Cities around the United States are evaluating how to reduce their carbon footprint without harming the economy. For these cities, making smart changes to transportation, construction, and other policies allow residents to maintain a high quality of life while consciously working to mitigate the effects of climate change. In cities like Columbia, SC; Boise, ID; and Houston, TX, local leaders are assessing how several necessities, from their buses to their traffic lights and sewer systems, operate in an effort to make their cities cleaner and more efficient.

Unlike other cities, such as San Francisco and Imperial Beach, Calif., which are attempting to better arm their cities against climate change by way of litigation, these cities are making meaningful changes that are having a positive impact on the environment today, serving as models for how municipalities can lessen climate change’s impacts.

Columbia, South Carolina

Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin has been a prominent voice calling for cities to address climate change. For example, he is working with his residents to mitigate the impacts of climate change through both sustainability efforts and environmental stewardship, demonstrating a deep commitment to the city’s leadership on climate change policies. Some of Columbia’s efforts include updating existing infrastructure to better withstand extreme weather events, leveraging new green technologies and innovations and decreasing the city’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Columbia’s overall goal, as outlined in its Climate Protection Action Plan, is to achieve a 28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025, in line with the original U.S. commitment in the Paris Agreement.

An early improvement for the city was undertaken in 2009, when Columbia conducted an energy audit with the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant. The city decided to implement several of the audit’s recommendations, including upgrading lighting systems and HVAC in city buildings. These projects not only reduced greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, but they saved taxpayers approximately $337,000 per year.

In addition to transitioning 95 percent of its traffic lights to LED bulbs, Columbia has also developed a plan to perform energy efficient lighting retrofits in all city facilities and institute a “lights out” policy in all city facilities when not in use.

Furthermore, the city has added 60 compressed natural gas (CNG) buses to its transportation fleet. These buses emit up to 90 percent fewer emissions than traditional gasoline vehicles and make use of an abundant and affordable energy source, allowing city residents to reduce their carbon footprint by riding on vehicles that are cleaner and more efficient.

Boise, Idaho 

The city of Boise, Idaho, is also becoming cleaner and more efficient. Like Columbia, it has adopted compressed natural gas buses, which transport riders not only through Boise but to nearby cities and counties, meaning residents are riding cleaner transportation further. The decision to convert to compressed natural gas buses was not only because it is a cleaner option for public transportation, but because it helped the city reduce the cost of operating its buses due to the low price of natural gas.

Additionally, Boise has its own sustainability project, which includes initiatives like installing LED street lights—which have saved the city $65,000 annually—and enhancing its geothermal system. Both of these measures will help the city make use of smart technology while reducing its overall energy consumption.

Boise’s plan for city buildings to be zero-net energy by 2030 is ambitious, but its sustainability project is already putting it on the path for success. According to Haley Falconer, the City of Boise Public Works’ Environmental Division Manager, existing buildings lowered their energy consumption by making updates to new HVAC equipment as well as “changing out light fixtures, implementing energy efficient best practices and working with local utility companies for incentives.” These changes have already hit targets for energy consumption reductions ahead of schedule, Falconer explains:

“The Main Library has seen a 45 percent reduction in energy use since 2010, which puts it close to its 2030 goals. We have also seen Boise City Hall West reduced energy by 38 percent since 2010 which puts it close to attaining the 2030 reduction goals 10 years ahead of schedule.”

Most interesting is perhaps Boise’s Twenty-Mile South Farm, a microcosm of sustainability which has implemented a net-zero emissions design. According to Smart Cities Connect:

“The farm utilizes 100% of the bio-solids produced from our two water renewal facilities (wastewater treatment plants) to fertilize the 4225-acre farm, and grow forage crops that are then sold to the community. The crop revenue helps to keep sewer rates low for the residents of Boise.”

This building is already producing results—it’s a net-positive energy creator and has already produced 30,000-kilowatt hours more energy than it has used. Projects like Boise’s Twenty-Mile South Farm demonstrate creative ways to use the savings from energy-efficient projects to invest back in the community.

A Sustainable City Blueprint

Boise and Columbia’s efforts are laudable, working with energy producers to adopt the latest technologies to make their cities cleaner and more efficient. Other cities, like Houston, have added to these plans to include initiatives like the “Adopt-A-Drain program,” which allows citizens to oversee their local drainage systems and keep them free from debris, preventing future flooding. Rather than becoming embroiled in costly litigation, these cities are instead choosing effective ways to combat climate change and implementing solutions that are providing immediate relief.