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‘Mission impossible’ for US cities that want to respect Paris climate deal

Philadelphia is among the US cities that remain committed to achieving the goals of the Paris climate accord, but its efforts are a drop in the ocean, as sweeping changes to the power grid are needed

By Ivan Couronne  /  AFP, PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania

Buildings in the Philadelphia city center are bathed in morning light on Dec. 2 last year.

Photo: AFP

When US President Donald Trump announced the US’ exit from the Paris climate deal one year ago, the mayor of Philadelphia was among those who vowed to keep carrying the torch.

“Philly is committed to upholding at [the] local level the same commitment made by the US in the Paris climate agreement,” tweeted the sixth-largest US city’s mayor, Jim Kenney, a Democrat.

Since then, the City of Brotherly Love has cut energy consumption in municipal buildings, started replacing street lamps with LED lights and launched a major green energy overhaul of its celebrated museum of art.

However, these actions represent just a drop in the bucket, faced with the 16.3 million tonnes of carbon spewed into the atmosphere by Philadelphia each year.

Although emissions have declined, there is only so much the city can do.

Eighty-five percent of Philadelphia residents heat their homes with natural gas, a fossil fuel that is abundant in the rocks beneath Pennsylvania. Cars and trucks rumble through downtown — and more than half of the electricity the city gobbles up each day is produced by oil and coal-powered power plants.

“It can’t be done by cities and states. We do need a completely clean, carbon-free grid to meet this goal,” said Christine Knapp, director of the office of sustainability for the city of Philadelphia. “We’re going to take the pieces of cleaning that grid up as much as we can, but someone still higher than us needs to set the policy that that’s what’s going to happen.”

Philadelphia is among about 2,700 US cities, states and businesses that declared “We are still in” when it comes to the 190-plus nation Paris accord, signed in 2015.

The movement emphasizes progress, such as how carbon dioxide emissions last year fell to their lowest point in 25 years, and how gigawatts of solar and wind energy have been installed as coal use declines.

In Philadelphia, a city of 1.6 million people, such gains are evident, but are also happening at a far slower pace than many would like.

For instance, the mayor is simply not able to close coal and gas-powered plants that fuel the city, since they are connected to a vast network that covers 13 states in the northeast.

Only the state legislature in Pennsylvania can force operators to increase the share of electricity that comes from alternative energies beyond its goal of 18 percent in 2021. With only 0.5 percent of the power mandated to come from solar, it is far from enough.

Add to this Trump’s cancelation of the former US president Barack Obama-era federal anti-pollution “Clean Power Plan,” which was expected to lead to numerous plant closures.

In the end, the market might be the biggest force at play in Philadelphia’s drop in emissions, with natural gas prices falling below the price of coal and gaining market share.

Used as fuel, natural gas is responsible for half the carbon of emissions of traditional coal burning.

However, drilling and extracting it from the ground leads to leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide

Philadelphia is even more embroiled in the use of fossil fuels, because the city owns the local gas company, Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW).

Little by little, the distributor is replacing its pipelines to reduce methane leaks, which make up 2 to 5 percent of total volume.

However, the clashing of goals is jarring. On one side, the Philadelphia mayor imagines a future without gas, on the other, PGW defends its future as the cleanest, least-polluting of all the fossil fuels.

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