Cool Austin, Cool Planet

This Earth Day, the ambitious Austin Climate Protection Plan celebrates a first year of slow, quiet, but impressive progress

Cool Austin, Cool Planet
Illustration by Leah Sharpe

It's been more than a year – do you know where your Austin Climate Protection Plan is?

If not, don't blame yourself. While the city of Austin indeed has been hard at work implementing the aggressive plan – launched by the mayor and adopted by City Council resolution on Feb. 15, 2007 – it has done little to communicate its progress publicly, engage the broader community in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, or broadcast Austin's work as an inspiration to other cities. Since the city hasn't been talking, it's been nearly impossible for citizens and environmental advocates to evaluate its progress. Predictably, such lack of transparency breeds doubt and cynicism. A red flag: In silence, a key one-year milestone goal came and went for the council resolution that called for a communitywide greenhouse-gas inventory, targets for communitywide emission reductions, and a comprehensive plan to achieve them. In fact, none of that work has yet been accomplished.

But after some substantial digging and prodding of city staff and the mayor, the reporting for this article turned up much solid progress to celebrate. (See "Austin Cli­mate Protection Plan") Many municipal goals established have been met and even exceeded. To cite but one shining example, Jennifer Walls, acting fleet officer, reports that by next month, 51% of all city vehicles will run using hybrid technology or alternative fuels (biodiesel, ethanol, compressed natural gas, or propane). The ACPP set a goal for the city fleet to become carbon neutral by 2020. "As vehicles become eligible for replacement, they'll be replaced by the best available technology on the market," noted Walls, who hopes to be buying plug-in hybrids by 2010. (Austin Energy's Plug-In Part­ners campaign has helped to create the market for them.) The city turns over about 10% of its fleet (400-500 vehicles) each year.

The lack of communication, and the city's failure to engage and involve the broader community to date, stems from several causes. First, there's the inherent unwieldiness of turning around a huge bureaucratic ship, plus a steep learning curve. Add to that a turnover in city managers and a small, underresourced ACPP staff. In-depth interviews with Mayor Will Wynn (see "The Local Politics of Climate Protection"), his aide Matt Watson, and lead city staff – Austin Energy General Man­ager Roger Duncan, ACPP Program Direc­tor Ester Matthews, and others ­– made clear the depth of their personal commitment and hard work on climate protection. It seems they just need to invite the rest of us into the tent.

At the launch, Wynn, former City Manager Toby Futrell, and others emphasized that the broadest power of our local municipal efforts would be to inspire other cities and groups to follow suit. But such leadership requires public communication about what Austin is doing. "The biggest weakness by far has been lack of communication," conceded Wynn. "Both as to what the city operationally has been doing and then the whole community component of the plan. It's starting to become sort of blatant and obvious. The strength is in the details of what's actually occurred in some of the departments – measurable benefits, already. So my internal focus with the city manager and my colleagues, now, will be the communication piece."

Getting It Done

"Even though this is a global problem, each of us has an individual responsibility to help address the problem," stressed Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, in Austin recently for a Seattle Chamber of Commerce group visit. He noted that the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement he launched – now signed by cities representing 25% of the U.S. population, including Austin – creates citizen support for local expenditures, because it makes them part of a meaningful national effort. In an interview prior to a Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority presentation, Nickels compared Seattle's launch to our own.

"It took two years [2004-2005] to have the conversation in my city: What kind of city do you want to create?" asked Nickels. On Feb. 16, 2005, he issued a challenge for U.S. mayors and cities to meet the Kyoto Protocol challenges, in the absence of a federal sign-on. In April 2006, he issued recommendations for a Seattle climate protection program; that fall he went public with a formal plan (after first figuring out its implementation).

Said Nickels: "One of the first things we did was create the Seattle Climate Partnership" – a communitywide effort started by the city that's now being spun off as a nonprofit. They also rapidly launched a 20-member Green Rib­bon Task Force, to engage business and corporate leaders. Austin, too, is rich in "green" citizens and companies knowledgeable about solutions for climate protection – potential "plug-in partners" to the municipal effort. The ACPP office plans to expand the Climate Action Team to include community members in July.

Austin's plan is closely modeled on Seattle's initiative. While we're a year or two behind them, we're ahead of nearly every other U.S. city. When our program was launched in early 2007, Futrell – despite being an advocate – didn't scurry to immediately allocate the resources that its scope clearly required. Nor did council or Austin Energy request a budget amendment. As a result, only a skeleton staff was assigned to the program; Program Director Mat­thews and others retained their other job duties, which translated to slow progress. The nascent program had to wend its way through the city's normal budget cycle. But when the ACPP did finally gain its own annual budget on Oct. 1, it was a healthy $1.25 million. That covers eight staff, an enhanced Green Building program, and emissions-reduction and energy-efficiency measures. In time, the investment should be balanced or surpassed by municipal energy cost savings.

Only quite recently has an adequate ACPP staff been in place to start knocking out the actions called for in the plan. On the muni side, those include individual climate protection plans for each city department and an education program for the 12,000 city of Aus­tin employees. On the community side, immediate goals include an informational website for Austin citizens – expected to launch this week – and a local carbon-footprint calculator and offset program. At Austin Energy, Roger Duncan – recently promoted to the utility's top director position – is planning a series of town hall meetings to involve citizens in making the critical decisions we face, regarding energy resources. Look for the public participation process for energy resource planning to start in May. As fossil fuels become increasingly scarce and expensive (with renewable, low-carbon energy not yet sufficiently available or affordable) the trade-offs are daunting indeed. As Duncan outlines the challenges, they'll require every ounce of communal ingenuity and attention that Austin can muster.

Of the city departments, said Matthews, only Austin Energy, Parks & Recreation, and the Austin Water Utility have completed detailed draft departmental climate action plans with base inventories. (She expects the other departments now to accelerate their progress with the support of her staff.) Those departments are the lower-hanging fruit: AE has long been a leader on green-building and energy efficiency, PARD is staffed with tree-huggers, and the Water Utility has benefited from the leadership of Daryl Slusher, who last year was tasked with making that department as environmentally progressive as Austin Ener­gy. Other key city departments sending staff to weekly interdepartmental Climate Action Team meetings include Watershed Protection Development Review, Neigh­bor­hood Planning and Zoning, Public Works, Economic Growth & Redevelopment Services, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, Solid Waste Services, and Purchasing.

The Water Utility is AE's No. 1 electricity consumer; the city cannot reach its emission-reduction goals without substantial changes at Austin Water Utility. That, in turn, requires greater water conservation by all Austinites. The inconvenient truth:Every household, company, and institution in Austin may need to reduce its water consumption – and its energy consumption and gasoline consumption – in order for the goals of the ACPP to be met. While the city has set the high standards, the necessary rollback of local greenhouse-gas emissionscan't be achieved through municipal efforts alone. It's the public who consumes the water and electricity that the city provides. So all Austinites need to reduce their consumption of those resources, in ways large and small.

Slusher shared his department's draft plan; the 16-page report makes clear the enormity of enacting a massive culture shift throughout the Water Utility's 40-some divisions and by all consumers. "Given the amount of electricity needed to treat water, and to a somewhat lesser extent wastewater, it will be a tremendous challenge for AWU to become carbon neutral as directed by the Climate Action Plan," the report states. "Doing so will require an intensive effort on multiple fronts and will also require continuing advances in renewable energy." (Download the full report here.) AWU has yet to publicly link water conservation with climate protection in a big way, but Slusher promised that once the city's new water conservation ordinance kicks in May 1; "A message shift is coming."

Our Determined Mayor

Meanwhile, what's the mayor been doing? Wynn says he's remained at arm's length from directing the ACPP's administration, as required by the separation of powers in the City Charter. As chairman of the board of Austin Energy, he's had a strong voice in energy efficiency and strategic planning. But he hasn't always pressed to ensure that his specific directives are followed. For example, Wynn has asked repeatedly from the dais for all purchasing requests to come with climate protection notes – to his credit – but only fleet has complied fully, while other departments are allowed to slide.

The entire council could demonstrate stronger, more consistent attention to timely staff progress on their climate protection policy. Still, the number of major ACPP policy directives from council in the past year is impressive. They include resolutions to strengthen the city's Green Building program, increase sustainable building standards for all municipal projects (to a silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification or higher), and create the Energy Efficiency Retrofit Task Force, the Zero Energy Capable Homes Task Force, and the public participation process for energy resource planning (see "Policy Watch"). Most of those initiatives have come out of the mayor's office, shepherded by Wynn's hardworking climate protection right arm, Matt Watson.

Rather like a family giving up a son to military service, Austin has sent its mayor into the international fight against global warming. Speak­ing before House committees at the U.S. Congress, Wynn has called for a strong governmental response (culminating in the landmark Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act, now moving through the Senate; see "Opera­tion Climate Vote," below). He's similarly spoken out at a United Nations special session, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the West­ern States Land Commissioners Associ­a­tion, last week's Congress for the New Urbanism in Austin, and in cities across Texas – as well as giving more than 50 persuasive presentations locally and plugging clean energy, energy efficiency, transit, and climate protection every chance he gets. He launched a national multimayor effort to increase building efficiencies through changes to the International Energy Conservation Code. The U.S. Department of Energy recently selected Wynn as keynote speaker (at their expense) for its first solar conference in Tucson.

But the record also shows that Wynn has been highly engaged here in Austin. Pressed for details, Watson provided a long list of mayoral actions. On land use and transportation – critical issues for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions locally and regionally – Wynn has advocated for transit, a central-city streetcar, and formation of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transit Working Group. He's worked hard to promote Downtown density as the most sustainable growth model. He's "inspired" all developers bringing a project before council to have their LEED certification plans in place and routinely negotiates higher green-building commitments. He's been quietly advancing a number of open-space preservations, natural areas and trails, and cycling infrastructure efforts. He's also been active in the Clean Air Coalition's Oak Grove coal plant fight and in creating tighter policies on coal-fueled electricity generation. He's pressed Congress to fund and fully award Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants – which Watson said could be worth up to $20 million to Austin.

While public accountability is critical, it's sometimes too easy to point fingers at the mayor, council, and city staff. No Central Texan needs a formally engraved invitation from City Hall to step up and begin local action. In Seattle, dozens of small groups have popped up; many neighborhood associations have spawned sustainability teams. As Nick­els observed: "As an individual, you can make a difference. What might be very difficult for us to do today will be very important to our children and our children's children – and that's worth whatever sacrifice we need to make."

Have suggestions for how the city of Austin should launch, build, and sustain a community plan for climate protection? E-mail them to:


Environmental Defense Action Fund, a national nonprofit actively working for 2008 congressional action on global warming, last week launched a "100-Day Blitz" calling for widespread constituent pressure on the U.S. Senate to pass the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act and on the U.S. House to draft a companion bill.

"Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has given our allies a green light to take the Climate Security Act to the Senate floor during the first week of June," said Steve Cochran, director of Environmental Defense's National Climate Campaign. "We are very close to getting the 60 votes needed to pass the bill in the Senate. Forty-five senators are heavily for the bill, and 15 more have a strong tilt in our direction." With Congress scheduled to recess this summer and a November election looming, Cochran said, "The next four months will make or break our efforts to pass landmark global warming legislation in 2008."

To learn more or support the campaign, visit The site offers a wealth of climate protection info and resources – including a wonderfully comprehensive compact fluorescent lightbulb guide.

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