Austin’s Steady Strides Toward Climate Sustainability

How are we doing and how effective can local policies be at mitigating a worldwide crisis?


Students lead the Sept. 20 Climate Strike protest at the Texas Capitol.

"You had a future," chanted the young people taking part in the Sept. 20 Climate Strike at the Capitol. "So should we!"

The urgency of the outcry is undeniable. The worldwide scientific consensus confirms that contemporary civilization – indeed, life on Earth – is seriously endangered by global warming and the accelerated climate change that comes with it. The political consensus – in Texas, the U.S., and elsewhere – is in a different place; those who assembled at the Capitol last month (of all ages, but set in motion primarily by Austin-area students) were joining a worldwide movement to alter that political consensus, against considerable odds.

Given the tenor, the substance, and the venue, the primary target of the strike was Texas state government, which persists in its centurylong fealty to the fossil-fuels industry and which shares the Trump administration's determination to reject any consideration of a climate crisis. Yet the most specific demands of the organizers were directed locally, at what Austin can do – more aggressively than it already has done – in defense of the planet.

These demands of the young climate strikers included: 1) that Austin divest of its fossil fuel investments by 2030; 2) that the coal-burning Fayette Power Project be finally closed by Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado River Authority; 3) that the state declare "a climate emergency plan with real teeth"; 4) that Austin Energy end all coal and natural gas use by 2025 (and provide "just transitions" for workers to renewable energy jobs); and 5) that Texas move to 100% renewables by 2050.

Three of the five demands are for specific actions by the city of Austin – the level of government friendliest to the spirit and substance of the strike. At least one City Council member, Alison Alter, attended the event, and recent Councils have repeatedly endorsed climate-friendly policies. By the standards set by the strike, is Austin doing enough? And as the city moves forward, how effective can any municipal policies be at mitigating a worldwide environmental crisis?

The Measures of Our Progress

Five years ago, in 2014 – as recalled by a staff memo to Council in August of this year – Austin adopted "the goal to achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and directed staff to work with stakeholders to create an action plan to reach this target. Between the summer of 2014 and the spring of 2015, over 60 community stakeholders and staff collaborated to create the first Austin Community Climate Plan." At that time, Central Texas was caught in a years-long drought that seemed to presage the potential consequences of unmitigated climate change. Similarly disastrous floods would come later.

"We have to be prepared for extremes on both ends," said Lucia Athens, the city's chief sustainability officer. "You have to be prepared for scarcity, and then you have to be prepared for an overabundance happening at an inopportune time. ... Our overall rainfall is not projected to change that much with the climate projections that we've done, but it's the distribution of the rainfall." Athens cited the research provided by the city's consultant, Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, indicating, "We need to be prepared for more extreme weather events with downpours and flooding."

That first year's work produced the Austin Community Climate Plan, which endorsed a list of "130 actions to be taken by City departments and the community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in four areas: Electricity and Natural Gas, Materials and Waste Management, Transportation and Land Use, and Industrial Process Emissions." Its goal of "net-zero" emissions by 2050 would be attained if the community's total carbon emissions were reduced to nothing (extremely unlikely) or to a sufficiently low level to allow carbon removal (i.e., tree-planting or literal capture and storage) to "net-out" (balance to zero). This ambition is not unique to Austin – internationally, net-zero emissions is the default goal, if we are to stop the inexorable rise of global temperatures and the ensuing disastrous consequences.

In the years since, according to city staff measurements, Austin has made substantial progress on most of those 130 actions listed in the 2015 plan. The August memorandum from the Office of Sustainability to Council reports a decline in total greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2017 (the most recent available data) – from a baseline of 14.5 million metric tons to a 2017 level of 12.5 million metric tons "despite population growth." In theory, that 13.8% decline should put us on pace to meet the current target of a 22% reduction by 2020. (The measurements, compiled from a variety of sources, lag behind the processes – the city can't confirm the totals until a year or two later.)

Nevertheless, even at 78% of 2014 emissions, the 2020 goal of 11.3 metric tons remains a long way from net-zero – and each subsequent reduction in emissions becomes more difficult to achieve than the one before. In this first stage, says the city's climate program manager, Zach Baumer, "We are able to act on those things that are within the city's control – direct energy generation, resource recovery, public works, and so on. As we go forward, we have to make progress in areas that are not directly under our control – community transportation, land use, and the individual actions of the public."

The city's largest generator of emissions – Austin Energy – has been the place to begin, where most of the initial reductions have been made. In its memo to Coun­cil, the Office of Sustainability reports that additional progress toward the 2020 goal "will largely result from Austin Energy's demand­-side management programs and increased renewable energy generation contributing to a lower carbon footprint associated with serving Austin Energy load." Beyond next year, things get tougher: "Strat­egies to reduce emissions from transportation sources and associated land use decisions will be increasingly important to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050."

Celebrating the Victories

Mayor Steve Adler recently returned from Copenhagen and the latest World Mayors Summit of the C40 Cities – the international "network of the world's mega­cities committed to addressing climate change." Both Athens and Adler were eager to alert the Chronicle to good news the C40 announced last week.

“Austin and some other cities are doing more than almost anybody else. It’s still not enough.” – Steve Adler

"Austin, Athens, Lisbon, and Venice are the latest major cities to have peaked their greenhouse gas emissions," read the press release. "The world's leading scientists have calculated that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. New analysis published ahead of the C40 World Mayors Summit confirms that 30 of the world's largest cities, representing more than 58 million urban citizens, have now reached this crucial milestone."

"Austin and some other cities are doing more than almost anybody else," Adler told the Chronicle, adding immediately, "It's still not enough." Noting the same news, Athens said, "We should be celebrating the victories along the way. If we don't celebrate the victories, we're going to run out of steam."

The 30 cities, across the globe, include both the predictable – Austin, Portland, Vancouver – and the surprising: Chicago, Warsaw, Los Angeles, New York City. The 30-city average reduction is 22%; host city Copenhagen has reduced emissions by 61%, and Adler says they're aiming to reach net-zero emissions locally as early as 2025. He acknowledged that Copenhagen is both smaller (population 600,000) and denser than Austin, but what struck him is the broad political consensus over what needs to be done. "In the Sixties and Seventies, Cop­en­hagen was fairly auto-centric," he said, "but people all over the political spectrum agreed that things needed to change. They tax fossil-fuel cars, and they created alternatives to driving like a protected, safe bicycle network. You'll hear folks in Texas argue that people won't bike in hot weather – but in Copenhagen, people bike in the snow."

Getting to a similar consensus in Austin – not to mention Texas – will be no easy matter. And less encouraging about the list of proactive cities is the absence of the enormous population centers of China and India, where emissions continue to rise. Nevertheless, proclaims the C40, "The fact that 30 of the world's largest and most influential cities have already peaked greenhouse gas emissions demonstrates that a rapid, equitable low-carbon transition is possible, and is already well underway."

Moving Onward to Phase 2

This year the Office of Sustainability has begun an update of the 2015 Com­mun­ity Climate Plan, with a completion date of October 2020. The process involves collaboration with various departmental staff as well as community stakeholders to revise and build upon the 2015 plan's wide range of actions in energy generation, transportation and land use, and materials and waste management. While that work continues, Athens emphasized that during Phase 2 of the plan (2020 to 2030), she hopes to focus on a few high-priority actions that will deliver the highest emission reductions possible in the next decade, "critical to avoiding the worst climate impacts," as the August memo told Council. The mayor has requested a plan that is thoroughly "data-driven"; to Athens, that means working on strategies that have been confirmed as truly "impactful" on emissions, without being distracted, for example, by unproven technologies that are momentarily popular.


Austin's Climate Program Manager Zach Baumer and Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens
“We have to be prepared for extremes on both ends ... for scarcity, and then [for] overabundance happening at an inopportune time.” – Lucia Athens

As Austin Energy continues its shift toward renewable generation, the utility has planned several major actions that should accelerate its emission reductions. These include closing the Decker Creek Power Station (which burns natural gas) and taking offline Austin's portion of the Fayette coal-burner (the equivalent of one of its three generating units) by 2023. The latter is problematic; Fayette co-owner/operator LCRA has no plans to reduce its use of or emissions from the plant, as befits an agency of a state government that has shown little interest, let alone urgency, in addressing the climate crisis. (Indeed, with the accelerated production in Texas of fracked oil and gas, mostly for export, the state's carbon footprint has grown as Austin's has shrunk – even as utilities statewide have steadily increased their use of wind and solar power.)

Those closures will leave operating the smaller Sand Hill Energy Center and Muel­ler Energy Center, both of which burn natural gas; AE's current target is to rely upon 65% renewable sources by 2027. The utility reports that its generation mix as of mid-2019 was 43% renewables. (Because solar and wind energy fluctuate, that mix goes up and down. A nifty tool on the AE website reflects "real-time" percentages – at midday on a windy, sunny Oct. 25, we were relying on 57.4% renewable generation.)

Those next AE steps, says Baumer, should allow the city to meet its intermediate emissions reduction goals, taking Austin roughly down to 10 metric tons of CO2 equivalent by 2025 and 8 metric tons by 2030. But as Baumer acknowledges, going forward it will become steadily more difficult to achieve the Com­mun­ity Climate Plan emissions targets through means that are substantially within the city's control – energy generation, waste management, resource recovery, and the like. "Beyond next year, we'll need to focus more generally on transportation and land use," Baumer said. "Getting people out of cars, [and] greater use of public transportation."

Creating Better Choices

The mayor also emphasizes that moving forward with major investments in public transit – such as will be included in the anticipated November 2020 transportation bond package – will deliver not only greater Central Texas mobility, but eventually greater reduction in emissions. Athens said that transportation remains "a huge, huge part of our footprint, and there are a lot of things that we and Capital Metro, and others, can do to clear a path for lowering carbon emissions in the transportation sector." Ultimately, though, the climate results of such strategies "are dependent on individual behavior and individual decisions. And that's where it gets a lot more challenging." Austinites long accustomed to driving alone (74% of today's commuters) have to decide to climb aboard; the goal of Adler and other regional leaders is to create better mobility choices to make it easier to do so.

Looking forward to next year's planning, the broadest institutional efforts will be to upgrade the mass transit network, expanding high-frequency bus routes, and preparing for future rail transit – if Austin voters can be persuaded to support it. Meanwhile, if the city can succeed in creating more dense and walkable neighborhoods and corridors – both by revising the city's Land Development Code and by incentivizing affordable housing – transit and population growth could be mutually reinforcing.

Those are political decisions for another day. The sustainability planners say that in any case, the city is approaching a plateau for institutional emission reductions, and going forward, we'll increasingly need to rely on community engagement in the effort. "Government can do a lot of things," said Athens, "but at the end of the day, we're going to need everybody in our entire community, and across the planet, to chip in and do their part."

“Many younger people don’t want to own a car, if that’s possible, and don’t want to live in suburbia. ... That’s the kind of transition we can expect, going forward.” – Tom “Smitty” Smith

Among such choices for Austinites to consider over the next several years will be electrified vehicles (increasingly adopted by city departments). Athens says she delights in having one that she charges with energy from her home's solar panels – "I'm driving on sunshine!" – a choice not yet practical or achievable for most residents. But longtime Public Citizen eco-warrior Tom "Smitty" Smith, now executive director of the Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance, says he's optimistic that electric vehicles will be widely available more quickly than people realize.

"The holdup has been battery technology," Smitty said, adding that current projections are that electric cars can become competitive with gasoline power as early as 2022 or 2023. If that happens, combined with a state energy grid that is increasingly "green and getting greener," he believes more Texans (certainly more Austinites) will begin to adopt electric vehicles for both environmental and practical reasons. "When cheaper alternatives and more pleasant alternatives are presented to most Americans, they'll adopt those alternatives. Many younger people don't want to own a car, if that's possible, and don't want to live in suburbia. ... That's the kind of transition we can expect, going forward."

Despite all his years negotiating the Texas political trenches, Smitty remains optimistic about the future of environmental progress. Yet there is an undeniable political shadow hovering over all these hopeful projects: the reflexive intransigence and outright opposition at state and federal levels of government, which saps the motivation of even the most committed climate hawks.

In response, Baumer, Adler, and Athens each point to enthusiasm and progress at the local level – most of this work is local, in any case – and to the international cooperation among cities who have accepted the challenge. Athens said she has been working professionally on environmental matters for decades and has learned to focus on what can be done, rather than on institutional reluctance or the occasionally fierce opposition. "I think we feel solid about where we are, with our position and our programs and initiatives," she said, "and we have our mayor and Council solidly behind us. So you have to stay the course with that. For me, personally, I can't afford to get too flustered by all of that noise. Because it doesn't really help us."

The young people who assembled at the Capitol – and around the world – for the Climate Strike exhibit a similar dedication. One of the organizers, Austin High senior Emma Galbraith, pointed to the protest's organizational outgrowth, the "Austin Climate Coalition" – two dozen organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to Public Citizen, Extinction Rebellion to Students for Sustainability – committed to continuing the work. Galbraith and Matthew Kim, initial organizers of the Austin strike, have since been included among Austin's "Net-Zero Heroes" highlighted by the Office of Sustainability.

Galbraith told the city's Sustainable Austin blog, "There is always hope. ... Done is better than perfect. The climate crisis is already here, so our task is not to completely prevent it, but instead to prevent the worst projected effects, and to create a future that we can all live and thrive in. If you feel hopeless, I recommend finding a local environmental group and attending one of their meetings or group hangouts. Finding a community of people who are as concerned and passionate as I am showed me that I'm not alone, and it gives me hope every day."

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