This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: City launches Version 2.0 of Green Office Challenge

The city of Chicago on Thursday kicks off round two of its Green Office Challenge — a program designed to inspire commercial building property managers and tenants to shrink their carbon footprint and save some money in the process.

Last year, Chicago’s Department of the Environment teamed up with a non-profit that developed a program that invites commercial tenants and building property managers to become more green at the end of the competition period compared with where they started.

Participants submit baseline data in many categories, including energy and water use, recycling and purchasing. Awards — in the form of recognition from the mayor — are given to companies that reach one of the established benchmarks of improvement, says Amy Malick, manager of the Climate Protection Program at ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability USA, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that’s running the challenge. ICLEI helps municipalities nationwide become more sustainable.

The idea for the challenge grew out of some startling findings about Chicago’s buildings when the city released its now-famous Chicago Climate Action Plan in 2008. The report, which calculated carbon dioxide emissions from the usual suspects — buildings, transportation, industrial waste — found that buildings in Chicago produce about 70% of all of the city’s carbon dioxide emissions (39% of them are commercial structures). Finding creative ways to encourage building owners and their tenants to slash emissions was a high priority, Ms. Malick says.

In the first round, 106 tenants and 39 property managers participated and all made improvements by the end of the challenge last summer, she notes. And property managers that completed the first round of the challenge saved a total of $5.1 million, Ms. Malick says.

This time around, organizers developed better online tools to make it easier for firms to participate and track their progress.

The Chicago program received such favorable reviews last year that ICLEI was asked to replicate it elsewhere. So far, the non-profit has rolled it out in six other municipalities, including St. Louis, Charleston, S.C., Houston and San Diego.

Crain’s met with Ms. Malick to talk about how companies and the city of Chicago can benefit from this program.

Crain’s: Why should commercial tenants or building property managers consider getting involved in the program and how does your staff help them?

Ms. Malick: Our goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from commercial buildings, and we’re hoping to engage the commercial sector in the implementation of the Chicago Climate Action Plan. The program is set up to lead businesses down the path of better environmental performance.

Amy Malick

We provide training resources, tools, quantification methodology and benchmarking data tools to allow them to understand where they are when they start the program. We benchmark their data using the Environmental Protection Agency’s Portfolio Manager system, which is a free online software tool that’s a universally accepted benchmarking tool. Building managers share that data through that software program and we take a look at it and verify it over the course of the year. We work with them to set goals for improving things like energy and water usage and recycling rates. At the end, we rate them based on their achievements.

Crain’s: What’s different about the program this time around compared to last year’s initial launch?

Ms. Malick: The first time around we were really only measuring electricity in terms of buildings’ energy usage. This year we’re measuring natural gas and electricity. We’re beefing up the transportation track of the program, too. We’re trying to work with businesses to get better commuter benefits up and running. We have more corporate sponsors this year so we’ll have a lot more training resources.

The tenants who participate aren’t rated on their actual energy or water usage. We have a Green Office scorecard which has 50 different strategies over five categories with a series of yes-or-no questions about policies the office may have in place for things like green purchasing, transit benefits and green leasing strategies.

Crain’s: How are you going to audit commercial tenants if you don’t have verifiable data like energy bills to review?

Ms. Malick: We’re using the honor system, but we conduct site visits to every single company over the course of the year. We’ll ask them to demonstrate what they’re doing when we go there in person, as well as what they tell us on the scorecard. They also have to give us some information about how they achieved a certain strategy.

Crain’s: Is a reward of recognition from the mayor’s office enough incentive to encourage businesses to sign up for the program?

Ms. Malick: The Chicago Department of Environment developed a comprehensive green business strategy and they found businesses really want recognition from the city for their efforts to go green. It’s a low-cost badge of honor the city can provide and it shows they’re a green partner to the city. They even get a sticker to put on their front door. The city didn’t want to develop a third-party certification program that would compete with LEED or Energy Star because it’s too difficult to manage and it would cost too much.

Can this type of challenge have a lasting impact on how companies act sustainably once it’s over?

Ms. Malick: We certainly think so. In fact, almost all the companies from round one have signed up to continue the challenge this year to improve their performance.

One of the central goals of the Climate Action Plan is a 30% reduction in energy use across commercial buildings, so it will take more than one year for a building to meet that kind of improvement. We want to work with them until they reach that goal.

Crain’s: Do you expect the next Chicago mayor will continue to support this program?

Ms. Malick: I think our next mayor has no choice. The people of Chicago are concerned about climate change and the environment. Mayor Daley has clearly made his mark as one of the greenest mayors of this country, and I don’t think this issue is going away.

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