Statement by Karen Weigert

Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Roundtable


House Committee Roundtable Panel


Chicago was founded 182 years ago as a small port town.  At that time, this area was largely wetlands on the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and our founders chose the motto of “City in a Garden.”  

We have built a great deal in our garden in the years since.  Chicago constructed the first skyscraper over 130 years ago and more recently we built one of the largest green roofs in the world and put a public park on top of it – Millennium Park.  Today we have 2.7 million people in the city and over 9 million in the metro area.  

One thing that hasn’t changed since our founding is our location.  Chicago is here.  We aren’t moving.  We must adapt to increased heat, storms and flooding as the climate changes while we work to reduce carbon emissions.  

We are seeing successes.  Chicago has lowered carbon emissions while increasing economic growth.   As we build our city we can - and have - made choices that strengthen our communities while reducing our contributions to climate change.

The Data

How have we done this?

We start with the basic data on the sources of carbon emissions.  The vast majority of emissions generated in the city of Chicago, 72%, come from heating, cooling and operating buildings. The second largest source, after buildings, is transportation which generates 25%.  

An important factor is that while the proportions change a bit, buildings and transportation are the top two sources of emissions throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. 125 municipalities serving 6 million residents in the Chicago metro areas have formally adopted the sustainability goals in the Greenest Region Compact from the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.  This is the largest municipal 'climate collaborative' in the United States.  

Energy Efficiency 

Let’s look at buildings.

Recognizing that buildings are the largest source of emissions, Chicago has taken specific actions to use less energy and to use cleaner energy.  The city launched a leadership program called Retrofit Chicago. This opt-in program works with large buildings that commit to a 20% reduction in energy use within 5 years.  Buildings of all kinds participate in this program – participants include buildings from the 1800s to those built just a few years ago, all different architectural styles and uses that range from offices to residences to university buildings and hotels.  Consistent engagement and leadership has grown this effort to include 90 buildings representing 57 million square feet.  And most impressive of all: about 1/3 of the buildings have already met their energy goal.  

In addition to this leadership program, all large buildings in Chicago are now covered by the Energy Benchmarking ordinance. This ordinance is driven by the belief that information is power, and that we should all have access to it.  All commercial, residential and municipal buildings over 50,000 square feet are now required to benchmark, verify and then disclose their energy use.  It puts energy information in the hands of building teams.  It then makes the data public.  

Over 2,800 buildings are participating.  Together, these buildings saved an estimated $21 million in 2018.  Participating buildings have saved a cumulative total of $61M million since 2014.  And while they have saved money, median carbon emissions per square foot have dropped 22%. 

These benefits are shared throughout the City.  Chicago has 77 neighborhoods and every neighborhood has at least one building that is participating in this effort. 

Clean Energy 

Chicago has also looked to the future of energy sources.  A few years ago Chicago was home to the last two working urban coal fired power plants in the country.  Many Chicago children, particularly those in Pilsen and Little Village, grew up breathing the dirty air they created.  
These plants have closed and Chicago buys its electricity from coal-free sources.  This City has now committed that by 2025 100% of its electricity will come from renewable sources.

The City has also laid the foundation to assist private buildings in their own green energy transitions.  From a one-day permit for residential rooftop solar to the newly launched Property Assessed Clean Energy Program that makes financing for retrofits and renewable energy easier for all large buildings new tools are opening doors throughout the city.


While buildings are using less energy and increasingly using green energy, transportation is also on the move.  Millions of rides are taken every year on the Chicago transit system.  And unbeknownst to many, countless people have already ridden in an electric vehicle – the CTA trains are fully electric.  The electric options in the city are being quickly expanded by electric buses.  The City has launched 2 and is in the process of procuring dozens more.  By 2040 all of the City’s buses will be electric, reducing local carbon emissions.  The difference in daily life will be profound with cleaner air and lower noise levels.  

For people who don’t want to travel with four wheels, there are two wheeled options.  Chicago launched the Divvy bikeshare program which has taken off.  With thousands of bikes and almost 600 stations, Divvy is busy even on cold winter days.

One of the healthiest and cheapest ways to get around is as a pedestrian – short trips are better for health and local air quality, not to mention carbon emissions.  To help create more places to live that are close to transit stop the City changes zoning requirements for locations that are close to transit stops.  The changes allow for larger buildings with smaller units without parking spaces to be built in walking distance to transit.  These new buildings offer residents the chance to live in multifamily housing without a car, savings money while still meeting their needs.

Healthy Spaces 

Chicago is still a “city in a garden.”  Chicago has 600 parks and 8,800 acres of public green space keeping families healthy and connected.  Transforming urban areas brings benefits throughout neighborhoods.  The City, in partnership with other parts of local government, nonprofits and residents, is redesigning the land around schools in some of Chicago’s more under-resourced communities.  The transformed school yards create green oasis and gathering places filled with features selected by local residents to meet their needs – from community gardens to playgrounds to race tracks for students.  These same elements are designed to capture stormwater and cool the area, helping our communities address the local impacts of climate change.  


A critical result of this work and more is that in our city and our region jobs in the clean energy economy are growing.  In Illinois there are 123,000 clean energy jobs, and more growth is projected.  The majority of the jobs are in energy efficiency.  Every day thousands of people across Illinois go to work and support their families by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Illinois is not alone.  Across 12 Midwestern states there are over 737,000 clean energy jobs and last year these numbers grew in each of these states.

And while jobs have grown, many companies in the Chicago region are declaring their own climate goals, recognizing that a thriving green economy is a strong foundation for us all.


Solutions are within our grasp.  From 2005 to 2015, Chicago reduced emissions 11%.  At the same time jobs in Chicago increased 7%.  

Chicago isn’t going anywhere.  From our humble beginnings we have grown into a global metropolis.  As climate change impacts the globe all around us, we see solutions rooted locally.  We can strengthen our economy and reduce our emissions.  We can build healthier neighborhoods and address climate impacts.  We can offer a better future to today’s Chicago residents and to tomorrow’s. 

Climate threats are real, but climate solutions are already here.