TO GO WITH Singapore-environment-climate

Congratulations, you’ve made it through tax season! You can now give yourself a big pat on the back and bask in the springtime sun while your refunds roll in.

However, if you live in a big city, where you most likely rent real estate and ride public transportation, you may not have qualified for many renewable energy incentives this year. To take advantage of the incentives, you usually have to own things­­–big things like houses and cars–which is far less common in urban environments, like New York City and Baltimore, where only 56 percent and 31 percent of households own cars. Also of note is the rental housing rate for cities that tends to cluster closer to 50 or 60 percent, almost double the national housing renter average of 34 percent.

There are thousands of dollars of incentives at the federal level alone for home energy efficiency purchases and upgrades, energy efficient vehicles like the all-electric Tesla, and of course the solar investment tax credit for rooftop solar, just to name a few.

But here’s the problem. All of these incentives help reduce carbon emissions to bring us closer to a clean energy economy, but the success of these tax structures is threatened by the growth of urbanization. A recent U.S. census report on New York suburbs found that younger generations are moving to the city and not returning to the suburbs later in life.

These younger urban populations are also not as tied to the ownership of things. Just look at how young New Yorkers are living their lives. They are much less likely than their parents to own a car or a house, and instead often rent those big-ticket items. Similarly, they may not even rent a car, likely choosing to spend their money on public transportation instead. Apartment building construction hit a 15-year high in 2013 because of a higher proportion of new home construction demand in dense city apartment sectors. And Eighty-two percent of employed New Yorker’s commute to work by public transit or foot instead of by car, a rate 10 times higher than the national average.

Somewhat ironically, these new urbanites are already the most environmentally sustainable individuals in today’s society because of the compactness of city living. This means that today’s tax system is missing a tremendous opportunity to spur sustainable purchasing decisions within this ripe population, building on the green living that many city dwellers already unconsciously commit to daily.

So what policies will be needed to encourage this next generation of metropolitan individuals to choose “green”?

It’s time to get creative. What about incentivizing individuals to take public transit? Providing tax credits for commuters who walk or bicycle to work? Instead of having to own a home to receive tax benefits, what about enabling renters to qualify for tax refunds if they live in a building with solar panels or other energy efficient technologies? And what about offering tax rebates for renters to switch to renewable energy via new utility programs like Marin Clean Energy?

No thanks to the intransigence in Washington, cities have been leading the way on sustainability with local green initiatives like building energy disclosure laws, bike share programs and energy financing. It’s likely creative tax incentives for renters will start at the city level too—but to truly scale and make an impact, it’s critical to scale these solutions nationwide.

Susannah Callahan is a Senior Account Executive at Antenna Group, a full-service, strategic communications firm specialized in emerging and established energy technology and high technology companies. She provides strategic guidance for a broad range of clients in the solar, energy efficiency, high technology and government sectors. Susannah received her bachelor’s degree with honors in international relations from Washington University in St. Louis.