Is Pittsburgh Really Green—or Is It Just Outsourcing Its Pollution The Nation

Is Pittsburgh Really Green—or Is It Just Outsourcing Its Pollution The Nation

Is Pittsburgh Really Green—or Is It Just Outsourcing Its Pollution?

Smog strangles the sky over Guangzhou (Reuters/Alvin Chan)

This article is adapted from Mark Schapiros recently published book, Carbon Shock: A Tale of Risk and Calculus From the Front Lines of the Disrupted Global Economy(Chelsea Green).

The Allegheny River pulses through the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, like a muscle. Along its waters traveled the steel that became the backbone to our railroads and skyscrapers, and the coal that fired up the factories fueling Americas twentieth-century industrial might.

In the 1980s and early 90s, however, the steel started leaving. Today, some two decades after the flight of the last mill, the Allegheny has been transformed into a new kind of symbolone of the modern green city. The river has been cleansed of many of the most toxic substances that formerly poured from those factories; now its meandering flow is featured in municipal sites against a glittering downtown skyline that hosts one of the highest concentrations of green buildings in the United States.

From green skyscrapers to a new greenwalk that snakes along the river, Pittsburgh has been attacking its polluting gases as if its survival depends on itand it does. The city and surrounding communities once produced a significant portion of the steel in the United States. After the industry bottomed out, a coalition of businesspeople, city planners and environmental engineers staked out a development plan that positioned Pittsburgh as a hub of innovation in ecologically oriented design.

Today, the skyscraper windows are angled to maximize natural light, heat is piped in from thermal pools deep underground, and solar panels line the roofs far above the bustling sidewalks. The city has a full-time sustainability manager charged with shifting its energy sources away from fossil fuels by means of mass transit, urban planning, and municipal procurement policies that place a value on low-carbon alternatives. The citys water-treatment system is considered a model even for other eco-conscious cities like San Francisco. Major property developers agreed to halve their 2003 carbon footprints by 2050; the city now has the highest concentration of LEED-certified buildings in the country.

The citys transformation has been so complete that the G-20the body representing developed countries, many of which have experienced similar declines in manufacturingheld its yearly conference there in 2009 and highlighted the citys green strategy as a model for the postindustrial way forward. Pittsburgh is now one of the greenest of the midsize cities in Americaa designation that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Back then, in the 50s and into the 80s, no one was thinking about climate change, and no one was asking about emissions of carbon dioxide, says Aurora Sharrard, who served as the director of innovation for the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative, a collaboration among the business, municipal and scientific communities to devise emission-reduction strategies. From 1900 to 1970, the area experienced a steady annual increase in its industrial greenhouse-gas emissions, from 14 million tons to more than 30 million tons. But as industries fled the area, greenhouse-gas emissions dropped sharplydeclining by at least 40 percent throughout the area from 1970 to 2000and have continued on a downward trajectory.

By 2008, Pittsburghs emissions had declined to about 6.8 million tons. By 2013, the city was on the way toward its goal of reducing emissions 20 percent from 2003 levels, and it aims for progressively steeper declines over the decades to follow. In a country that is reliant on local improvisation to tackle the problem, with few legal guidelines from the federal government, Pittsburgh is considered among the leading urban climate innovators. It lost its manufacturing base and refashioned itself as a city far more reliant on brains than brawn.

But whatever happened to all those greenhouse gases that once came spewing from Pittsburgh?

They did not disappear.

Is Pittsburgh Really Green—or Is It Just Outsourcing Its Pollution The Nation

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Welcome to Guangzhou, a city of over 15 million on Chinas southeast coast. The freighters that come into the port here, and the two other ports servicing Guangdong province, are loaded with a container approximately every secondall carrying goods made in China to the United States, Europe and elsewhere around the world. Industrial clusters throughout the province are home to more than 1,000 steel manufacturing and trading companies. They produce skyscraper girders, auto parts, appliances, ships, refrigerators and even American bridgessteel products that were once made in Pittsburgh and other Midwestern cities during Americas century of industrial dominance.

Guangdong is also, in the United Nations estimation, one of the top ten carbon-emitting provinces in a country that is itself the leading emitter. Some 8,000 miles from Pittsburgh, the CO2 that used to come from that city now fumes into the atmosphere from Guangzhou. It wasnt just Pittsburghs manufacturing jobs that migrated to China; the greenhouse gases associated with them went, too.

Today, the residents of this churning industrial center of China have a per capita annual footprint of 7.8 tonsquite a bit more than the average Pittsburgher. But theres a story hidden in those numbers. Only 6 percent of Pittsburghs emissions, according to that citys Climate Inventory, come from industrial sources. Yet emissions produced by the Chinese industrial sector account for 56 percent of the totalalmost ten times higher, as a percentage, than those of Pittsburgh.

The huge discrepancy between the industrial emissions of Pittsburgh and those of Guangzhou, which started trading places in the 1980s, suggests that what has changed significantly is not so much the lifestyle choices of the people of Pittsburgh, but rather the regions entire economic support system, based as it was on greenhouse-gas-intensive manufacturing.

In turn, what the Chinese numbers tell us is that legions of urban residents there have a far smaller personal footprint as a percentage of the overall total than do their Pittsburgh counterparts. As Chinese consumption grows, that footprint will growbut at this stage and for some time to come, it is production, not consumption, that accounts for the overwhelming bulk of Chinese emissions. Indeed, as much as 60 percent of Chinas exports are manufactured by China-based affiliates of multinational corporations, many of them American and European. The Chinese, in short, are producing greenhouse gases on our behalf.

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