The Austin Chronicle

Slow Burn

City's climate protection plan smolders in 2010

By Michael King, September 24, 2010, News

"I was hoping this would be the year we would really get going and show success, and the team would be all excited about it, and that didn't work."

Austin Climate Protection Program Director Ester Matthews was briefly summarizing the current state of the Austin Climate Protection Program and trying her best to be optimistic. But if anything, she was understating a very difficult year, during which the program mostly ran in place instead of moving forward, and indeed lost all six of its employees dedicated primarily to climate protection. There were various reasons for the departures, but Matthews says most left for better jobs at higher pay. (The staff of 11 also included Matthews, an administrative assistant, and three air quality employees – all doing double duty in ACPP in recent months.) In recent weeks Matthews has been interviewing job candidates – new hire Marc Coudert came on recently to tackle community outreach, and another person is expected to join the team next month – but it will be a challenge to fill all those positions before the end of the year, when Matthews herself is scheduled to retire. "So it's kind of sad," she continued, "but we're really a start-up. I got my budget in October of 2007, so we're barely 3 years old."

A sense of the situation is reflected by the protracted timing of ACPP's annual report to City Council, now tentatively scheduled for November, though it will reflect the program's progress primarily through 2009 (with quarterly updates through July of this year). Matthews had hoped this would be a breakout year for the program. Instead, she will mostly describe a period of consolidating previous gains, trying to spread the policy and culture of climate protection throughout city departments, and just beginning the communitywide outreach that was planned to be at full speed this year.

"We prepared through 2009, a lot of that was preparation," Matthews told me last week. "And 2010, we thought that would be our big year. We had the big kickoff in January to promote our carbon calculator, and it launched on Jan. 14, and we spent some money trying to attract people's attention to that product throughout the year. We also thought that our training program was going to be – our trainers had learned what they were going to do, and they were going to launch it, and it was going to be a much grander program. We were going to train all the city employees." Beyond that, the Carbon Footprint Calculator (, jump-started by ACPP training, would enable every Austin resident to calculate personal or family contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions, in order to know where to reduce.

A few thousand staff members and residents have indeed had the training, and people are increasingly visiting the calculator – just not in the numbers that Matthews had hoped by this time. (According to the July ACPP update, as of June 30 there were 891 registered users of the comprehensive calculator, much lower than expectations, although the one-minute version, at 543 per month, was doing much better than expected.) However, she does proudly point to institutional progress this year – most notably, getting 23 city departments and five building managers to develop and commit to departmental climate protection plans and to computerize the information necessary to make those plans work. She believes the departmental plans are "destined to be our best success this year," because people were assigned by departmental directors to work with ACPP on establishing specific goals, and then those directors and city managers signed off on the plans for future monitoring. "That information is being loaded into a computer program [Climate Action Reporting System] that all the department directors will be able to see."

As "How Cool Is Austin" reflects in more detail, there were other measurable accomplishments in 2009-10, across the five "plans" that make up the overall program. The most noteworthy:

• Municipal Plan: About 23% of city energy use now comes from renewable sources, primarily through Austin Energy's GreenChoice program.

• Utility Plan: Pending AE generation plan puts city on track to reach 30-35% renewable energy by 2020.

• Homes and Buildings Plan: The city adopted stricter efficiency building codes for new construction.

• Community Plan: Community outreach began; plans for summit in spring 2011 are in progress.

• "Go Neutral" Plan: The city introduced the Carbon Footprint Calculator.

These are not negligible accomplishments, but they haven't pushed Austin very far along on its declared goal of "carbon neutrality" by 2020. Matthews says the departmental plans established this year, if accomplished, would mean a 5% annual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, or 50% by 2020. If she had a "magic wand," she said, she would strengthen all the city's planning targets for greenhouse-gas reduction. "I think we can do better, and it's a matter of setting goals that are more aggressive."

In sum, however, Matthews acknowledges that 2010 has been a disappointing year for the city's ACPP progress, and she hopes it will receive renewed momentum with new staff and a new director, whoever that may be. The recent hiring of Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, under Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, may have some bearing on the program's future, as environmental protection is one aspect of the city's sustainability goals. For now, the ACPP remains based in Austin Energy, and the program's budget has just been approved (as part of the overall city budget adoption) for fiscal year 2011.

Nevertheless, insists Matthews: "I'm still feeling good about this program. I was pleased to see how many departments really stepped up to the plate and tried to create aggressive goals. And there are people individually within departments that are trying to find opportunities for reductions. That's still happening."

But not yet fast enough.

A fuller version of the transcript of the interview with ACPP Director Ester Matthews is posted in the sidebar "Unrealized Opportunities: Ester Matthews on the Austin Climate Protection Program."

Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.