Two Years Gone – How Many Left to Save the Planet?
This Earth Day, urgent evidence of global warming should kick the Austin Climate Protection Plan into higher gear
"WHEREAS, global scientific consensus predicts as a consequence of global warming costly and dangerous disruptions, including increased risk of flooding, drought and coastal storms, accelerated spread of disease and invasive species, severe property damage, economic loss, and threat to human life ... City Council directs the City Manager ... to make Austin the leading city in the nation in the effort to reduce and reverse the negative impacts of global warming." – Austin City Council Resolution, Feb. 15, 2007
"[M]ore than 2,500 leading environmental experts agreed [yesterday on] a statement that called on governments to act before the planet becomes an unrecognisable – and, in places, impossible – place to live. At an emergency climate summit in Copenhagen, scientists agreed that 'worst case' scenarios were already becoming reality and that, unless drastic action was taken soon, 'dangerous climate change' was imminent." – The Daily Telegraph, March 13
As I sit talking on the patio of Dominican Joe coffee shop with Jake Stewart, manager of the Austin Climate Protection Program, our conversation about reducing local greenhouse-gas emissions is suddenly drowned out by an obnoxious roar, followed by noxious fumes. A landscaping guy with a backpack blower has appeared, ineffectually blowing leaves – a job more handily done with a broom. We stare at the thick emissions pouring from his blower; the odor is soon nauseating.
"You know, running a blower with one of those two-stroke engines for an hour is equivalent to running over 40 vehicles for an hour," Stewart sighs. He talks about proportional emissions, the huge percentage of air pollution that comes from the unregulated engines used for lawn care, then makes a note to call the owners about aligning their maintenance practices with their motto, "Dominican Joe ... exist[s] to make a difference in the world." Over the blower's roar, we shout a few more thoughts about how the city's Climate Protection Plan might inspire ordinary Austinites to make simple, emission-reducing changes in their lives. Finally giving up, Stewart laughs and says, "It's kind of symbolic, isn't it?"
It is – and it speaks to the difficulty of translating a big municipal climate-protection plan into specific practices communitywide.
Earth Day 2009 – April 22 – offers an auspicious second-anniversary marker to refresh Austin's awareness and commitment to our Climate Protection Plan. As a mandated annual report heads toward council in May, detailing city and Austin Energy progress in implementing the plan and program, it's timely for both elected officials and the public to refresh their awareness and commitment. The report, previewed in draft form for this story, provides detailed information on city efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions – some impressive, some lagging, some nonstarters. (When the data is confirmed and goes to council, the Chronicle will provide a goal-by-goal review.) The personable Stewart is also making a round of public presentations to city boards this month (see "Hear the Climateer") to engage the community. At the same time, the plan's instigator and champion – Mayor Will Wynn – is about to leave office, raising questions about who will lead council's commitment going forward.
It's clear that the next mayor, council, and city management need to become more attentive to the details of program implementation. In part because the program is housed at Austin Energy, city officials haven't had much hands-on involvement. Now it's time for both council members and management to tune in and turn on. (See "Securing Climate Protection.")
To be fair, staff charged with implementation deserve encouragement and applause, given the perplexities of being among the first U.S. cities to enact such an ambitious program, the formidable challenges of citywide behavioral transformation, and the quickly shifting economic, regulatory, technical, and energy landscape. But why – after two years – hasn't the communitywide program been launched? Why hasn't an "Austin Climate Warriors" group sprung up among citizens, to cheer and advance the city's high-bar goals? A key reason is a lack of mutual trust and collaborative spirit between the traditional environmental groups and city officials – a problem both sides need to own and fix.
Meanwhile, global warming proceeds with alarming speed.
"Increases in average temperatures of six degrees by the end of the century were an increasing possibility and would produce conditions not seen on Earth for more than 30 million years, [Lord Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank] said. That could mean massive rises in sea level, whole areas devastated by hurricanes and others turned into uninhabitable desert, he claimed, forcing billions of people to leave their homelands." – The Daily Telegraph, March 13
Pouring Molasses: What's Worked, What Hasn't
Since enacting its ambitious policy – one of the strongest in the nation – the municipality itself has made impressive strides. The big positive changes at Austin Energy, Austin Water Utility, the fleet department (which controls all city vehicles), and other city departments, plus a new ordinance and building code for homes and buildings, all should make Austinites proud. The consciousness of council, city management, and city staff across city departments has been raised. The entire organization now regards climate protection as a core value, like environmental protection. (However, a number of departments have yet to complete their required departmental plans; the Austin Police Department's inaction, for example, suggests an intransigence that city management should not tolerate.) Encouraging initiatives, such as the new city employee bike-share and car-share programs announced this month, are being launched. About 416 million pounds of municipal carbon dioxide emissions already have been cut, and initiatives in place should cut billions more over the next decade. The program is working.
What hasn't worked, yet, is council's policy directive to reduce communitywide emissions – e.g., by helping people drive less or by educating blower-guy and his boss. Major ACPP policy goals were 1) to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from sources communitywide and 2) to help all Austinites and local companies go carbon-neutral, by offering local offsets for remaining emissions. To implement the policy, staff has to create a real strategic program. The resolution directed that an interdepartmental team establish targets for emission reductions and report back to council "in no more than one year with a comprehensive plan for meeting those targets." Yet after two years, the basic elements – a community inventory, a carbon calculator, and local projects certifiable as offsets – remain works in progress.
Asked about the unmet goals, ACPP Director Ester Matthews described a frustrating series of bureaucratic slow-downs, interdepartmental breakdowns, lack of authority to resolve problems at the right organizational levels, inability to effectively address public outreach, and difficulties created by the program's dual residency at Austin Energy and the city of Austin. Matthews sighs over the slow pace at which the department plans, now far behind schedule, have proceeded: "It's like molasses."
"[T]he Prince of Wales warned that nations were 'at a defining moment in the world's history' over climate change. As he continued his tour of South America, he delivered his most impassioned and urgent plea yet on the need to tackle global warming, saying there were 'less than 100 months' to save the planet." – The Daily Telegraph, March 13
Longtime city staffer Matthews, 57, says the accomplishment of which she's most proud is hiring the program's team of climate warriors. The appeal of working on Austin's respected program has indeed attracted a smart, mission-driven bunch. As Austin Energy faces the retirement of key staff within a few years (including Matthews herself and AE General Manager Roger Duncan), these youthful "climateers," dedicated to renewable and alternative energy, represent the fresh face of AE's future.
Jake Stewart, 33, became program manager in January, to help address the office's need for tighter management and structure. He radiates competence and can-do spirit; other staff say he's brought a sense of lightness and fun to the team's efforts. Stewart was formerly vice president of strategic development at Organic Fuels Inc. He received the Environmental Protection Agency's Alternative Fuel Project of the Year award for the world's first renewably powered biofuel production facility, which allowed the city of Denton, Texas, to produce fuel from landfill gas. (His idea of fun is talking biogas, fuel cells, algae oil development, and renewable hydrogen production.) A military veteran and an Aggie, Stewart shares several invention patents; has helped launch and develop distributed-energy projects in Africa, Europe, and Southern Mexico; and has been involved with federal policy development for renewable energy and climate change. In his spare time, he's done the Brita Climate Ride to Washington, D.C., (he wants to start a Texas version) and established a new nonprofit, Green Veterans.
Alexander (Sascha) Petersen came to the program from Seattle, where he was a researcher with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. He's well-versed in the analysis of regional climate change, he helped develop response and adaptation options for Seattle and Washington state, and his graduate studies focused on climate change science and policy. Other program staffers are Jennifer Clymer (who had worked directly for Austin Energy on the utility and cap-and-reduction plans), Mary Priddy (former City Manager Toby Futrell's executive assistant), Lisa Braithwaite (an AE transfer from the plug-in hybrids program), and Rachel Thompson (fresh from the Master of Environmental Management program at Duke University).
The team has been together about a year. "They have immense talent and complementary talents, so I'm freeing them to do what they do well," said Stewart. "This group is a lot like a start-up. It's not like a lot of city jobs, where the role is very defined. We wouldn't be happy being career bureaucrats," he said – then was quick to add, "We need them too, though!"
The ACPP office is now focusing more narrowly on the core work of running a climate program. That starts with a municipal emissions inventory (completed for 2007) and city departmental plans (a few done, most in progress) to lower emissions. Other core projects finally under way include a communitywide greenhouse-gas inventory, interdepartmental development of new city ordinances, and climate-change training for city employees. The team also is working with a consultant to develop a local carbon-footprint calculator, crafting the long-delayed community outreach plan, researching offset strategies, assisting local companies and surrounding communities, and reaching out to universities.
Providing fresh oversight is Karl Rábago, 51, Austin Energy's new vice president for distributed energy services. He fills the "green leader" position that Duncan left vacant, responsible for the ACPP, energy efficiency, green building, plug-in hybrids, and more. He brings national experience as a leader in renewable energy, green power, tradable carbon credits, and new energy market development. Résumé highlights: director of government and regulatory affairs for AES Wind Generation; director of the Energy & Buildings Solutions group for the Houston Advanced Research Center; sustainability, energy, and environmental projects for a half-dozen other companies and organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the U.S. Department of Energy. Asked how Austin could create new municipal models for federal carbon offset credits, he began, "I hate to wonk out on you, but ..." then enthusiastically provided an impressive technical analysis and some fresh ideas.
A Moral Obligation
With this qualified team, the ACPP office appears poised to hit its full stride. Stewart says they're just months away from launching a communitywide outreach campaign based on the local carbon-footprint calculator under development. Progress has improved noticeably in recent months; still, the failure to launch major initiatives should be a wake-up call to City Council and management. One critical missing skills set at the ACPP is communications and marketing expertise; the office could greatly increase its odds of success by retaining a consultant well-versed in successful social-marketing campaigns.
Getting the details of implementation right (or not) will resonate far beyond Austin city limits – we're a regional leader for Texas. Mayor Will Wynn, in originally championing the council resolution, spoke eloquently about Austin's moral obligation to lead – as the capital of the most greenhouse-gas-emitting state in the most greenhouse-gas-emitting country on the planet. Many of the other 900-plus cities that signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement look to Austin's plan as a model. So it's incumbent upon Austin to frankly share not only our successes but also the on-the-ground challenges and frustrations of a task facing every U.S. city and electric utility under forthcoming federal greenhouse-gas emission regulation.
Both Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken – the leading mayoral candidates – recently expressed solid commitment to continuing and strengthening Austin's Climate Protection Program. (The Carole for Austin campaign did not return calls and e-mails asking for Strayhorn's position.) "It wasn't coincidental that I asked Brewster and Lee to co-sponsor the plan in 2007," said Wynn recently. "I was already looking at the chance that one would be my successor." McCracken is most focused on clean energy and the Pecan Street Project, which aims to create an "energy Internet." Leffingwell said, "I'm a true believer that global warming is the issue of our time; it's my highest priority." For the next mayor and council, the real test will be sustained attention to fast, significant results on lowering regional emissions. For starters, that requires formally marrying the climate-protection policy to land use and transportation policy.
But implementation oversight truly falls to City Manager Marc Ott. "I think it makes a lot of sense, across the organization, to do a better job of coordinating all our activities, on the climate policy we have," said Ott. He remains hopeful that a new sustainability director (charged with that job and with realizing greater energy cost savings) can be proposed and funded for the 2010 city budget.
It's no fault of Austin's that we're the pioneers on the ragged front edge of climate action. It's no surprise that progress on our plan initiatives has been difficult and imperfect, as it will continue to be. But facing a global emergency that will adversely alter life not just for polar bears but for each of us in Central Texas, we can't simply accept the creeping pace of bureaucracy as usual.
"Scientists have lost patience with carefully constructed messages being lost in the political noise. We are now prepared to stand up and say enough is enough." – Professor Kevin Anderson, director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester, quoted in The Daily Telegraph, March 13
For more information, see the Environmental Defense Fund's "Texas at a Crossroads: The Case for Addressing Global Warming in Texas" at www.edf.org.
Hear the Climateer
You can catch ACPP Manager Jake Stewart delivering an overview of the city’s climate-protection progress at these public board and commission meetings.
Electric Utility Commission
Monday, April 20, 6pm
Town Lake Center, Assembly Room,
721 Barton Springs Rd.
Resource Management Commission
Tuesday, April 21, 6:30pm
City Hall, Boards and Commissions Room,
301 W. Second
Solid Waste Advisory Commission
Wednesday, May 13, 6:30pm
One Texas Center, Room 325, 505 Barton Springs Rd.