Chicago has long been a leader among cities that recognize the value and importance of climate action for their citizens, communities and built and natural environments.
In 2008, the nation’s third largest city became the first major metro in the U.S. to develop a Climate Action Plan (CAP) that outlined strategies to mitigate its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contributing to climate change, targeting an 80-percent reduction by 2050. In 2015, the city released its Sustainable Chicago Agenda, which updated the CAP with 100 key climate actions; in 2017 it committed to the Paris Climate Agreement; and in 2019 the City Council agreed to transition all city buildings to 100-percent renewable energy.
In 2022, Chicago redoubled its commitment to creating sustainable and resilience communities by undertaking a comprehensive update of its CAP. In doing so, the city collaborated closely with WSP USA to implement a unique approach to climate action planning that centers equity and environmental justice in its core strategies — which collectively help the city arrive at needed carbon reduction targets (62-percent by 2040) and introduce measures to adapt to climate-related impacts.
The resulting 2022 Chicago CAP establishes a roadmap to bold action and represents a vanguard of next generation CAPs anchored in inclusion, collaboration and good use of alternative funding. Built around five pillars and associated strategies and actions, the plan will deliver multiple, meaningful benefits to more than 2.8 million residents in 77 distinct communities.
- Increase access to utility savings and renewable energy, prioritizing households
- Build circular economies to create jobs and reduce waste
- Deliver a robust zero-emission mobility network that connects communities and improves air quality
- Drive equitable development of a clean-energy future
- Strengthen communities and protect health
The city aims to achieve these goals through ranging strategies that include enabling building and personal vehicle electrification; reducing waste and landfilling; making walking, biking or transit viable options for all trips; encouraging equitable transit-oriented development and enabling zero-emission transit and fleets; decommissioning fossil power; and enabling adaptation to climate impacts. The co-benefits of these strategies to communities will be realized as economic inclusion and savings, reduced pollution burden, equitable access to critical infrastructure and natural spaces, community health and resilience, and ensuring a just transition to renewable energy.
Recognizing that low-income communities and communities of color are at once the most overburdened by environmental and climate change impacts, and often the least equipped to withstand and recover from them, the plan was intentionally designed through the lens of equity and inclusion. That process brought the voices, perspectives and lived experiences of thousands of historically marginalized Chicagoans to the discussion via a year-long public engagement process involving interactive virtual town halls, online surveys and facilitated conversations with community partners.
A few of the equity and environmental justice-focused interventions that resulted from that process include:
- Residential building retrofits and connecting communities to renewable energy power and storage options
- Electrification of municipal, commercial and industrial fleets to reduce air pollution from transportation corridors
- Equitable, affordable access to electric vehicles, clean transit and broadband networks
- Implementation of nature-based climate solutions to restore ecosystems, improve air and water quality, reduce the heat island effect and store carbon
- Expansion of the air quality monitoring network
- Waste diversion from landfills and pollution-heavy processing
- Workforce development strategies to stimulate inclusion and diversity and expand the clean-energy labor force
Importantly, the CAP also addresses the need to enhance the adaptive capacity of its communities, to enable them to better absorb and rebound from the increasingly severe chronic stressors and frequent shocks related to the changing climate.
Extreme heat is one example with which Chicago has an unfortunate history. The city’s 1995 heat wave remains among the deadliest climate disasters in the United States, claiming the lives of 739 residents, many of whom were low-income People of Color living in residences without ventilation or air conditioning, and in neighborhoods lacking social infrastructure, critical resources, greenspace or options for refuge.
The 2022 CAP builds on the city’s established extreme-heat emergency response plans and strategies with actions including planting over 75,000 trees, minimizing hard pavement and maximizing green space to reduce the heat island effect. The plan also seeks to address other increasing climate risks including frequent heavy downpours that cause flooding, transit disruption, and sewage overflows and contamination of local waterways; changing Lake Michigan water levels and temperature that increases shoreline erosion and property damage; and extreme winter weather that may impact the availability of energy and lifeline services and restrict mobility.
As a trusted partner to the city throughout the development of the CAP, WSP supported this effort as a technical advisor. Key activities included developing the strategies and actions included in the final plan through iterative modelling of GHG mitigation and co-benefits, integration of stakeholder input from the city’s community engagement process, evaluation of implementation viability across public and private sector actors, and graphic design and content development for the published plan.