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A rooftop is covered with solar panels at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Lennihan

Mayors unite for the climate

July 19, 2017

With Trump ditching climate action, mayors across the US are stepping up. Steve Benjamin, co-chair of the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy campaign, told DW how going green is good for people, the planet - and the economy.


DW: Why have you and other US mayors decided to launch this initiative now?

Steve Benjamin: More than ever before, mayors are at the forefront of progress - expanding opportunity, defending freedom, creating change across the globe. We've seen this incredible change over the last several years.

Obviously growth and prosperity are at the heart of the American dream. When we see the lack of leadership on the national level on such an important issue as climate change it was important to me, and the mayors of Miami Beach and San Diego and Salt Lake City, and now dozens of other mayors across the country, to step up. And we've been incredibly excited to see the support that's growing throughout our communities. 

Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, SC
Steve Benjamin wants a better future for the next generationImage: privat

So is this something the American public is calling for? 

The support and praise has been incredibly strong across the political spectrum. People see 100 percent renewable energy as not just the right thing to do, but a smart thing to do. It's good for business, it's good for the public health of our citizens, and it's the only way we can turn over to our children the world that they deserve - and their children's children. So the support has been, yes, broad and deep. 

With President Donald Trump pulling the US out of the Paris agreement, do you think local efforts can really make up for lack of action on a national level? 

Mayors of course always think that the mayors should rule the world! In our cities across this country, we're seeing 90 percent of America's gross domestic product being produced, people are running back to the urban core in metropolitan areas at record pace, we consume 70 percent of energy used in the United States.

Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron at Elysee Palace
Trump is at odds with French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders over climate changeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Y. Herman

So acting in concert with some type of collective responsibility to continue to have a significant impact, is very real and we decided that we're going to take on that responsibility. And it's important to recognize that this type of support has come from every corner of our country: Republican and Democrat mayors, from big cities and in small towns. And it's exciting. 

The goal is to switch to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. How realistic is that - can every city do it? 

Well, obviously we're a large country. And you'll find that in some cities - like ours - the ability to really maximize solar energy is real, and in other parts of the country it may be wind. So everyone's going to have to modify the plans to meet their needs. If we continue to emphasize - and also incentivize - the use of clean and renewable energies, I believe that the practical benefits to our citizens are becoming more and more real every single day. 

So how far is Colombia toward 100 percent clean energy goal, and what are the major steps you will take to achieve it? 

Just over the last few years we've installed enough solar panels on businesses and homes in our city to generate over 8.2million kilowatt-hours of electricity over the next 25 years. Practically, that has the effect of removing greenhouse gases of 13 million car miles and the carbon dioxide equivalent of 6.1 million pounds of coal being burned. And that's just the start. We're the first city in our state to power all of our city council meetings on renewable energy, we converted 95 percent of all of our traffic lights to energy-efficient LED technology - again, that's important practical in terms of energy savings but also for us to communicate to our citizens.

I do believe it's very realistic to try and achieve this goal over 20 years but I also believe that it's going to be incredibly important for us as public policy leaders and policymakers to really begin to articulate to the citizens we represent what the practical benefits are. It's very difficult to create a sense of urgency about some real and potential cataclysmic event decades from now by speaking in abstract terms about how we want to keep the rise in earth's temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. That that gets lost on a lot of citizens. Our job is to practicalize the arguments in a way that is relevant to citizens right here and now. 

What economic opportunities will the campaign bring?

A man kayaks on Tall Pines Circle October 4, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina
South Carolina saw heavy flooding in 2015 - US mayors hope to stave off the worst effects of climate changeImage: Getty Images/S. Rayford

We saw a significant boom in solar energy jobs when our state decided that we're going to truly incentivize the investment in that space. And as a result we've seen the price of solar plummet by 80 percent over the last several years. The cost of deploying wind power is down 41 percent since 2008. Right now solar power is cheaper than the electricity currently provided by utility companies in 42 of our nation's 50 biggest cities.

It's been wonderful, even post the President's decisions regarding Paris, to see all types of corporate and institutional investors, foundations and individuals, still making it clear that this is a priority. And we're seeing it from big companies like Apple and General Motors and Wal-Mart and others - that's very encouraging. We're seeing literally hundreds of thousands of jobs being created in both solar and wind alone. So we're excited about that. 

Looking beyond the US at international efforts to tackle climate change, how important is local action compared to national and intergovernmental programs? 

Last year I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural meeting of global parliament of mayors in The Hague. And to be joined by mayors from every continent with the exception of Antarctica, and to be able to share our stories and our challenges around climate and building more resilient cities, it was clear that the challenges and opportunities were the same regardless of where we lived. Leadership on these issues is being provided by mayors all across the globe.

What is it about this topic that made you get on board?

As a father, I want my children to be able to live in a world of infinite possibilities. If we continue this focus on 19th century energy sources that continue to pollute our air and not take the opportunity to create real jobs, smart jobs that lead to creating the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial communities, then my girls are just not going to have the life I believe they should have. So they serve as my primary inspiration. And it's not just my children. I'm thinking about all the other little girls and boys that I have responsibility for here in my city. 

Steve Benjamin is mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, co-chair of the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy campaign and second vice-president of the US Conference of Mayors. He teaches a class at the University of South Carolina Honors College called, "Columbia, South Carolina: Building a Great City."

This interview was conducted by Charlotta Lomas. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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