Acting Locally, Does it Matter Globally?

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Acting Locally, Does it Matter Globally?
The Contribution of U.S. Cities to Global Climate Change Mitigation
Michele M. Betsill

Department of Political Science

Colorado State University

Fort Collins, Colorado 80523


Paper prepared for the Open Meeting of the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Research Community, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 6-8 October 2001.

1. Introduction

“Think globally, act locally” emerged as the battle cry of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which was established in 1990 to serve as the international environment agency for local governments, is an effort to translate this mantra into practice. Specifically, the ICLEI works “…to build and support a worldwide movement of local governments to achieve tangible improvements in global environmental conditions through the cumulative impact of local actions” (ICLEI n.d.).

The ICLEI began working on the issue of global climate change in 1991 when it launched the Urban CO2 Reduction Project involving fourteen municipalities in North America and Europe.1 This campaign, which ran until 1993, was designed to “develop comprehensive local strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and quantification methods to support such strategies” (ICLEI, 1997). Based on the success of the Urban CO2 Reduction Project, ICLEI launched its Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) program in 1993. The CCP campaign seeks to recruit local governments representing 10% of global GHG emissions and provides technical assistance to help them control those emissions. As of October 2001, the CCP campaign had nearly 500 members worldwide, including 109 in the U.S.
The CCP campaign is premised on the belief that local efforts to mitigate climate change will have cumulative effects that in turn will contribute to the global effort to control GHG emissions. Drawing primarily on the experience of the CCP communities in the U.S., this paper explores whether acting locally matters globally on the issue of climate change. Following a review of the CCP program, I address two questions related to the global effects of local action: 1) have CCP communities reduced their GHG emissions? and 2) can the CCP campaign, operating as a transnational network of local governments, facilitate action at other levels of governance? On both accounts, I find that local action has had limited effect.

2. The CCP Campaign

To become a member of the CCP campaign, local governments pass a city council resolution or other formal declaration of the city’s intention to address the threat of global climate change by controlling local GHG emissions (ICLEI 2000). Members also commit to passing through a series of five “milestones” designed to help them control those emissions. These include conducting an emissions analysis to establish a baseline, selecting a reduction target then developing and implementing a plan to achieve that target. The ICLEI provides CCP members with technical assistance and training to help them complete these milestones, including workshops, funding to conduct emissions analyses (in the U.S., these funds typically come from the Environmental Protection Agency), and specially-designed software to help city officials calculate past and current emissions, evaluate options for reducing emissions, and track the effects of reduction measures, both in terms of cost savings and GHG emissions.

CCP governments use a range of policy options for controlling local GHG emissions. Many begin by looking to their own municipal operations and trying to reduce emissions generated through their day-to-day activities. For example, in 1996, the city of Denver began installing light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in all red traffic lights and “don’t walk” signs in the city’s 1200 intersections. LEDs consume considerably less electricity than incandescent bulbs (6-25 watts vs. 69-150 watts) and last much longer (100,000+ hours vs. 8,000 hours). The city expects to realize $5 million in savings in energy and maintenance costs after covering its initial investment. Lower energy use translates into an annual savings of 5,300 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of planting a 2,266 acre forest in the middle of the city or removing 1,094 cars from the road (Winer n.d.). Fourteen other CCP communities have initiated LED retrofit projects resulting in annual GHG reductions of 60,000 metric tons (ICLEI 2000).
Municipal governments can also cut GHG emissions by enhancing building energy efficiency through codes and ordinances establishing insulation and lighting standards for new construction as well as retrofits of existing structures. In the transportation sector, city governments can invest in alternative transportation infrastructure such as bikeways and mass transit systems. They can also encourage people to use existing systems with bus pass programs. In addition, local officials can purchase alternative fuel vehicles for mass transit and the municipal fleet. Municipal governments also have significant opportunities to achieve GHG reductions through solid-waste management programs, including methane recovery and recycling. Eleven CCP cities have implemented landfill methane recovery and use programs for a combined emissions reduction of nearly 2 million metric tons/year (ICLEI 2000). Cities can also meet local energy demand using renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.
The ICLEI emphasizes two categories of benefits for those communities participating in the CCP campaign: 1) the climate-related benefit of reducing GHG emissions and 2) “co-benefits,” such as economic savings and other environmental benefits. The ICLEI (2000) estimates that the CCP communities in the U.S. have reduced their annual GHG emissions by 7.5 million metric tons (an average of 100,000 tons per city). ICLEI-U.S. officials suggest that this is a conservative estimate since many of the cities do not quantify all of their activities with GHG reduction effects (ICLEI 2000; Young 2000). ICLEI officials emphasize the cumulative effect of local GHG reduction measures. Nevertheless, this is a fraction of the 1,800 million metric tons of GHGs emitted by the U.S. each year (EPA 2001), which begs the question of whether these local initiatives make a meaningful contribution to global climate change mitigation. I address this question in below.
In addition to the climate-related benefits of controlling local GHG emissions, CCP cities realize a number of other “co-benefits,” including considerable economic savings. In 1999, U.S. CCP members reported savings of $70 million in energy and fuel costs (ICLEI 2000). Improving energy efficiency contributes to job creation through the use of local contractors and can also facilitate economic development. An OECD report on urban energy practices notes that local policies that “incorporate environmental objectives can improve the competitive position of cities in their challenge to attract investments, business and high-skilled workers” (OECD 1995, p. 21)


Reducing local GHG emissions can also provide cities with additional environmental benefits, including improved air quality. Many local activities that produce GHG emissions produce other pollutants that have more direct effects on local air quality, including tropospheric ozone, nitrous oxides and sulfur oxides. Thus, efforts to reduce GHG emissions also lower emissions of these substances, thereby improving local air quality (STAAPA-ALAAPCO 1999). Improving mass transit and alternative transportation opportunities also enhances local air quality while simultaneously addressing the problem of traffic congestion. Finally, CCP cities report that controlling GHG emissions contributes to improved “livability” in their communities. Citizens enjoy a higher overall quality of life due to improved air quality (better health), and more efficient homes and offices (thus more discretionary income). In addition, they note a strengthened sense of community as development patterns begin to place people in closer proximity with their work, schools and services (ICLEI 1998).

In most U.S.-CCP cities, local policies and programs to control GHG emissions are motivated by these co-benefits rather than a concern about global climate change. For example, Cambridge, Massachusetts Mayor Anthony Galluccio noted that he found the idea of climate protection to be extremely daunting when he came to office. His view changed, however, when he discovered that that measures to control GHG emissions will contribute to the community’s quality of life (Galluccio 2000). In many U.S.-CCP cities, officials have localized the policy of controlling GHG emissions (which happens to be the primary response to climate change) rather than the problem of climate change. Kingdon (1995) argues that many issues get on government agendas this way—by presenting preferred policy options (e.g. reducing GHG emissions) as solutions to problems the government is already addressing. Indeed, ICLEI officials often emphasize the co-benefits of controlling local GHG emissions and point to climate protection as a secondary consideration.
One advantage of this strategy is that it enables local decision makers to move beyond the debates over climate science that have often plagued climate change politics at the national and global levels (Sarewitz and Pielke Jr. 2000). Several officials in U.S. CCP communities noted that it really does not matter whether global climate change science is credible. Since the emphasis is on how reducing GHG emissions can help the city address other (more pressing) problems, questions of the scientific basis for climate change rarely come up. When and if they do, city officials can easily reply that these are actions they should take anyway. While this strategy may be promote the urban sustainability agenda, it is questionable whether the focus on co-benefits can lead to enhanced global governance on the issue of climate change.

3. Global Effects of Local Action
The local initiatives adopted by communities as part of the CCP campaign could affect global efforts to mitigate climate change in at least two ways. First, they may result in a reduction of global GHG emissions. Second, by working as a transnational network of local governments, the CCP communities may alter the environment in which states interact on the issue of climate change. The CCP campaign may lead to the creation of new constituencies within states pressing for more stringent GHG regulations and/or implementation of existing international commitments. In addition, it could serve as a transnational force that shifts the discourse about the appropriate scale for mitigating climate change.
3.1 Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
As noted above, the ICLEI emphasizes the cumulative effect of local actions to control GHG emissions. The assumption is that the combined efforts of more than 400 member municipalities can result in real reductions of global GHG emissions and will demonstrate the viability of these programs. To date, the results have been modest. Upon closer examination, it is clear that many of the avoided emissions reported by CCP communities are realized by calculating reductions from policies and programs that already exist. In other words, cities are merely repackaging existing efforts as “climate” initiatives and are not going beyond business-as-usual. Non-CCP communities may also be installing LED traffic signals but do not quantify GHG savings from those programs. Is it appropriate to say that CCP cities are doing more in terms of climate protection? Meaningful local action to address climate change will require that municipal governments develop new policies and programs to achieve additional emissions reductions above what would have happened anyway—to what extent does the CCP program facilitate the development of these new policies?
The CCP program sees its focus on existing policies as a first step. By evaluating existing programs in terms of GHG reductions, local governments may realize that addressing climate change is consistent with things they are already doing. However, calculating savings from existing programs may actually create a disincentive to move beyond business-as-usual by fostering a sense of complacency. CCP cities may feel they are already doing a lot to address climate change and thus not look for ways to further decrease emissions.
The campaign then works with communities to identify the “low-hanging fruit” (Young 2000)—to focus on some of the easier ways city governments can achieve short-term savings while they grapple with making the long-term changes that will ultimately be necessary. CCP staff also try to encourage cities to look for new opportunities to achieve emissions reductions through an on-going process of monitoring and reporting. City governments must submit annual reports outlining initiatives that have been developed in the past year and estimates of GHG reductions. In developing its local action plan, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado clearly identifies “new” measures “that emerged initially through Cities for Climate Protection discussions, having the primary intent to reduce greenhouse gases” (City of Fort Collins 2000, p. 41). These new measures include replacing traffic signals with LEDs, increasing renewable energy sources for electricity, and enhancing energy efficiency in government buildings. When combined with “pending” measures, which would have been proposed regardless of their GHG reducing capabilities, the city estimates that it could reduce its 2010 emissions by .5 million tons beyond business-as-usual.
Even when new local initiatives are not driven by climate change or GHG emissions concerns, it may be the case that they would not have been developed in the absence of local concern for these issues. For example, the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan recently negotiated a franchise agreement with local utilities stating that any company selling electricity in the city must provide customers with a green power option (ICLEI 2000). The CCP campaign, through the local emissions inventory, raised awareness among city officials of the relationship between electricity power sources and local issues, such as air quality (including GHG emissions) (Young 2000).
In the case of the U.S.-CCP communities, officials often face significant institutional barriers to controlling GHG emissions. The first has to do with the way city governments are organized. Climate change, is a cross-cutting issue, however, most city governments are divided into a few specialized departments and divisions with very specific mandates (Nijkamp and Perrels 1994; O'Meara 1999). Officials tend to focus on their narrow tasks, often with little interaction with individuals in other divisions or departments. In contrast, controlling GHG emissions requires collaboration between officials working in the areas of waste management, transportation, public works, utilities, health, land-use planning, and air quality management.
Second, many cities lack the administrative capacity to develop local policies and programs for controlling GHG emissions. They may not have the human resources available to oversee the city’s climate protection program and/or personnel may lack the technical knowledge necessary to monitor and analyze local GHG emissions. Finally, many cities are not willing to invest financial resources in controlling GHG emissions since doing so often requires significant up-front costs. Denver’s Utility Director used discretionary funds from his research and development budget to make the initial investment in the city’s LED project. The utility director could then assure the traffic services division that they would incur no cost; this helped them buy into the project. When it came time to request city funds to expand the project, the director had an economic analysis available with evidence of immediate economic benefits (in terms of energy saving). Unfortunately, most city officials do not have discretionary funds at their disposal.
Another problem that inhibits the ability of CCP communities to make meaningful reductions in their GHG emissions is the fact that many GHG-producing activities fall outside the jurisdiction of municipal governments. For example, most major American cities must contend with regional transportation issues that involve dozens of municipal governments. Any effort to reduce traffic congestion and/or improve alternative transportation options must be coordinated at the regional level. Similarly, municipal governments may be unable to alter the practices of local businesses headquartered in other locations (Wilbanks and Kates 1999).
Most U.S. cities also have limited control over local utilities and are thus unable to induce energy conservation and/or fuel switching by energy providers (DeAngelo and Harvey 1998; Kates and Torrie 1998). Where local utilities are municipally owned, city governments are able to influence investments in alternative energy sources as well as pricing, both of which could serve to reduce the contribution of GHGs from this sector (Collier and Lofstedt 1997; OECD 1995). For example, the cities of Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas, both of which have municipally-owned utilities, are currently working to increase green power options in their communities (Austin Energy 2000; City of Seattle 2000). In the absence of municipal ownership, city governments can send market signals to local utilities in the form of demand for green power. Ultimately, however, national regulations will also be necessary to encourage large-scale energy conservation and fuel switching (Harvey 1993; Kates and Torrie 1998). The next section considers whether the CCP campaign, as a transnational network of municipal governments, might play a role in pressing national governments to take more aggressive action to combat climate change, both at home and internationally.
3.2 Effects on Other Levels of Governance?

Cities are increasingly becoming active participants in world politics (Bilder 1989; Kincaid 1999; Schuman 1986-1987). The growing interest in what some have termed “municipal foreign policy” stems from two complementary trends in the structure of the international system: globalization and devolution. As countries are more closely linked economically and through technological advancements, city officials recognize that actions abroad have local implications; that they are vulnerable to foreign actions. For example, the health of local economies may be jeopardized by international trade agreements resulting in job loss (Brooks 1995; Clarke and Gaile 1998; Clough 1994; Fry 1998; Hocking 1999; Kincaid 1999; Kline 1999; Schuman 1986-1987).

Globalization has been accompanied by a parallel process of devolution; national governments increasingly delegate authority to sub-national units (Brooks 1995; Clarke and Gaile 1998; Hobbs 1994). Some analysts suggest this trend reflects the fact that central governments find it difficult to manage the diverse effects of globalization on regions within their jurisdiction (Clarke and Gaile 1998). It may also reflect the demands citizens are placing on their local governments. Fry (1998, p. 15) argues, decisions are made and events transpire outside the boundaries of the nation-state that may have an immediate and profound effect on citizens at the grassroots level, these citizens demand that their interests be protected and enhanced not only by their national governments but also increasingly by the subnational governments closest to where they live.

These trends have altered the nature of world politics and opened up new opportunities for municipal governments to influence international affairs. First, it blurs the line that has traditionally separated domestic and foreign policy. Because individuals are directly affected by international events, they are no longer willing to rely on a few elites to make foreign policy decisions behind closed doors. Municipal governments recognize that they must pay attention to what is happening outside their national borders in order to protect the welfare of their citizens (Fry 1998; Kincaid 1999). Second, globalization and devolution have changed the face of participation in world politics. It is no longer a discrete area of activity between representatives of nation-states; rather, as Hocking argues, world politics is a “framework of complex ‘multi-level’ political structures and processes that embrace all levels of political activity from the local through the national to the international” (Hocking 1993, p. 11).

Recognizing the growing importance of cities in world politics, we can identify two ways in which local actions to mitigate climate change might interact with and affect other levels of governance. At the national level, officials in CCP communities could force their respective national governments to rethink their domestic and international policies on climate change by shaping public opinion and lobbying. Globally, the CCP communities could operate as a transnational network and alter the prevailing discourse about the appropriate site for mitigating climate change.

3.2.1 CCP Communities and U.S. Climate Change Policy

City officials can pressure national governments by shaping public opinion on international issues. Passing local resolutions, which, though not legally binding, can be effective in stimulating local debate (Hobbs 1994; Kincaid 1999; Shuman 1998). Kincaid (1999, pp. 129-130) argues, “the political impact of these declarations makes federal officials reluctant to arouse unnecessary conflict with local citizens and governments.” On the issue of climate change, the resolutions that municipalities pass to join the CCP campaign as well as the policies and programs developed by local governments to control GHG emissions could serve to heighten public awareness about the threat of global climate change and shift public opinion in favor of international regulations.

City officials may also take their international concerns directly to national decision makers by lobbying, either as individuals or through a national organization. In the U.S., there are a variety of structured channels by which local concerns can be communicated to national level decision makers (Hocking 1999; Kincaid 1999). City officials can communicate through their Congressional representatives and many federal agencies have intergovernmental departments, such as the State Department’s Intergovernmental Affairs Office, to facilitate interactions with other levels of government. Elected officials may also mobilize under the umbrella of national organizations, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Overall, U.S. members of the CCP campaign have not actively sought to shape climate change politics at the national level. Doing so would require that city officials mobilize on behalf of the global climate. However, municipal leaders in the U.S. often fail to take advantage of available avenues for communicating with the public and with national decision makers on the issue of climate change. In most U.S.-CCP communities, concern for climate change is based on the recognition that it has links to other local issues, such as air quality, traffic congestion, or growth. City officials in CCP communities focus on the fact that controlling GHG emissions helps them address other issues already on their agendas.

In Denver, Coloardo, for example, leaders recognize that actions to control GHG emissions will simultaneously reduce other air pollutants, thereby enhancing efforts to do away with the city’s “brown cloud.” In addition, they note that reducing emissions will also help lower the city’s energy demand, which will result in significant savings (Betsill 2000). Cambridge, Massachusetts Mayor Anthony Gallucio found the idea of climate protection to be extremely daunting when he first took office. His view changed, however, when he discovered that addressing climate change was consistent with what the city was already doing, particularly on issues related to “smart growth,” and that measures to control GHG emissions will contribute to the community’s quality of life (Galluccio 2000).

By the time officials in CCP cities develop and implement policies and programs for controlling GHG emissions, the link to global climate change has often been forgotten. In these communities, climate change is framed as a local issue by linking the preferred policy response of reducing GHG emissions to other pressing issues. Achieving GHG reductions thus becomes an entirely local issue no longer linked to efforts to mitigate global climate change. As a result, city officials lose sight of the fact that they are engaged in a matter of foreign policy.

This is not to say that local officials never communicate with national and international decision makers on the issue of climate change. In 1999, more than 570 individuals signed the “Mayor and Local Officials Statement on Global Warming” coordinated by ICLEI and Ozone Action (an environmental advocacy organization). The statement, which was sent to then-President Clinton, urged “the federal government to develop and implement domestic policies and programs that work with local communities to reduce global warming pollution” as a way of meeting U.S. commitments contained in the Kyoto Protocol (Ozone Action and ICLEI 1999). In 1997, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist sent a letter to the state’s Senate delegation urging them to support a strong U.S. position in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. “This upcoming round of negotiations is extremely important. It could enhance air quality and reduce the long-term threat inherent in climate change to Wisconsin agriculture, tourism, health and economic development” (Norquist 1997).

However, even when city leaders do mobilize on behalf of the global climate, they may lack the leverage needed to bring about policy changes. When lobbying at the federal level, city officials must compete with other interest groups. As Kincaid (1999, p. 125) argues, “The votes and campaign contributions that can be delivered to members of Congress by private-sector interests often outweigh the democratically authoritative but largely voteless and penniless voices of state and local government.”

3.2.2 CCP as a Transnational Network
While national governments remain the sole representative of their countries in international negotiations, municipal officials can influence such talks by working with their counterparts in other countries through transnational networks (Hocking 1999; Kincaid 1999). According to Risse (1995, p. 3), transnational networks exist where there are “regular interactions across national boundaries when at least one actor is a non-state agent or does not operate on behalf of a national government or an intergovernmental organization.” U.S.-CCP members can be thought of as members of such a network on the issue of climate change. They are linked with 400 other municipalities around the world through the ICLEI CCP campaign. Transnational networks often shape the context in which world politics by framing issues in a particular way and/or altering the dominant discourse used to discuss international problems (see Keck and Sikkink 1998; Wapner 1995).
The CCP campaign seeks to raise awareness about the role that cities can play in global efforts to mitigate climate change. Climate change is typically framed as a global problem since its causes (GHG emissions) and effects transcend state boundaries. As a result, the international community has largely focused on developing a global response centered around two multilateral treaties: the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol. These treaties oblige industrialized countries to limit their GHG emissions as a means of mitigating climate change. However, a number of obstacles have prevented members of the international community from fully implementing these agreements, including concerns about the relative distribution of the economic costs of controlling GHG emissions, and most observers agree that even if fully implemented, these agreements will not adequately address the problem of climate change.
Through its CCP campaign, the ICLEI has sought to challenge the notion that solutions to global problems must be sought at the global level by emphasizing the local dimension of climate change. Half the world’s population lives in urban areas and many more travel into cities to work each day (OECD 1995; O'Meara 1999; Rayner and Malone 1997). As a result, a significant portion of the human activities that lead to global climate change are concentrated in cities—it is in cities that humans produce and consume fossil fuels for manufacturing, electricity, transportation and household heating. It is also in cities that humans dispose of their waste (Kates et al. 1998; OECD 1995). Factories, businesses, vehicles and homes located in urban areas are essentially point sources for GHG emissions (Kates et al. 1998). By some estimates, cities account for 78% of global CO2 emissions (O'Meara 1999). Municipal governments have considerable authority over land-use planning and waste management and can play an important role on transportation issues and energy consumption, all of which have implications for GHG emissions (Agyeman, Evans, and Kates 1998; Bulkeley 2000; Collier 1997; DeAngelo and Harvey 1998; Kates et al. 1998; Rayner and Malone 1997).
The ICLEI has regularly sought to make its case in the context of international climate change negotiations. The ICLEI sends representatives to many of the negotiating sessions, and these individuals often have the opportunity to deliver formal statements during plenary sessions. In these statements, ICLEI draws on the experience of the CCP communities to challenge many of the economic assumptions that have plagued international climate change negotiations. They suggest that reducing GHG emissions is consistent with rather than a threat to economic development (see, for example, Earth Negotiations Bulletin, 12 November 1998).

Municipalities can also shape international negotiations by promoting “useful and innovative ideas and alternatives” (Bilder 1989, p. 829). Cities can serve as laboratories where governments can “experiment with different solutions to public problems and, at the same time, actually do something constructive and share information with others around the world while also learning from others” (Kincaid 1999, pp. 130-131). CCP communities serve as test sites for specific policies and measures for controlling GHG emissions. Recently, ICLEI has been developing guidelines for an emissions trading regime among local governments, which could potentially inform the international debate over this issue.2

Overall, however, this transnational network has little to show for its work. Neither the UNFCCC nor the Kyoto Protocol contains reference to cities as an important actor in global efforts to address climate change. Within the U.S., the CCP campaign has had limited success in promoting the local dimension of climate change. The cornerstone of U.S. climate change policy is the 1993 Climate Change Action Plan, which outlines more than 50 voluntary measures for reducing GHG emissions. However, its focus is primarily on business and industry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did create a State and Local Climate Change Program, but in practice it primarily relies on the ICLEI to carry out work on climate protection at the local level.
4. Conclusion
The notion of “think globally, act locally” emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in recognition of the role local authorities play in promoting environmental protection and sustainability more broadly. Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 states, “Because so many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, the participation and co-operation of local authorities will be a determining factor in fulfilling its objectives” (from Lafferty and Eckerberg 1997: 263). However, the U.S.-CCP experience suggests caution in assuming that local authorities can mediate threats such as climate change in isolation, and highlights the complexity of global environmental governance in the twenty-first century. All levels of government and society must be actively involved in efforts to control GHG emissions “so that complementarity and mutually reinforcing measures are concurrently implemented” (DeAngelo and Harvey 1998, p. 134). Effective governance on the issue of global climate change must involve networks and partnerships that cut across the local, national and international scales.

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1 Participants in the Urban CO2 Reduction project included Ankara, Turkey; Bologna, Italy; Chula Vista, U.S.; Copenhagen, Denmark; Dade County, U.S.; Denver, U.S.; Hannover, Germany; Helsinki, Finland; Minneapolis, U.S.; Portland, U.S.; Saarbrucken, Germany; Saint Paul, U.S. and Toronto, Canada.

2 See, for example, ICLEI, “Criteria for Local Government Participation in GHG Trading,” Accessed 14 June 2000.

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