• Dr. Lee Anne Willson

Ames sets climate goal

Unpacking the new emissions reduction target for the city


A goal for Ames At the City Council meeting Tuesday evening, after robust debate, a Climate Action goal was chosen: Zero by 2050, 83% emissions reduction by 2030. What does this mean? In the short run: This tells the consultant, SSG, that Ames wants to do everything it can to reduce emissions. It asks the consultants to look at all the actions, big and small, that can be part of the process. The alternative plan, recommended by the consultants, was to build a plan by identifying actions and adding those up. As they pointed out, this bottom-up approach tends to lead to a with fewer actions and a lower target.

Figure: Top: A plan developed for a specific, ambitious goal. Each colored strip is an action that contributes to the overall success of the plan. Bottom: A plan developed by identifying actions that will be significant, and adding hose to determine a goal. Most actions that can be taken to reduce emissions are much harder, with more undesirable side issues, if they are pushed to cover a larger share of what is needed. Most are relatively painless at the 1% level. A plan that puts together a few larger pieces with a lot of small one both achieves more and does so at less net cost in cash, or comfort, or lifestyle changes. When the report comes back: It is quite possible, even likely, that the consultants will not find enough actions to add up to the -83% by 2030, counting from 2016. The Council will then have a choice to make: Keep the goal and watch for new opportunities to fill the gap; adjust the goal for 2030; or adjust the date to achieve the -83% (for example, to 2032 or 2035). There are a number of new opportunities and trends going on now that it would be sensible to keep the goal even if the plan comes up short, for the same reasons that choosing an ambitious goal is sensible. Whatever is decided, it will be important to make periodic updates, every 3-5 years, as the situation in the U.S. and in Iowa continues to develop. What action is Ames now committed to do? Technically, nothing specific. This is currently an aspirational goal – where we want to be – like deciding “I’d really like to climb Mt. Everest.” The plan will spell out what is needed – just as a plan to climb Everest needs to include covering the cost, getting into shape, acquiring the equipment, learning the right skills, arranging for a guide … At some point along the way, there may be a hard decision (pick a smaller mountain?) or a failure (altitude sickness at base camp). It is likely that the first step towards accomplishing the goal – and this is a step that can be taken without waiting for the report – is to promote or hire someone to be responsible for the CAP process. I say “promote” because the excellent people we have working on this now are not at a level to be part of department head meetings and strategy setting sessions, and this person needs to be at the table when decisions are being made that may have a climate component (obvious or not obvious when the meeting is scheduled). What will need to change? The City does not have the power to make all the decisions that will be needed. These decisions are made by individuals, neighborhoods, churches, non-profits, ISU, the school system, companies operating in Ames … many different entities. This means that implementing a climate action plan involves a lot more collaboration, cooperation, and communication than has been the norm. This is big, and will probably lead to some other good results over time. Similarly, some of the decisions that lead to more emission of carbon are the result of budgeting procedures that push the decisions in certain directions or eliminate some options at the level where the decisions are being made. Here, again, there will need to be some new flexibility with more collaboration, cooperation, and communication. Some of the things that Ames needs to do may currently be difficult due to state laws. For example, there is a state law limiting the options that cities have to regulate plastic packaging. For these, it may be possible for cities with climate action plans to work together to influence the state government to change these laws. What about costs? Some of the things that need to be done to accomplish the climate action plan will have up-front costs. In many cases, these upfront costs will be offset by lower operating costs going forward. One example is implementing solar power – the upfront cost of buying or installing solar panels, or of investing in SunSmart, is offset by lower energy costs. These costs are actually investments, and the challenge isn’t finding the money in the long run but managing the cash flow to start the process. Some of the costs will be covered by outside funding – grants and rebates from the state or federal level. By choosing an ambitious goal and following it up with a robust plan, Ames is putting itself into a good position to apply for funds to carry out the Climate Action Plan. For example, the infrastructure Act contains $18.5B to support EV charging networks, electric bus purchase, and diesel bus retrofit. This could support adding a site or two for charging EVs within the city, adding electric CyRide buses, and/or converting CyRide buses to 100% bio-based diesel. Some projects in other cities have also been funded in part through philanthropy. For example, a project in Dubuque that assists lower-income homeowners with the installation of solar panels has put together a federal tax rebate and a philanthropic source to reduce the upfront cost to the homeowners to about ¼, and then negotiated with banks to provide low-cost loans for the balance. Many homeowners who are eager to participate in solar or to retrofit their homes for greater efficiency and comfort may have cash flow issues. Here, again, the banks can assist with the cash flow through loans and mortgages that are largely paid back from the energy savings. Other homeowners can manage the cash flow; what may help them is programs that provide vetted contractors and sources for their modifications or installations. This vetting could be carried out by the city, or there could be an organization or business that provides reviews and background to help with consumer choice. Some cities have set up bulk purchasing of solar panels and/or of training of individuals to carry out renovations that can simplify permitting. Some changes will lead to net costs for residents, either through an increase in property taxes or through codes that increase the cost of building or operating buildings. There is wiggle-room in the property tax rates – Ames is at $5.55 per $1000 of assessed value while other cities in the area are mostly between $7 and $8. I am guessing this is true because property values are high and therefore a lower rate times a higher value leads to a similar net income for the city, but it does make it possible to have a small increase in taxes. Buildings are responsible for about 30% of the total emissions, and here there are several things to be done: (a) Make new construction all-electric; (b) Move towards low-emission concrete or away from heavy use of concrete; (c) Insist on efficient appliances and good insulation for new buildings, and encourage retrofitting to electric for older ones; (d) Encourage heat pumps, passive solar design, and heat exchangers in new constructions and renovations. Some of these will raise the cost of new housing and renovations, but they also save operating costs and generally make the buildings more comfortable. It should be obvious from the above that there will be a lot of time spent by a lot of people in making all this happen. Some of that will be paid people – city staff with expanded responsibilities or additional city staff. Some of this may be carried out by individuals (home renovation planning) or organizations and businesses. Other tasks may be handled by volunteers or teams of volunteers – such as the Ames Climate Action Team (amesclimateaction.org). There will be opportunity for involvement, and also opportunity for employment, that come with the choice of an ambitious goal for the City of Ames. What else can Ames gain from having a strong Climate Action Plan? The actions that will reduce the net emissions include a number of things that will improve the quality of life in Ames. One example is planting more trees. If the tree canopy can be expanded by 20%, or 1400 acres, this would completely offset the emissions attributable to city emissions: City buildings, city transportation and so on. To achieve this, the City Forester budget could be increased, or there could be added philanthropy and grant writing – the Ames Foundation is already working on these approaches. Many companies are choosing to locate where they can most easily reach their climate action goals. Having a strong plan and continuing the progress that the city has already made will make Ames more attractive to such companies. Public support for this goal As I wrote in the previous blog, the ambitious goal was the most popular goal chosen in the survey of residents, and there are good reasons for believing this survey captured the sense of the community. From the many long and thoughtful comments made on the survey, it is clear that residents care about this issue – a minority of the responses focused on worries about cost or changes resulting from an ambitious Climate Action Plan. Many of the comments suggested practical actions that might help Ames achieve its Climate Action Plan.