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Sustainability and Greening our Region

A central theme of the Economy League’s 2019 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange is change in complex systems. There are few systems more complex than the global climate and the increasingly undeniable impact of humans. Despite paralysis and denial at the federal level, cities like Philadelphia are taking the lead on attempting to mitigate the impact of climate change by focusing on making the city more resilient and less dependent on fossil fuels - while also acknowledging and attempting to ameliorate inequities in the distribution of the benefits of sustainability, such as tree canopies, green spaces, and access to fresh food.


Philadelphia’s coordinated efforts culminated in 2009 with the launch of the Greenworks sustainability plan; in 2016, the City doubled down on Greenworks and launched the clean energy initiative, which includes an innovative Power Purchase Agreement with Community Energy that will lead to the sourcing of more than 20% of the City’s electricity needs from a massive solar farm in central Pennsylvania. At the same time, private firms like Waste Management and PECO and nonprofits like the Energy Coordinating Agency are innovating in such areas as converting the waste stream into building materials and biofuels, training residents for green jobs, and fighting for environmental justice.


At the local level, sustainability considerations can be fraught with tensions. According to the City’s Powering Our Future report, Philadelphia was the 12th most polluted city in the country by year-round particle pollution counts in 2016, which has negative effects on human health and the environment. The single-largest source of local air pollution is the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery, which accounts for more than 50 percent of local emissions.[1] The July 2019 fire that shuttered the refinery will almost certainly produce environmental benefits, yet at the same time, nearly 1,000 well-paying unionized jobs disappeared – implicitly pitting the interests of the workers and their union against the surrounding low-income communities of color that suffer from disproportionately high rates of asthma. In the long run, the so-called “green economy” may produce numerous family-sustaining jobs in building and maintaining green stormwater and solar energy infrastructure, but in the short term, the transition away from the carbon-based economy will almost inevitably cause some level of disruption.


Additionally, the benefits of sustainability – for example, well-maintained parks, tree canopy, access to fresh and healthy food – are inequitably distributed by race and class. Poorer neighborhoods such as those in North, West, and Southwest Philadelphia tend to lack trees and other green infrastructure, and consequently, are hotter on average than wealthier neighborhoods – as the map below (Figure 1) from the City’s Greenworks 2016 report illustrates.[2] Temperatures vary by as much as 20 degrees, spurring some communities like Hunting Park to take action and develop a plan to beat the heat; among other things, they committed to planting more trees.


In terms of contribution to carbon emissions, buildings (especially large commercial office buildings) are the prime driver, as illustrated in Figure 2 below.1 The Greenworks initiative’s energy benchmarking program helps large building owners and managers in Philadelphia better understand their energy and water use. In 2017, more than 2,800 buildings reported their energy and water use, representing more than 30 percent of the total citywide square footage. The Office of Sustainability shares this data with building owners via a building energy data visualization tool and through custom report cards that highlight performance relative to peers and provide tips on how to improve.


FIGURE 1: Average Surface Temperatures by Census Block, 2013-2015


This figure is part of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability report: Greenworks: A Vision for a Sustainable Philadelphia. The figure can be found on page 19.




FIGURE 2: Contributions to Philadelphia's Carbon Emissions in 2014

  • Philadelphia's Carbon Footprint (2014)

This figure is part of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability report: Powering Our Future: A Clean Energy Vision for Philadelphia. The figure can be found on page 11.



The city and region’s collective response to growing challenges related to climate change and environmental sustainability will play a major role in determining how much we will grow as a community and who will have access to growth opportunities. With the stakes so high, a group of participants in the Economy League’s 2019 Leadership Exchange will hear from leaders in the local public sector, private, and nonprofit sectors about efforts underway to smooth the region’s transition to a greener future and what challenges remain to be addressed.



[1] Office of Sustainability, City of Philadelphia. 2018. Powering Our Future: A Clean Energy Vision For Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: City of Philadelphia. Retrieved from:

[2] Office of Sustainability, City of Philadelphia. 2016. Greenworks: A Vision for a Sustainable Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: City of Philadelphia. Retrieved from:





Solar Panel Installation Jobs - Inquirer 2019


Philadelphia Lags in Solar Energy - Inquirer 2019


SEPTA Invests in Solar Panels - Inquirer 2019


High schoolers get paid to learn solar in Philly - Inquirer 2019


Startups strive to recycle emissions for ‘new carbon economy’  - Thomson Reuters Foundation 2019