North American cities are building on their leading position as efficient energy users amid accelerating urbanization in the US and around the globe.

A new Green City Index sponsored by Siemens measured 27 major American and Canadian cities cities in nine different categories to assess their energy economy. It shows that while American cities are often lagging behind European cities in implementing energy policy, they are not waiting for Washington to lead on environmental and energy policy.

“There is some federal policy in place, but climate change has been a real gridlock, so I think that what’s happened is that we’ve seen cities really step into the void,” said Siemens’ Chief Sustainability Officer Alison Taylor told Breaking Energy.

“With no real federal policy, we thought cities might be waiting,” she said, but the new study indicates this is far from the case.

The study, New Urban: Cities and The Emerging Energy Economy was researched and written by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and sponsored by Siemens. It reveals that mayors and city government, with jurisdiction over domains that may have the most direct impact on climate change and energy resource use–including buildings, transportation and urban land planning–are at the forefront of energy policy.

Cities In The Lead

According to Taylor, this is one of the primary reasons that cities, rather than the federal government, are active in the space. Its also the case, she said, that some of the cities in the study have already experienced changing climates or rising sea levels, which has helped focus minds and public sentiment. And for city-specific challenges, federal policy could often be useless.

“Frankly, the federal government can’t come up with a one-size-fits-all policy,” she said.

City government may also be more effective in implementing resource efficiency because they lack choices. Facing growing populations that lean heavily on resources like electricity, water and sanitation amid often limited supply, city governments often have no option but to creatively encourage citizens to cut down on use.

“City infrastructure is really bending under the strain,” Taylor said. “We knew there was really a lot of need in cities. We wanted to learn more about those needs.”

Roughly 82% of Americans currently live in cities and that number is expected to rise , to nearly 90% by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Division 2010 study. If governments were a business, said Taylor, these numbers would be displaying an strategic need that is impossible to ignore.

The Role of State Government

Taylor emphasized that while the federal government may be quiet on energy policy, state government have been very active. State policy has helped motivate urban leaders, many of whom represent the majority of an individual state’s population and are central to implementation of state and regional policy.

The cities are often “riding on the coattails of state policy,” she said.

San Francisco, which came in at the top of the Index rankings, was significantly boosted by an aggressive California-wide state energy policy focus on renewable fuel, emissions cuts and energy efficiency efforts, Taylor said.