Cool City: Acting Locally, Cooling Globally

The Austin Climate Protection Plan takes form

Ester Matthews, the newly named director of the Austin Climate Protection Plan
Ester Matthews, the newly named director of the Austin Climate Protection Plan (Photo By John Anderson)

In the three months since City Council unanimously approved the Austin Climate Protection Plan Feb. 15, city staff has steadily begun tackling the first steps required to build a solid action plan that will dramatically reduce Austin's greenhouse-gas emissions. With a goal of making all city operations, facilities, vehicle fleets, and utilities totally carbon neutral by 2020, the ambitious plan requires nothing less than a sweeping cultural change that affects every city department. All related city policies, procedures, and behaviors are gradually being re-examined over the course of 2007, an effort led by Mayor Will Wynn and City Manager Toby Futrell, in support of the plan's goal: "Make Austin the leading city in the nation in the fight against global warming."

The city kicked off its internal planning process in March with a full-day retreat and planning session on the ACPP for top brass citywide – the directors and assistant directors of all departments. Wynn presented a slide show based on Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, a presentation for which he was trained by Gore through the Climate Project (and which he now is giving to groups throughout the city). "I think it energized people; they could see that from a policy standpoint, we're very serious," Wynn said. "I was very impressed with how the city staff is completely engaged with it – personified by the city manager." Futrell said the kickoff session was designed to "lay out the premise and the argument for everybody" in order to create widespread buy-in among city leadership.

"We organized how we were going to move forward and lay out resources in each area," Futrell said. "If people had reservations or saw barriers, we worked it through at the retreat. We made sure everyone in the room understood how it affected them, got their ideas, and got their concerns out on the table. We encouraged skepticism or cynicism and questions, so we could get at it and talk through it and come out on the other side. At the end, we called each person out and asked, 'Where are you on this?'" Futrell plans to hold quarterly cross-departmental ACPP retreats.

During the city budget process for the upcoming fiscal year, the immediate focus is on identifying resources needed for ACPP implementation in 2007-'08 and getting those line items into the budget, Futrell said. The ACPP includes five subplans: Municipal, Utility, Homes and Buildings, Community, and Go Neutral. (See a summary at www.austinenergy.com.) "We're creating functional alignments for each subplan, with cross-departmental teams," Futrell said. "We'll go into each of those functional areas, and then the teams will start creating their more detailed action plans. And under those areas, each city department will have its own action plan." It's a lot to get the city's collective arms around, said Futrell, but she believes all department directors and key staff are engaged by the mission.

Within Austin Energy, Ester Matthews has been reassigned as ACPP director. A 20-year city staffer (she cut her teeth as an aide to former Council Member Max Nofziger), Matthews is a passionate environmentalist who understands how the city works. In previous positions at AE, she worked closely with sustainable-energy maven Roger Duncan in governmental relations and as director of local government issues. "She knows the science, knows what other cities and utilities are doing, and she's very motivated," Wynn observed.

Matthews, the very picture of eco-awareness in tree-motif earrings and a green-leaf print dress, recently discussed the "ACPP Action Plan Update" she produced May 3. She noted that many action steps requiring new staff and budget allocations are being researched and planned but can only begin officially in the new budget year, after Oct. 1. Focusing on the Municipal Plan, Matthews reviewed some efforts already in progress: acquiring enough wind-powered energy to run all city facilities, conducting an inventory database of current fleet emissions, planning ahead for flex-fuel vehicles, and developing individual departmental plans. In progress also are a city Web page on the ACPP, a carbon-footprint calculator, and a yearlong process to amend the city's building code to promote energy-efficient homes and commercial buildings.

The mayor believes the city's short-term costs to enact the plan will be more than offset by energy cost-savings over time, making it effectively self-financed. "Why not be educated consumers and use life-cycle costing?" he asked rhetorically. But as the city makes projections and prepares the 2007-'08 budget, Wynn also admitted, "I'm holding my breath a little bit to see what the costs might be."

Note: This is the first in a series of "Cool City" columns that will provide periodic updates on the Austin Climate Protection Plan. For more info, see the March 9 articles "How Cool Is Austin?" and "Austin Climate Protection Plan: The five components."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Climate Protection Plan, Will Wynn, Toby Futrell, Ester Matthews, Daryl Slusher

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