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Opinion: Columbus Climate Action Plan Not in Line With Climate Science

Cathy Cowan Becker Cathy Cowan Becker Opinion: Columbus Climate Action Plan Not in Line With Climate SciencePhoto by Susan Post.
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Last December, the city of Columbus released the first draft of its long-awaited Climate Action Plan. The plan discusses not just how to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, but also how to keep the climate crisis from getting worse by lowering our carbon emissions. 

That’s critical because cities are responsible for 70% of the carbon emissions at the root of the climate crisis, Columbus is the 14th largest city in the country, and Ohio is the sixth-highest carbon-emitting state. What we do matters. 

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the world’s climate scientists – released a landmark report stating that in order to preserve a livable planet, we must cut carbon emissions 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050. Upon release of this report, Mayor Andrew Ginther sent a communication uplifting its importance and putting Columbus on board. 

Unfortunately, the draft Columbus Climate Action Plan doesn’t meet the goal of cutting carbon emissions from the city in half by 2030. Its goal is to cut emissions by 25% – which isn’t terrible, but it’s not in line with what climate science says we need.

Carbon Emissions in Columbus

The draft Climate Action Plan, available at columbus.gov/sustainable/cap, has 30 strategies and goals, each under 13 action items divided between five sections: Climate Solutions, Neighborhoods, Buildings, Transportation and Waste. 

According to the draft Climate Action Plan, the city of Columbus emitted about 11.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018. That’s the baseline for reducing emissions moving forward.

Of that 11.5 million metric tons, emissions from buildings – residential, commercial, and industrial – accounted for about 57%, while emissions from transportation – mostly passenger cars but also heavy-duty vehicles and aviation – accounted for about 38%. 

Since 2013, building emissions have gone down, due mainly to energy efficiency upgrades to commercial buildings. But transportation emissions have gone up, due mainly to more people moving to Columbus and driving gas cars – wiping out the energy efficiency gains.

P.19 of the Sustainable Columbus Climate Action Plan

Low Overall Goal Due to Low Subgoals

If you start looking at the goals and strategies of the draft Climate Action Plan, you can see why the overall goal for reducing emissions is so low. Many of the plan’s sub goals are also low. They may be good goals for a city to have, but the targets are not strong enough. 

One piece of good news is the city’s Community Choice Aggregation program, which is on schedule to be in place well before 2030. That will save about 1.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year, or about 12% of the overall amount. 

How can we get the other 33%  in emissions reductions to get to the goal of 45% by 2030, which the IPCC science says we need to reach to have hope for a livable planet?

We start with the basics: buildings, which account for most of our current emissions, and transportation, which if we don’t get under control, will wipe out the advances we make everywhere else. 

Buildings

The carbon footprint of buildings can be reduced in two ways: energy efficiency upgrades that allow a building to use less energy, and renewable energy, which converts the energy being used to zero emission. Between the two initiatives, buildings can eventually become net zero carbon.

The draft Columbus Climate Action Plan has goals in all these areas, but as throughout the plan, the goals are not ambitious enough to get us to the emissions reductions science says we need. 

For example:

Energy efficiency. The draft plan calls for a 10% reduction in energy use in residential and commercial buildings and 20% reduction in city buildings by 2030. We can do better. The city has done 30,000 home energy audits – now homeowners need help to make efficiency upgrades. Owners of large commercial buildings are required to track their energy use – now they should be incentivized to cut energy use. If we doubled the goals of the draft climate plan, we could save up to 1.5 million metric tons of carbon per year, or 13% of the total. 

Zero-carbon buildings. The draft plan calls for four city buildings to be zero carbon by 2030, with zero-carbon design standards by 2050. But zero-carbon design standards could be in place by 2030, saving almost 400,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, or 3.4%. 

Residential solar. The draft plan calls for 10 MW of solar to be installed in Columbus homes by 2030. But Los Angeles installed 250 MW in five years. If we raise our goal for residential solar to 200 MW by 2030, that would put solar on about 40,000 more homes in Columbus, saving about 220,000 tons of carbon emissions, or about 2% of the 2018 baseline.

A home in North Linden with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Photo courtesy of Ecohouse Solar. Read more here.

Transportation

Transportation emissions aren’t as high as building emissions, but in a car-dependent city like Columbus, they are growing every year. We must get transportation emissions under control by moving people to public transportation, making heavy-duty vehicles such as city buses electric, and moving people out of gas cars into electric vehicles. 

The city’s draft Climate Action Plan has goals in all these areas, but the goals are not strong enough. For example:

Electric vehicles. The draft plan calls for 10% of vehicle sales to be for EVs, and 1% of parking spots to have EV chargers by 2030. But projections by Bloomberg and others show about 26% of vehicle sales in 2030 will be electric. If we could push Columbus to 40% of vehicle sales electric with 25% of parking spots with chargers, we could save over 925,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, or about 8% of the 2018 baseline.

Heavy-duty electric vehicles. The draft plan calls for piloting 30 medium- and heavy-duty vehicles in Columbus by 2030. We can do better. Half the world’s buses will be electric by 2025, and electric buses saved Chicago $54,000 each in fuel and maintenance costs. If we made half our heavy-duty vehicles, including city buses, electric by 2030, we could reduce emissions over 533,000 tons per year, or about 3.5%. 

Electric busses in Chicago – Photo via transitchicago.com

Vehicle miles traveled. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita is a measure of how many people are driving, usually in solo commutes to work. This can be reduced by moving people to public transportation. The draft climate action plan called for reducing VMT 15%. Even a modest 20% reduction could reduce emissions by 229,000 tons, or about 2%.

Equity

Together, these proposed increased goals in buildings and transportation would get Columbus to most of the emissions reductions we need by 2030 – and the draft Climate Action Plan includes other areas for emissions savings such as increased recycling, reduced food waste, transit-oriented development, zero-carbon fleets, microgrids, and the new Urban Forestry Master Plan. 

But a city’s climate plan cannot be defined by emissions reductions alone. It also has to address equity – the fact that those who have done the least to cause the climate crisis are being affected the most by climate impacts such as flooding, heat, pollution, and infectious disease. 

To its credit, the Climate Action Plan does tackle equity – but again, it doesn’t go far enough. Much of what the plan calls for are assessments, inventories, and mapping of current inequities. 

For example, the plan seeks to:

  • Complete a physical vulnerability assessment
  • Map existing resiliency hubs and identify critical gaps
  • Identify critical gaps in access to green space

All of this must be done, but the draft climate plan gives the city until 2030 just to do the assessments – actually correcting the problems wouldn’t happen until 2050. 

That’s too little too late. There is no reason we can’t do the assessments and mapping in the next one or two years, then fix the problems and close the gaps by 2030. 

What’s Not in the Climate Plan

The draft Climate Action Plan is also missing several key programs that could reduce emissions and increase equity. Examples include:

Green space and community gardens. Urban areas are hotter than rural areas due to too many buildings and too much pavement – yet space in Columbus is at a premium for development. We can’t let development cut down our trees and plow under our green space. Cleveland has a special zoning designation for community gardens, and Columbus should do the same. We can also turn rooftops in Columbus that are not eligible for solar panels into green roofs. 

The roof of Chicago City Hall – Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Community solar. Shared solar energy arrays are difficult to do in AEP territory, but could be spearheaded by our municipal utility, the Columbus Division of Power. This utility already serves 12,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers. They could set up community solar projects, especially to address energy equity in our opportunity neighborhoods.

Creating a Climate Action Plan is no easy task, and we support the city’s efforts to grapple with our carbon emissions. It will take solutions in many different areas to lower these emissions. 

But we must think big and bold to get this done. Now is not the time for setting small goals because we think they are safe. Goals not in line with the science are not safe. 

It is not fair that so much is on the city’s shoulders at this time. We would not be in such dire straits if the fossil fuel industry had not waged a multibillion-dollar campaign of climate denial to derail climate action over the last 40 years. We could have started all of this much sooner. 

Instead, we kept kicking the can down the road, and now we are out of road to kick it any further. We must take bold swift action now. Fortunately, we still have a small window of time, but the fate of human civilization and all life on earth depends on us getting this right. 

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