The U.S. Leads The Way in Citywide Fossil Fuel Bans

The U.S. Leads The Way in Citywide Fossil Fuel Bans
A blanket of fog covers the San Francisco skyline in a view from the Berkeley Hills. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)

In a cool and rare moment for the U.S., it’s a leader in something that may actually do some good for the planet. A new report shows that the U.S. currently has the most cities in the world that have enacted some sort of ban on fossil fuels at the local level.

The report, issued Thursday by the green energy policy network REN21, focuses on the changing energy landscape at a city level. Per the analysis, more than 1 billion people worldwide now live in a city or town with a renewable energy target. But it also shows how cities are working to ban fossil fuels at the local level, with various types of bans jumping fivefold in 2020 — including bans on fossil fuel use in buildings.

California, it seems, is leading the world here: the report counts at least 35 Californian cities with such a ban at the end of 2020. And while the trend may have started in the U.S., it’s catching on across the pond. Amsterdam, Krakow, and London all have some sort of ban on fossil fuels in buildings planned or in the process of being enacted.

According to the report, there are two key ways for cities to try and clean up their act. One is working with the transportation sector. At the end of 2020, 249 cities had created or proposed low-emissions zones for vehicles, while 14 had banned or restricted vehicles or the use of fossil fuels altogether in the transport sector (or proposed such a ban). Of these techniques, low-emissions zones — limiting fossil-fuel-using cars in certain areas — are the most popular, and an overwhelming number of those are in Europe.

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While moves to clean up the transportation sector have increased in recent years, the report found, some cities have had these types of restrictions in place for a while. In 1996, for example, cities in Sweden created so-called “environmental zones” that were the predecessors to today’s low-emissions zones.

The second key way for cities to ban fossil fuels is much newer and focuses on the building sector, where a growing number of cities are restricting fossil fuel use in new construction. According to the report, there are currently 53 cities across 10 countries that have either issued or plan to issue bans restricting the use of fossil fuels in buildings. This is a much newer development in the fight against fossil fuels. Berkeley, in California, was the first city in the world to implement a ban on new gas hookups in 2019.

Banning new fossil fuel hookups, some cities are finding, can be tricky business even with local support. Just ask Brookline, a suburb outside of Boston. Organisers in the city helped to overwhelmingly pass a ban on oil and gas infrastructure in new construction in late 2019. But last summer, the Massachusetts attorney general ruled against the ban, saying that it violated the state’s building codes.

“Right now, the problem municipalities have in Massachusetts and many other states, especially Northeast states, is they’re preempted by these state legacy laws,” said Lisa Cunningham, an architect and organiser in Brookline. While the state Attorney General Maura Healey ruled that the city can’t mandate no new fossil fuels in new construction, Cunningham said, Brookline is putting together a “workaround” that would use zoning incentives to encourage new construction to omit fossil fuel hookups. While it’s not as stringent as an all-out ban, it another technique that cities could use.

Regardless of what the state says, Cunningham said that a good education program and campaign — especially one built around a solid piece of legislation — can go a long way in making local change.

“Once people are educated about building electrification, there’s a very high level of understanding about it,” Cunningham said. “Using local legislation as a way to run a public campaign and inform your officials and the public at large is extremely effective.”

There are no signs that local movements to push for fossil fuel bans will slow down any time soon. The REN21 report covers developments through 2020 and yet it’s already obsolete; just this January, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city will make moves to ban new gas hookups by 2030 at the latest.