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Policies & Fines: Chicago's Tools for Equitable Decarbonization

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World Construction today

If the third largest city in America is going to accomplish curbing carbon emissions citywide by 2040, that means reducing the sources of the greenhouse gas emissions. Cities across the nation have set bold climate agendas. Chicago is no different in seeking to build smarter buildings, energize them more efficiently, as well as heat and cool that sustainably.

And yet, the city has been without a formal Department of Environment for over a decade. The loss of the department resulted in less environmental oversight, placing the city's most vulnerable residents at increased risk from polluters and the looming threats of climate change. An analysis published in a 2019 Chicago Tribune article showed the form of governance and decision making determines the functioning of regulations and oversight. Air quality between 2010 and 2018 fell by 70 percent and pollution citations after the disbanding of the department decreased from a little over 11,000 to 3,500.

Polluter fines prior to 2021 were also laughable.  Penalties for air pollution violations for large facilities had to fall between $1,000 to $5,000. To the average Chicagoan this may seem like a moot point, until compared to non-industrial fines accrued by residents. High weeds are considered a nuisance. A homeowner can be fined not less than $600 and no more than $1,200 for vegetation taller than 10 inches with each day being a separate offense. In 2021, a new city ordinance passed under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, amending Chicago’s polluter fines. It increased them to $5,000 to $10,000 for first time offenses and scales up to as much as $50,000 “if the violation is egregious and involves visible emissions, prohibited air pollution or improper handling of material that can become windborne.”

Increasing penalties works only if they are doled out in meaningful ways. The current administration is adding environmental hires for a policy-focused team of 14 with $1.2M of the $1.8 million total budget going to salaries. The remaining funds will be for contracts, tech equipment and Department of Fleet and Facility Management assistance. The budget is pennies in comparison to other major cities environmental departments like New York’s, which has a $1.54 billion budget for 2024. Portland’s bureau of environmental services budget is $311.6M for the fiscal year of 2023 to 2024.

Coupled with the advancements in hiring and increasing the city’s environmental budget is the need for bold climate initiatives, some of which are being championed by City Council members. Alderwoman Maria Hadden (49th Ward) chairs the committee on environmental protection and energy and introduced a "Clean and Affordable Buildings" ordinance. If passed, it would ban gas connected stoves in new developments.

It’s a polarizing topic. Environmentalists and energy activists are looking to remove every source of harmful carbon emissions to benefit humans and nature. Industry is concerned about the accuracy of data sources, future costs of energy as well as accessibility, affordability and reliability of technologies for the most vulnerable. Studies have indicated US gas cooking contributes 25 million tons of carbon annually through the burning of natural gas products. Poor indoor air quality from stoves has the potential to release pollutants that cause respiratory illnesses.

Chicago is leading the way to ensure all residents can rid their homes of fossil-fuel appliances. The city announced a $15 million initiative in the summer of 2023 to fund appliance upgrades for 200 to 350 homes using money from the Chicago Recovery Plan. The initiative’s aim is to advance equitable decarbonization, provide low-income owners with direct home improvement benefits, and to deepen the bench of local contractors with experience in energy efficient services and pathways to BIPOC employment. It is run by Lindy Wordlaw. The program launched January 1 and is expected to conclude in 2025.

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