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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lee Anne Willson

A Climate Action Plan for Ames

The City of Ames is in the process of developing a climate action plan. The issue of climate change is, like the pandemic, something where understanding the numbers can help one deal with an unfamiliar kind of risk. Over the next few weeks I’m planning to share some of the background science, and describe some of the initiatives that are going on in Ames, Story County, and Iowa, in much the same way I’ve been sharing pandemic data – here are the numbers, here is what they are telling us.

It is easy to look for “the solution” to a problem, but in many cases, what is needed isn’t a solution, but a number of partial solutions that add up. For the pandemic, strategies included closing some businesses and halting some activities, wearing masks and distancing, and eventually vaccination. For climate change, there are dozens of partial solutions, and some of them are particularly suited to Iowa.

To understand how each solution can contribute, it helps to have some understanding of what is causing the problem. In future posts I will be explaining some background science, describing the math and physics that determines the temperature at the surface of Earth. Then we can look at the numbers for some of the solutions, and see how much each might contribute. Many of the proposed solutions fail if we ask “could this (by itself) solve the problem?” But many are also quite feasible as 1% solutions – and one hundred 1% solutions can do the job.

As one simple example: Suppose that we want to plant enough trees in the US so that each year those trees soak up the amount of carbon that the US is adding to the atmosphere in a year. How many acres of trees would we need to plant in a year? One acre of young forest absorbs about 2.5 tons of CO2 per year. The US emits the equivalent (that is, taking into account other greenhouse gases) of 5.8 million tons per year of CO2, so we would need to plant about 23 million acres of new forest per year to compensate. That’s an area roughly 2/3 the size of Iowa, and the manpower needed to do the planting would also be huge. In some areas, the trees would also be vulnerable to forest fires, undoing all the good of planting them. So that’s not a practical solution. On the other hand, if we keep this as one of the 1% solutions, then we need 230,000 acres per year for the US, and the US has 2.43 billion acres, so we would need to reforest just about 0.01% of the land in the US per year – that is more likely to work. To do that, some locations would add a lot of trees, and some locations would not add any – if they are too dry, for example, or already fully forested. In Iowa, and in Ames, there is room for quite a few more trees – I’ll write about that another time. And when trees come down in storms, such as last summer’s derecho, there is technology being developed that can convert the wood into biochar; adding biochar to the soil along with compost or manure is a great way to restore the soil and sequester carbon for thousands of years – another topic I plan to cover.

Over the next few months the City of Ames will be working with a consultant company, Sustainable Solutions Group (SSG), to look at what can be done to bring Ames close to zero net CO2e, and what is the earliest date when that goal might be reached. Ames is fortunate that Iowa already has more than half its electric power from wind and solar, and we have a number of businesses and organizations working at reducing their carbon footprints. We have CyRide, and we have city initiatives for solar power, recycling, and composting.

The consulting company is working with a Supplemental Input Committee of citizens, and is reaching out to the public to participate in this process. The city website ( has more information about the process and ways that citizens can participate.


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