Green plans seek to turn down Chicago’s thermostat

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by Tyler Smith
Mar 18, 2010

 The Chicago Climate Action Plan is an organization that looks at the future of Chicago from an environmental standpoint. Source/credit Photo courtesy of

The Chicago Climate Action Plan is an organization that looks at the future of Chicago from an environmental standpoint.
Photo courtesy of

Chicago may be slowly turning into Texas.

Despite the long list of eco-friendly projects underway here, warming temperatures worldwide are expected to heat up Chicago weather and impact Midwest crops and wildlife.

“Research shows us that, in Chicago, if we keep going at what’s called the business-as-usual scenario – which is a high emissions scenario – we’d likely see 31 days of 100 plus temperatures by the end of the century,” said Suzanne Malec-Mckenna, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of the Environment and a leading member of the Chicago Climate Action Plan.

According to climate plan predictions, summer temperatures could skyrocket by more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit above average highs. The Midwest would feel more like the Southwest by the year 2100. “We would be Houston, Texas,” said the former-horticulturist speaking at a plan group meeting this week.

Cities such as Chicago are both a burden and a blessing, said Yael Wolinsky-Nahmias, director of the Environmental Policy and Culture program at Northwestern University. “Cities cover about 1 percent of the earth’s surface but consume about 75 percent of the world’s energy,” said Wolinsky-Nahmias. “Fortunately for us, cities are also great centers of innovation.”

To create an effective climate action strategy, the Chicago Climate Action Plan collaborates with more than 200 organizations including research institutions, non-profits, civic institutions, foundations, and governmental groups in the Chicago area.

Malec-Mckenna spoke about a few simple projects such as reprogramming Chicago’s stoplights.  “We’re looking at 3,000 intersections most of which haven’t been reprogrammed in 30 years,” she said.

Reprogramming traffic lights would cost roughly $12 million dollars and would be completed over a period of 5 years. “We can save the average commuter anywhere from 10 to 15 percent on their commute time and, of course, on their fuel,” she said.

“In the city of Chicago, that translates to anywhere from $80 to $200 million dollars [saved] a year,” she said.

Since 2006, the Chicago Climate Action Plan has initiated dozens of green projects with the help of these area organizations. And in less than three years, Chicago is becoming a greener city.

“Some of the [programs] we’ve already done include everything from retrofitting building units, trading in appliances, and building green roofs,” Malec-Mckenna said. “All of these things are part of what would make us a resilient city and help in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Even though initiatives in Chicago alone can’t lower global temperatures, simple actions can make a different for comfort. For instance, a roof garden that replaces a black tar roof can significantly reduce building temperatures.

One of the more ambitious projects was the green renovation of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, which was completed in 2008. “Our iconic Merchandise Mart  – the largest commercial building in the world – underwent LEED certification and retrofitting,” Malec-Mckenna said.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a designation given only to buildings that meet strict green building codes. “As a result, they’re now saving almost 10 percent of their annual operating costs,” she said.

However, Chicagoans shouldn’t start celebrating right away. “We think we’re a really green city, and we’ve done a lot of great things,” Malec-Mckenna said. “But it’s not nearly enough to turn around the effects of [global] climate change.”

A major component of the climate plan is a thorough assessment of Chicago’s environmental strengths and weaknesses. During the past three years, dozens of reports have been published on topics ranging from how to  measure and breakdown Chicago’s carbon-dioxide emissions to a study of city trees – an indicator of the how the changing climate is affecting local flora.

“The work that we’ve done is very much grounded in research,” Malec-Mckenna said. Research dollars come mostly from the government, but also from affiliated organizations. “We have to be flexible and malleable and figure out how the program should change based on new opportunities.”

Despite the promising economics of energy conservation and energy alternatives, Malec-Mckenna stressed the difficulty of getting people excited about climate change. Although the public may not be interested in the environment, almost everyone is interested in money. “A big driving force that always has been and always will be an issue in the economy,” Malec-Mckenna said.

“What’s green is green,” she said. “What’s good for the environment is often good for the economy and vice-versa. This is really an economic development strategy that happens to have environmental benefits.”

Malec-Mckenna said that people are not always aware of the financial benefits of green projects. “We’ve done a really bad job of demonstrating the economic value of environmental actions,” she said. “It’s all been anecdotal. Anecdotal isn’t going to fly when you’re trying to potentially shift an economy around these opportunities.”

Malec-Mckenna said she realizes that Chicago can’t become green overnight. “It’s always a work in progress,” she said. “We’re going to learn a lot, we’re going to succeed and fail, but the most important thing is that we need to have a process where we’re taking in new ideas and making them possible in Chicago and across the world.”

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