants, local advertisers, local designers, and those dollars keep regenerating in our community. Plus, they are the ones who show up to volunteer and really become active in a civic fashion, in ways that you don't see from the large chain stores. Chain store profits end up getting sucked out of the community.

Every time you buy a book on you are taking dollars away form our local booksellers. And pretty soon we are not going to have any of those local booksellers, which are really drying up all over the country. And with that we lose so much of the sense of identity and community that these places provide.

I think it's a matter of personal ethics. We just need to keep reminding ourselves every time we go to a Wal-Mart rather than to a local store that the mom-and-pop sector is having a very difficult time competing. Even if it costs you a little more, it's an investment in what it really means to have a community.

We had the Vest Pocket business folks. I actually talked to them since their founding about getting a consumer movement going-not just having an association of the merchants, but reaching out more to consumers and getting them to commit to this personal consuming ethic. So we have the Local First campaign, emphasizing to people how important it is buy locally whenever possible. And another aspect of all this certainly has to do with supporting those who produce locally.

Food is the perfect example: when you can buy food that is locally produced, you are saving enormous amounts of emissions from not needing to ship the food long distances from where it's produced. There are so many advantages both economically and environmentally from buying from those who produce locally, and then when you do buy those locally produced products, purchasing them through locally owned businesses whenever possible.

Q: You issued a strong statement calling for the impeachment of President Bush. What do you say to people who say mayors shouldn't get involved in foreign policy and national policy?

RA: I used to think impeachment was a fairly radical proposal. I am now convinced that-given the incredible abuses of power, breaches of trust, violations of law, treaties, our own constitution, and the heinous human rights violations under this administration-impeachment of the president and vice president is the only way to communicate to the rest of the world that this does not represent American values. It's a very important statement for the future of this country.

I want our children in later generations to know that all of these horrendous things have occurred-including this completely illegal and tragic war of aggression in Iraq-and that the people of this country came together and said, "That's not who we are." We cannot allow the kidnapping and torture of human beings in our name. And when the leader of our government does these things in blatant violation of our constitution, we are going to hold him accountable and we are going to make sure that he doesn't hold this office anymore.

As for people who say mayors shouldn't speak out on these issues, I hear that all the time. They should be ashamed as human beings, and as supposed leaders in the community. Because that's what leaders do-when there are constitutional and moral crises like the one facing this country, every single person in any leadership position has an obligation to speak out, to say, "No, we are not going to put up with this anymore."

Local communities are hurting right now. It's in our local communities where we are bearing the debt and treating the young people coming back from Iraq who have suffered from losses of limbs and mental illnesses. This president has been spending so many billions of dollars-I think it has reached 500 billion dollars-on this war in Iraq. I think that the real total is going to be close to two trillion dollars.

We have seen during the Bush administration a 16 percent cut in community development block grant funding. This is for the lower income areas of our cities, the organizations that provide services for the people most in need in our communities, and now for the coming year president Bush has proposed another 21 percent reduction in community development block grant funding. This includes cuts in police funding: before the Bush administration, Salt Lake City was getting $4.5 million a year to help with our police department, and now we are getting about $2 million-more than a 50 percent cut for policing in our communities.

So I find it really hypocritical when he talks about homeland security. Because homeland security, first and foremost, is hometown security. To the Bush people it's only a slogan; to me, it's a reality. It reflects a complete mis-prioritization of where we are headed as a country.
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