Congratulations, your city has committed to being carbon neutral!
The state of New York recently passed what could be considered a game changer in the evolving world of carbon reduction policies, joining the climate action bench with California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington. There have been many landmarks along the road leading to these local and state-level climate commitments. Most notably was the Trump Administration’s move in 2017 to remove the US from the (non-binding) Paris Agreement; under the Agreement, President Obama had pledged to reduce carbon emissions in the US by up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Technically, President Trump hasn’t actually removed the US; rather he made a politically-motivated statement of non-commitment. That statement carries weight: the US is doing little to nothing at the federal level to achieve the goals we had set as a nation for reducing our carbon emissions. Strike that: if anything, our current federal motivation is to move backwards in regards to national responsibility, as well as environmental protections in general. That has left us in a bit of a (non-)bind.
As more and more citizens, corporations and agencies note the reality and rising risks of the ongoing climate crisis, an increasing number have stepped up to the plate to fill in the glaring holes left by a lack of federal leadership. There was an immediate response following the executive announcement of intent to withdraw from the Agreement, including a “We Are Still In” declaration signed by hundreds of leaders and representatives of corporations, universities, states and cities.
A growing membership of climate-activated governments
The plan that New York State passed is a two-part commitment: hitting a 2040 target of non-carbon electricity followed by a grander 2050 goal to achieve a state-wide economy with net-zero carbon emissions. You may note the confusing terminology found in these mini-Green New Deals, including ‘zero-carbon’, ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net-zero emissions’. The most important way to differentiate these evolving terms is to note that “net” zero emissions includes offsets or other emission cuts that do not have to come directly from municipal sources, although local-sourced offsets (e.g., located within 25 miles of the source) are often stipulated.
Last month, New York City declared a climate emergency; similar to a resolution, a climate emergency declaration generally doesn’t contain any specific policy measures, but does provide a foundation for mobilization of the necessary measures. Prior to the city’s declaration, city officials had passed the Climate Mobilization Act, which includes measures to cut emissions by a variety of methods, not only through transition to renewable electricity, but also via green roofs, vehicle electrification, cancellation of fossil pipeline projects and, most notably, a requirement for the city’s buildings (including Trump Tower) to significantly cut their own emission footprint. As of this writing, over 730 local governments in 16 countries have declared or recognized a climate emergency, as tracked by the International Climate Emergency Forum, however, very few of those are located in the US. Back in May 2019, the United Kingdom was the first country to make such a declaration.
New York City and New York State are certainly not the first to resolve on climate action, but both present an example of what will hopefully be an increasing trend. Back in 2015, the state of Hawaii had already set a target of 100% renewable energy by 2045 for its power sector, and California has had a carbon-pricing program in place for about a decade. Adding the sizable economies of states like California and New York provides a hefty momentum to a transition to a carbon-free future. An example of this state-level power is California’s ability to shape nationwide policies on air quality standards and vehicle fuel efficiency metrics. Add to this momentum the continuing drop in renewable energy prices, regardless of the Administration’s coal industry cheerleading; these prices will likely fall even lower as a result of the demand from municipalities and states looking to put their carbon-neutral plans into action.
Although much of this commitment at the local and state levels seem to be happening along partisan lines, there is some bi-partisan magic to be found when certain benefits become clear and less volatile reactions prevail. For example, the Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, has been handed around extensively as a level-headed hero on climate when he used his office to make his town the first in Texas to rely solely on wind and solar power back in 2015. He seems nonplussed by the “liberal” spotlight on himself and his town; he merely states that it just made financial sense. The Republican mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota, has been open in her concern over climate for over 15 years, well before it was considered a taboo subject by the political powers-that-be. Under Mayor Kautz’s tenure, the city has decreased its emissions by 30% since 2005 largely through energy efficiency improvements to water and electrical infrastructure, as well as promotion of composting to reduce landfill emissions of methane. It is important to note the composting program, because it is an example of thinking outside the box in terms of emission reductions AND enlists the aid of residents (it doesn’t hurt that composting decreases the cost of waste disposal and provides homeowners with “free” garden soil). Use of wind and solar power for the supply of electricity is a big deal in many conservatively held states such as Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, but the reasoning for this is generally phrased as a good business decision, not an environmental or moral decision.
Case study: A state in a state of piecemeal transition
My current home, Pennsylvania, is an interesting case study: a “swing state” that seems to be pieced together from a patchwork of cultural and political differences. With Philadelphia to the east, Pittsburgh to the west, and “Alabama in the middle”, the oft-described Pennsyltucky reflects the country as a whole albeit on a smaller scale. Earlier this year, the township in which I live, located in the suburbs hugging the northwestern city limits of Philadelphia, became the first municipality in Montgomery County to pass a sustainability resolution. The resolution is to achieve a goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2035 in the municipal facilities and of renewable heat and transportation by 2050. In a domino effect, other neighboring municipalities have followed up with their own similar commitments, drafted along the guidelines of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign.
Following the relative ease at which the resolution was passed comes the hard work: setting up or delegating to a council or committee, pulling together utility bills, conducting audits and inspections, brain-storming and presenting ideas for the path forward to the Board of Commissioners. That’s where the rubber meets the road with numbers crunched, actions presented and funding solicited. Our township had a jump start on this project, having newer facilities constructed with energy efficiency in mind including the inclusion of a green roof on the library. This growing trend of smaller governmental entities passing climate resolutions has a great benefit in that these groups can band together, with local environmental advisory committees sharing ideas and perhaps even going in together on community energy contracts to drive down costs and allay fears. The wheel does not have to be reinvented, especially when capitalizing on the outreach of organizations such as the Sierra Club.
Many climate-related actions are tied in to the groundwork laid by previously published municipal plans, including Montgomery County’s Montco 2040 and the City of Philadelphia’s Greenworks: A Vision for a Sustainable Philadelphia. These municipal plans incorporate forward-looking visions that generally address a wide variety of topics from access to neighborhood grocery stores to waste reduction to safe and affordable transportation. Born from this community vision, Montgomery County recently committed to implement 100% wind-powered electricity for all county-owned buildings, as well as 100% renewable energy for facility heating and for powering county-owned vehicles, by 2050. Although such an energy switch can have extra costs at the onset, these transitions to renewable electricity offer cost savings over the long-term. In the adjacent county of Philadelphia, and the sixth most-populous city in the US, the mayor has signed a power purchase agreement with a renewable energy developer to receive all of the electricity generated from a soon-to-be-built solar facility, touted to be the state’s largest solar facility, in order to meet the city’s pledge to run on 100% renewable electricity by 2030. This agreement allows the city to lock in a 20-year rate that is competitive with conventional electricity prices. The city is building on a municipal climate adaptation plan that not only calls for a reliance on renewable energy and achieving zero waste, but draws on the concepts of equity and justice, job creation, integration of forests and natural resources, sector collaboration, building code updates, and promotion of community solar programs and mass transit.
This brings us up to state level, where the climate action accomplishments are of a mixed variety in reflection of the views held across the state. Living in a suburb of Philadelphia has spoiled me on progressive climate activism, but that is certainly not true outside most of the larger urban centers in Pennsylvania. A state senator and prior Republican candidate for governor, Scott Wagner, declared that climate change was due to body heat and our planet’s death spiral into the Sun (hint: that’s not true); however, the current second-term Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, is a center-of-the-road politician that has delicately broached climate issues in a state that still falls under the long shadow of the coal industry and has been subject to a lucrative burst of natural gas fracking. The state has had a Climate Action Plan in place for approximately a decade describing impacts and providing state-wide greenhouse gas reduction targets of 26% by 2025 and 80% reduction by 2050, as measured from 2005 levels. While this plan was updated in 2018, it doesn’t feel as if the state legislative majority dwells much on these goals and targets. However, earlier this year Governor Wolf announced that Pennsylvania has joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group formed to implement and uphold the policies of the Paris Agreement. In addition, the state Senate Minority Leader has circulated a market-based carbon-pricing program directed at the state power sector. Based on the moves taken by various municipalities and the potential job creation, it is an easy guess to assume that, at a minimum, the development of renewable energy will continue to surge in the state. But any further movement will likely be led by the more progressive municipal entities and the collaborative work of concerned citizens and activists.
A resolution does not equate to real-world action
After sifting through the many local and state policies, commitments and targets, one might recognize the value of federal intervention in setting a national standard that provides a valuable and consistent benchmark … and cuts emissions on a broader scale. Perhaps Trump’s Paris pull-out has served a valuable role in setting a fire on the local stage instead of allowing us to passively wait for someone else to take charge of the situation. What we are seeing is something of a free market on sustainable government, power and profit-making.
The reality is that regardless of whether a town, city or state passes a commitment or encodes carbon-neutral regulations, that commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that every action promised will equate to an action completed. Action starts with resolutions passed on the the merit of aspiration, of knowing a promise and deed to be beneficial and correct in the long-term. Several countries are currently missing their emission targets under the Paris Agreement, and certainly many cities or states will not achieve their energy or climate goals within the prescribed timeframe. No one currently goes to jail for a lack or delay of climate action, and a legal document is not likely to change that. In addition, it is currently difficult for any larger municipal government or state-wide economy to rely on electricity from renewable energy alone; the technology and infrastructure are not in place, and natural gas is still a cheap and booming energy source in the US. Cities, states, universities and corporations may have to prove themselves flexible in terms of meeting targets, but the pressure is now on to make 100% renewable doable.
Individual credits for solar panel installation, the purchase of electric vehicles and home energy efficiency improvement projects have been with us for some time, and it seems a natural evolution that what is good for the individual citizen is even better on a larger stage. These municipal resolutions leave out the impacts of the individual resident; however, the carbon footprint of government entities is obviously larger and their collective funding and authority forges an easier path for citizens to then follow. What is your township, county, or state doing to act on climate? Your power to make real change starts at the local level, where your voice and your energy transform resolutions into tangible action. Let’s stop talking and start acting.