Climate Change 101


Scientists, business leaders and heads of government around the world are in agreement: Climate change is one of the most serious issues facing the Earth today. There is strong consensus that most of the changes in world climate during the last 50 years are a result of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which have been heating the earth’s atmosphere.

What is climate change?

Naturally occurring levels of greenhouse gases keep temperatures on earth stable, but the burning of fossil fuels, and increasing rates of deforestation and development have produced growing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and other heat-trapping gases. Other causes are agriculture, waste treatment and industrial processes. Because of these increases in heat-trapping gases, average temperatures are projected to increase by 1 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades and to reach unacceptable levels in this century. In Chicago, the changing climate will be most apparent in the summer, when more frequent and intense heat waves will occur. Additional impacts of climate change will be increased storm intensity and droughts.

What are greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gases are gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap the sun's energy and thereby heat the Earth’s atmosphere. They include carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, methane from agricultural sources, and nitrous oxide from industrial sources. In the last 50 years, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen 25 percent; levels of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, have more than doubled.

What are the main sources of greenhouse gases in Chicago?

There are two main sources of greenhouse gases in Chicago. 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings or the energy production needed to serve them. Another 21 percent comes from transportation, specifically the burning of fossil fuels to operate cars, trucks, buses, and trains. Most of the remaining greenhouse gas emissions come from waste and industrial pollution.

What can be done to reduce the impact of climate change?

With ever greater determination, the world has responded to climate change. By the end of 2007, 177 countries and other government entities had ratified the Kyoto Protocol and of these, 36 developed countries pledged to reduce their heat-trapping gas emissions to specified levels. A number of U.S. states, including Illinois, are supporting programs to cap greenhouse gas emissions. Companies have found ways to reduce their energy use, reuse industrial byproducts and switch to renewable energy sources, saving millions of dollars annually. Individuals everywhere are making climate-friendly choices such as switching to energy-saving light bulbs and opting for more fuel-efficient cars. Everyone has a role to play.

What will happen if we don't act?

Chicago’s climate is already changing. Average temperatures have risen by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980. Fifteen of the last twenty years have seen above-average annual temperatures. Without rapid action, the impact on Chicago's climate could be dramatic. The city could experience more extreme heat, heavier, more damaging rainstorms, growing flood risks, and greater stress on public health, city infrastructure and city services. Chicago's climate could resemble that of Baton Rouge, Louisiana by the year 2050 with summer temperatures reaching 90+ degrees on more than seventy days and 100+ degrees on more than thirty days.  
 

What is the City of Chicago doing to reduce the impact of climate change?

More than fifteen years ago, Former Mayor Richard M. Daley began to transform Chicago into the most environmentally friendly city in the nation. Today, Chicago is one of the world’s greenest and most livable cities, thanks to strong partnerships between government, residents and businesses. We lead the way from green roofs to green buildings and policies. We’ve become the nation’s laboratory for studying ways to reduce the “urban heat island” effect, which can raise a city’s temperatures 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit on hot summer days. Our extensive public transit system offers a low-cost, energy-efficient alternative to solo driving. Our bicycling program has produced more bike parking than any other U.S. city and 165 miles of bikeways. Our Green Homes and other programs help families save thousands of dollars through energy efficiency.

Our understanding of climate change and the important role that cities can play in addressing it has grown tremendously during the past 15 years. This worldwide threat to our planet demands an encompassing plan from every city, state and nation, and action from every resident and business to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases and to ensure a good quality of life for future generations. It was with that charge in mind that Former Mayor Richard M. Daley created the Chicago Climate Task Force, a multi-stakeholder group, to produce the Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP).

What is the Chicago Climate Action Plan?

The Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP) reflects the work of leading scientists who analyzed various scenarios for Chicago’s climate future and how they would impact life in the city. The CCAP is also informed by teams of researchers who analyzed the costs and benefits of ways to best reduce Chicago’s emissions and who studied how Chicago could best prepare for the climate changes sure to come.

The CCAP outlines 26 actions to reduce greenhouse gases and nine actions to prepare for climate change, helping the City, residents, and businesses reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.  The Chicago Climate Task Force, in consultation with hundreds of stakeholders, recommended these actions for the City of Chicago and every Chicago business and resident.

What are Chicago's greenhouse gas emission reductions goals?

The Task Force agreed that Chicago needs to achieve an 80 percent reduction below its 1990 GHG emissions by the year 2050 in order to do its part to avoid the worst global impacts of climate change. To achieve the desired 80 percent reduction, the Task Force proposed an initial goal of a 25 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020, a mid-term goal that was far enough in the future to allow time for major infrastructure and behavioral changes, but soon enough to ensure we are on the right course.

In 2005, 36.2 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gases in carbon dioxide equivalent units (MMTCO2e) were emitted in Chicago, averaging 12.7 tons per year for each of Chicago’s 2.8 million residents. The 1990 baseline level of emissions is 32.3 MMT (1990 is specified by the Kyoto Protocol). If Chicago continues on its current path, which assumes continued population growth, its emissions would grow to 39.3 MMTCO2e by 2020. To achieve the Task Force's targeted 2020 goal of 24.2 MMTCo2e, projected emissions will need to be cut by 15.1 MMTCO2e by 2020.

What difference can Chicago make?

While climate change is a worldwide issue, 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are generated in the world’s urban areas. Reducing energy use and emissions in cities is therefore fundamental in any effort to reverse the trajectory of global warming. Cities by their very nature have great potential to be green. A compact environment means many shared services. A rich transit infrastructure results in fewer automobile miles traveled per person. Smaller dwelling units, such as apartments especially when they are attached, result in lower energy use per person. No one city can do it alone, but the collective actions of cities across the world can make a difference.

What difference can I make?

The success of the plan depends on every individual and every business taking action. Currently, the average Chicagoan causes approximately 12.7 metric tons of greenhouse gases in carbon dioxide equivalent units to be emitted each year. If every person reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by just one metric ton, Chicago would reduce its emissions by nearly three million metric tons annually. To learn more about how to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions--and save up to $800 a year-- Take the $800 Savings Challenge.

What resources are available to me so that I can act to decrease greenhouse gas emissions?

Visit the What Residents Can Do page to find a list of simple, low-cost measures to undertake in order to reduce your emissions and save money. Businesses can visit the Business Programs page for more information. These easy measures are just a first step and we hope they inspire you to have an even greater impact.

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