Not So Cool

Austin's 2009 Climate Protection update confirms progress on energy – but otherwise reflects a feeble citywide effort

Not So Cool
Illustration by Leah Sharpe

Asked what they think of the Austin Climate Protection Program, most Austinites respond with a befuddled look. A few dimly remember one or two facts – something to do with Mayor Will Wynn or energy-efficient home retrofits or Austin Energy. The ozonelike fogginess surrounding a supposed communitywide initiative is in itself a telling sign of outreach failure. Even so, Austinites remain curious and interested. What's happening with that, people want to know – how's it going?

The recent release of ACPP's 2009 annual report finally makes it possible – if not easy – to determine "how it's going" and to judge whether the program is following through "to make Austin the leading city in the nation" in the fight against global warming, as directed by City Council in February 2007. The report offers a picture of what the ACPP office, based at Austin Energy, has done well and not so well. On May 20, the report was submitted to the mayor, City Council members, and the city manager (although by June 5, no council member could say they'd yet read it). It's online at ACPP Director Ester Matthews – who's responsible for the program – will publicly present it today (Thursday) at council's June 18 session.

The Chronicle obtained an advance copy in order to review the report itself, the comprehensiveness of the plan, the program office's accomplishments, and the future action plan. Accountability is critical: The city (primarily via Austin Energy) is investing millions in the program. Moreover, scientific evidence now shows global warming to be progressing at an accelerating pace; Austin's leadership is thus critical for Texas and the U.S., heading into a global climate summit in Copenhagen this Decem­ber. The program's charge to keep Aus­tin at the forefront also could pay city-budget dividends, as Congress debates a climate bill that's expected to impose municipal costs on carbon emissions and may also reward early-action cities.

Counting Carbon

On first reading, the annual report tells a positive story, with 40 pages documenting program accomplishments large and small. In the past year, staff working under Matthews have completed two inventories of current greenhouse-gas emissions – one for the municipality, one for all use within Travis County (see "Measuring the Footprint"). Getting those inventories done and being the first city to voluntarily submit its inventory to the Climate Registry (a nonprofit standardizing North American reporting protocols) reflects a large body of hard, serious work and amassed in-house expertise. That accomplishment is a major milestone; baseline inventories provide essential groundwork for reducing emissions. Tracking local CO2, methane, and other greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as annual success in curtailing them, is the core work of a governmental climate-protection office.

According to the report, nearly all of Austin's big reduction success stories to date are on the Austin Energy side – cleaner energy generation, more energy conservation, more energy-efficient buildings. It documents a body of significant and impressive work by the city-owned electric utility on all the pertinent fronts. Many goals have been met or even exceeded. The Travis County inventory cited in the report (although cursorily, as it wasn't fully complete) shows that 51% of the nearly 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gas we're responsible for come from the energy side – electricity and natural gas. (A tonne, or 1,000 kilograms, is just more than 1.1 tons, or nearly 2,205 pounds.) Since power plants and the demands they feed are such a massive piece of the greenhouse-gas problem, Austin Energy's initiatives are a core element of our local solution.

What hard results have actually been achieved? "Through March 2009, the ACPP has avoided approximately 188,453 tonnes" of greenhouse-gas emissions, which "is equivalent to the emissions from the electricity used by 26,100 U.S. homes each year," the report states (see "Measuring the Footprint"). The great majority, some 94%, comes from Austin Energy programs. The other significant emissions shown as avoided through 2008 are from two city departments: Fleet Services (the city department managing vehicles, which has really gotten with the program) and Solid Waste Services, through single-stream recycling.

Missing from that chart is Austin Water Utility data. In fact, AWU has achieved sizeable and quantified greenhouse-gas reductions – yet it was left out of the calculation. (At the Chronicle's request, AWU's Daryl Slusher, assistant director of environmental affairs and conservation, provided the missing information, as well as encouraging examples of initiatives; see "Austin Water Utility Progress".) A competent citywide program would address in depth not only energy but the other greenhouse-gas big three: Austin Water Utility (which uses prodigious quantities of energy), the Transpor-tation Department, and Solid Waste Services. Due to their communitywide impact, these departments' efforts could make or break Austin's climate footprint. It's inexplicable that they're left out of the report and aren't integrated into a comprehensive citywide plan.

The report doesn't even mention that the city formed a Transportation Department in the past year – never mind providing recommendations or quantitative goals for how its rail transit project and new Strategic Mobility Program can or should lower carbon emissions. Nor does it provide emission-reduction goals or data for the Zero Waste, single-stream recycling, and other sustainability initiatives (or lack thereof) at Solid Waste Services. City Manager Marc Ott recently gave strong direction to the Water Utility to get more aggressive on water conservation, which could further lower AWU's carbon footprint. On May 29 he reassigned the longtime director of Solid Waste Services, Willie Rhodes, partly in order to conduct a national search for a leader who can move aggressively on sustainability goals. Yet the annual report is silent on direction or goals for those critical city departments.

Where's the Plan?

The ACPP emanates good intentions, but the relative weakness of its 2009 annual report and the plan it contains is exposed when it's reviewed against the plans of other leading cities and even the original council resolution. Elected officials – led by Mayor Will Wynn – provided specific direction to the city manager for how the program was to be developed and implemented. (The establishing resolution and follow-up council resolutions are included in the report as appendices.) While some of council's policy directives have been followed, others simply have not.

When announced in February 2007, the "plan" was merely a list of goals under five headings (Municipal Plan, Utility Plan, Homes and Buildings Plan, Community Plan, Go Neutral Plan) supported by some specific objectives. It fit on one double-sided sheet of paper. (Wynn says he launched it publicly at such an early stage to get the program into the 2007-08 city budget cycle.) Two years later, the outline from council's resolution is barely fleshed out. It now fits on two double-sided sheets, and it's still just a list of goals and objectives. Compared to the detailed cross-sector plans of peer cities, Austin's plan looks embarrassingly thin.

Observed Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund, who is familiar with other cities' plans and national climate legislation: "The ACPP report is correct that the city has made more progress in the area of energy and electricity, but the city is falling well short of its goals in transportation and land-use planning to reduce transportation-related emissions. The Austin plan is among the strongest in the country, but other cities such as L.A. and New York City are being much more aggressive and innovative in implementing effective strategies to reduce emissions from the transportation sector."

After two years, Austin Energy's failure to launch on directives and goals that lie outside the energy sector should greatly concern council members and the city manager. No one doubts the commitment of ACPP staff; the relatively young, well-qualified "climateers," directed by Matthews, are true believers, passionate about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Everyone agrees that the elevation of Jake Stewart as program manager has improved results over the past six months. (See "Two Years Gone – How Many Left to Save the Planet?" April 17.)

Yet based on what the report both cites and is silent on – as well as many interviews and peer-city comparisons – the fatal flaws lie in how Austin has structured and directed its program. There appears to be a basic structural flaw in having a citywide program run out of a utility, without strong, direct city management direction and oversight. The proof is in the weak pudding of the annual report: The ACPP has failed to produce a strategic, communitywide action plan for exactly how Austin and its regional partners can most effectively and rapidly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from all sources.

Who's Afraid of the Community?

To lead the nation on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, council resolved to tackle "all sources community-wide, working with stakeholders and technical advisors, establishing short-term and long-term targets for reducing these emissions, and reporting back to the City Council in no more than one year with a comprehensive plan for meeting those targets." The establishing resolution goes on to say, "Key areas for study and policy development include but are not limited to: a) transportation; b) land use planning; c) emerging technologies; d) waste management; e) natural areas" [emphasis added].

Yet more than two years later, the mandated high-level community group has yet to be named. None of council's "key areas" have sections in the annual report. Austin hasn't set communitywide emission-reduction targets, short term or long term. While the nascent Pecan Street Project to create an "energy Internet" is a great example of exploring emerging technology, that project and its potential carbon-footprint impact are never discussed. Nor is AE's extensive public-participation process in the past year, inviting citizens to help shape the fuel mix of the future. (Play the Change Your Generation game at to tell AE what you consider the optimal mix of renewable and nonrenewable sources.) Reflecting its priorities, AE found money for a consultant to produce a far snazzier website and other communication tools for that single effort than for the overall climate program.

While the annual report does cite a few good ACPP office accomplishments under regional/communitywide collaboration, they're several orders of magnitude less than what's needed or was envisioned by council. There's no mention of Austin seeking out the best and brightest to help craft the plan. By comparison, Chicago's report lists more than 100 contributing community leaders, foundations, corporations, nonprofits, scientists, academics, global experts, and others. Like Seattle and other cities, Chicago has a green-ribbon committee of powerful business and community leaders convened by the mayor. Essential for public buy-in, the committee is charged with reviewing performance against goals, recommending needed improvements, releasing an annual report, and convening an annual summit "to showcase progress to date, energize the community and highlight the continuing importance of effective action." That's the kind of heavy-hitter cheerleading squad Austin's plan needs to succeed. Yet as described in the annual report, plans for such a group in Austin still sound vague and unpromising; the group's fuzzy charge is described only as "community dialogue."

Incoming Mayor Lee Leffingwell has declared consistently (including at a Real Estate Council of Austin candidate forum) that he believes global warming is the most important issue of our time. He could help get Austin's climate-action program on the right track now by convening and charging a mayor's green-ribbon committee to drive high-level community support, in the right sectors. Considering the mea culpas in the annual report ("ACPP staff recognizes the need for increased focus and coordinated strategy in external engagement and communication"), the job should not be left solely to the ACPP director.

The Political Price

Austin is already paying for its failure to build an effective political machine to deliver grassroots and key-player support for local climate-action efforts. The city's Energy Con­ser­vation Audit and Disclosure Ordinance was successfully fought last year by a slick Texas Board of Realtors misinformation campaign, resulting in watered-down requirements – which translate to more tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions. And even after publicly endorsing the final ordinance, adopted after a long process in which it participated, the Texas Board of Realtors shamelessly (but unsuccessfully) lobbied the Legis­lat­ure to outlaw the misdemeanor fines the ordinance contains. (For an education on orchestration of the "climate skeptic" campaign, Stewart suggests watching "The Denial Machine," produced by the Canadian Broad­cast­ing Corporation:

Most recently, on June 2 the city's Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Enterprise and Small Business Enterprise Procurement Program Advis­ory Committee refused to support a resolution to develop a green purchasing policy, scheduled to go to council on June 11. Why? Certain members and groups, including the Austin Black Contractors Association, feared it might mean minority-owned businesses would get fewer contracts if they're behind the curve on providing goods and services that minimize waste and environmental damage. "Someone has come up with a policy that we know nothing about," said committee Chair Adrian Lopez Neely, as quoted in In Fact Daily. "Right now, we're at a disadvantage as far as small and minority businesses are concerned. We need to know how it works, how it affects us." That's fair enough – but also the kind of resistance a strategic program should have anticipated and headed off. Small and women-owned/minority-owned businesses will need proactive education to compete fairly under a new purchasing requirement. It will be interesting to watch whether council sticks to its environmental guns on green purchasing or wobbles under pressure from minority contractors.

Advocates Need Guts

Matthews admits she hasn't felt comfortable tackling the big, communitywide program needed to drive significant reductions. Instead, she's directed the office to focus on tiny pilot projects (15 bikes for city employees, Trail of Lights, Capital Metro passes for staff) and modest collaborative efforts. There's no rationale provided for why particular projects were chosen or their carbon-reduction impacts. On the plus side, the office has begun a program of both city-employee and community-group education and outreach.

ACPP staff say Matthews has warned them away from direct contact with council office staff (which requires specific protocol under Austin's council-manager form of government) or talking about "elephant in the living room" issues such as transportation and land use. But disconnection from council policy has marginalized the office's scope and impact. Consider just one comparison: The Chicago plan's home page ( features a "Taking Action" box: "Ride Chicago's transit. ... If we boost ridership by up to 30%, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation could drop by .83 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses." A parallel call to action on the home page: "Getting Married? Create a wedding Web site where you can manage maps, registry information, RSVPs, and guestbooks – all while saving on postage and paper." That's advocacy of a scope appropriate to a sorority house, not the "leading city in the country." Under "Community Involvement" in the report, where other cities describe dynamic partnerships and green-ribbon panels, ACPP offers a photo of one lonely staffer in a science-fair-quality booth at a Whole Foods Earth Day event.

A distinctly tentative voice colors the entire report. One gets the sense staff have been warned not to rock any boats or state much publicly or that good ideas simply lack detailed plans for execution. The faltering tone is most troubling in the scant "Looking Forward" section. Given the office's failures to deliver concrete results, the director needed to instill confidence in a turnaround by presenting a compelling and cohesive action plan for the year ahead. Instead the section lamely offers "a sample of some of the ACPP's priorities," described noncommittally: "The ACPP envisions the creation of a blog" and the "award program, if developed" and the "types of projects that may be developed include tree planting projects." Rather obliquely, it states that "the structure of internal operations has become a recent priority."

Doing All We Can

How to right the ship?

The annual report provides the new mayor and council with an ideal opportunity to weigh in on how the policy is being implemented. Council members could request a comprehensive report on how Austin's plan compares with that of other cities – or just look online at the plans of cities such as Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Miami, and San Francisco. They could ask the city auditor to conduct a peer-city review, as occurred with comprehensive plans. To provide up-to-the-minute direction, council offices may need an update on the fast-changing international and economic landscape, the latest scientific evidence on global warming's pace and local impacts, and federal regulation shaping up in Congress.

"It's not unusual to do a lot of work to create an initiative, then it languishes, and implementation isn't what it should be," observed Leffingwell, comparing the ACPP to his frustrations on water conservation. "On these long-term projects, we need tracking dates and more periodic briefings. As a council, we generally fall short in following up on long-term initiatives; it's up to council to tell the city manager how we expect to be brought up to speed."

Council is being asked to reconfirm its commitment to the ACPP in a resolution coming forward from the Environmental Board next month that adds "Adaptation" to the program's charge. Chicago's municipal plan motivates citizens by providing a compelling account of how their own lives may suffer due to climate change and the local adaptations that will be necessary. Austin's drafted resolution seeks "to ensure the city is doing all it can to proactively prepare for ensuing climate impacts." An action plan is called for to address emergency response and preparedness for more frequent and severe weather events; climate refugee impact (more hurricane evacuees in Austin, more often); health services and disease control; food security; distributed energy generation preparedness; utility, water resource, and departmental preparedness; and overall citizen preparedness and education.

If council really wants to lead the nation, it could attempt to best Boulder, Colo. There, citizens voted to levy a carbon tax on themselves to "lead on the nation on carbon reduction." (Sound familiar?) On June 4, the Boulder City Council unanimously approved maximizing the municipal carbon tax, which is built in to utility bills. Boulder has committed to a near-Kyoto Protocol standard, requiring it to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 400,000 tonnes by 2012; estimates show the city is nearly on track. The city plans to use part of the additional tax money to pilot a program being called "two techs and a truck," in which technicians go door-to-door providing energy-efficiency consultations. (In her council campaign, Perla Cavazos had advocated something similar in Austin.) The two guys and a truck program is designed to "blanket the community, neighborhood by neighborhood ... to create a community buzz," according to city staffer Kara Mertz, as quoted by the Boulder Daily Camera.

Meanwhile, fresh leadership and management direction for the ACPP is promised by Karl Rábago, Austin Energy's new vice president for distributed energy services (i.e., green initiatives). Sophisticated on climate-protection and renewable-energy issues, Rábago joined AE in late March and is spoken of as the heir apparent to General Manager Roger Duncan, who may retire as soon as next spring. As a fresh set of eyes on Austin, Rábago was frank in a recent conversation about the weaknesses in the program exposed by the 2009 annual report. "I'm keenly aware of the need to do something," he said. "But I think we can engage to meet all of council's goals."

In discussing council's unmet request for a voluntary carbon cap and offset plan, he pointed out that there's no clear road map, given "an increasingly uncertain federal regulatory environment," with a climate bill moving toward the U.S. House floor that would dictate a carbon cap-and-trade or other system cities must follow (see "Doggett: The D.C. Perspective"). "Maintaining positive momentum is our pretty significant challenge right now," he observed.

Rábago emphasized that while Austin Energy may have had a certain "myopia," its initial focus on renewable energy was correct. "I don't think we're off in the wrong direction. But I can't argue that we shouldn't be higher and wider in the implementation of the plan." While he praised many aspects of AE and ACPP work, he said his own reading of the report revealed the need to add structure and measurability: "It looks like all these ideas were just kind of thrown against the wall, to see what sticks."

City Manager Marc Ott has his own solution in mind. After reviewing the plan, individual department efforts, and the 2009 annual report, he has concluded that the city needs an environmental sustainability officer – who reports directly to him. "We need someone at the executive level coordinating it all," said Ott. "While we're doing a lot of good stuff, it's not being coordinated across the organization, and policies have a tendency to collide. We need someone thinking strategically about all that we're doing." He envisions a sustainability officer charged with citywide authority for policy implementation. The new executive-team position would coordinate cross-departmental initiatives, seeking efficiencies that result in cost savings. In addition to the climate-protection policy, the director could provide oversight and coordination to achieve better outcomes for energy efficiency, air quality, water conservation, zero waste, sustainable facilities, green purchasing, and land management.

Sustainability leadership is such a priority for Ott that he's "very hopeful" he can fund the position starting this October (probably through the revenue-generating enterprise departments, not the strapped General Fund). Leffingwell said he "definitely" supports creating the position.Early research indicates an effective sustainability executive could save the city millions in energy and other costs annually, over time.

"I think it's essential; I think we've got to do it," said Ott."To produce and review this annual report and then not focus and apply the appropriate resources to improve – there's not much point in that."

Fuel Conservation Policy

Not So Cool
Photo by John Anderson

In May, city vehicles used 404,284 gallons of gas. Public safety departments are among the biggest gas guzzlers: Police consumed 99,184 gallons; Fire, 20,557 gallons; and EMS, 20,188 gallons. Solid Waste Services sucked up 73,485 gallons; aviation, 29,624 gallons. Neighborhood Planning and Zoning scored the lowest consumption – just 11 gallons. The city is now purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles, but in the meantime, Police, Fire, and Solid Waste departments are relying on cleaner fuels and raised consciousness, in the form of fewer vehicle trips and improved driving habits. The city launched its fuel conservation policy in March and seeks voluntary compliance before eventually switching to mandatory enforcement.

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More Austin Climate Protection Plan
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Austin Climate Protection Plan Year One Highlights
A progress report on Austin's war on global warming

April 18, 2008

The Local Politics of Climate Protection
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Austin Climate Protection Plan, global warming, Austin Energy, Austin Water Utility, Ester Matthews

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