Making it happen: Implementing the Climate Action Plan
Updated: May 13
On May 11, 2021, the City of Ames voted to retain Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG) as consultant for developing a Climate Action Plan for the city. Since then, SSG worked with the city staff to come up with goals and an implementation plan for the City of Ames’ Climate Action Plan (the CAP).
The city is inviting public input via email to firstname.lastname@example.org by May 26th. The report will then be edited with attention to the received comments, and the final version brought to council for a vote, probably in June, 2023.
In this blog, I hope to clarify what a vote for the CAP will mean for Ames and its citizens. I will present my reasoning for concluding that the CAP goals as laid out by SSG are ambitious but possible. The challenge is getting things going sooner rather than later – not a small challenge. The city has begun by identifying seven things that can be started more or less immediately. Some of the actions can be started with citizen action. The initial investment is substantial, but the net cost is much smaller, and may become net gain as the situation evolves over the next 27 years.
In what follows I will also clarify the meaning of the big dollar numbers that have been raised more than once in discussions of the CAP: The total investment. I will explain why there is confusion about whether this number is $3.2B or $2.4B and what the number actually tells us. Spoiler: It is not what the city will have to find somewhere and then spend for us.
ReCAP: The History
On December 21, 2021, after seeking public input in several ways, the Ames City Council voted for a goal for the Climate Action Plan: To reduce emissions from the 2018 level by 83% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This is an ambitious goal, but not an impossible one. For the 2018 level see the companion documents, the Vulnerability Assessment, and the Renewable Energy Assessment.
Why did the City Council choose this goal? Residents felt that developing a CAP was an investment in the future of Ames. This goal also allows Ames to do its fair share in addressing climate change. See the blog post on fair-share climate targets.
This goal showed what we need to do, but it didn’t tell us how to do it. The consultants took these goals and looked at all the actions that would be needed and that the city believed could be done and were able to provide a series of actions that would get us close: 71% by 2030 and 94%. by 2050. SSG has prepared a roadmap for Ames, but the details of our travel along it will come with a host of decisions to be made by City Council, City Staff and Ames citizens over the next 27 years. While we are traveling this road, there will be changes in the landscape; some will make it easier, some may make it harder. As for any trip, there is a limit to how much one can plan in advance, but good planning makes it much more likely that the goal will be reached.
ReCAP: The $$
The CAP is an investment and will cost money. There is a lot of confusion about how it will be paid for and about the different estimates of total cost. This section is to help you understand the investment, the net cost of the CAP, and to clear up the confusion over the total amount.
The current CAP draft includes this wording on page 1, item 2:
"The latest estimate for the magnitude of the expenditures that is needed for the actions steps to achieve the above target is $3.2 billion (previously estimated to be $2.4 billion), or an average of $120 million per year for the 27-year life of the plan.”
The word “expenditures” gives the impression that these would be budget items for the city, so the paragraph goes on to clarify that these are a total of all transactions, only some of them involving city funds. That’s a very important clarification, and why this big number is better compared with the Ames GDP ($7.5B for the most recent year available). See the blog post about the cost of the climate action plan. The big number is an investment that mostly or entirely pays for itself but with a fairly long payback time.
What is more confusing in the quoted statement is the comment about “$3.2B (formerly $2.4B …)”. This suggests that SSG has revised its cost estimate upwards for the total amount of money required. That is not true.
What has happened: The original $2.4B was computed using an industry standard, best practices, estimate for the discount rate, 3%. That reduces both future costs and future savings relative to current costs and current savings. For example, if you purchase an item ten years from now for $1000, with a discount rate of 3% you will be spending the equivalent in today’s dollars of $744 for that item. With a discount rate, each estimated future cost in the plan comes with an estimate for what that means in today’s dollars, and the same happens for future savings.
Because more of the costs occur soon, and more of the savings occur later, with a discount rate of 3% the number representing the total investment comes down from $3.2B to $2.4B. The total savings comes down even more, from $3.0B to $1.5B. This is shown in this excerpt from Table 5 in the draft CAP.
Side note: In the full version of Table 5 in the CAP there is a number, $43,000, for “Average investment/person-year of Employment.” In the discussion with City Council on April 18, 2023 this was explained: It is what is assumed to be needed to hire someone to do a job related to the climate action plan, a number that is required to translate actions to dollars. That is, they estimate how many people working full time will be needed for each task, then multiply by an estimated salary or wage level for the job.
Bottom line: The net cost is lower in the undiscounted case, but the total investment is higher. Without using industry-standard discount rates, the net cost (capital investment minus savings in the chart 5 excerpts above) is $3.2B-$3.0B = $0.2B. Using the industry standard, it was $0.9B. Note that this discounted estimate was in the earliest SSG computations. Now, with the IRA and rising costs for natural gas, the net cost estimate is smaller, at $0.17B.
The takehome? The problem is not the net cost, it is finding the money to invest now to realize those later savings.
ReCAP: SSG Suggests Six Big Moves in 47 Actions
It almost sounds like a dance, but six big moves made up from 47 individual actions describe all the things that need to happen for Ames to achieve the goals of the CAP. See the blog post on the low-carbon scenario. The time frame of the CAP is 27 years. It is all but certain that the technological, economic and regulatory environments will change in the coming decades. So we can’t in fact compute now exactly what can and can’t be done by 2050. However, using what is known to work and what things cost now, and making reasonable projections from trends now evident or expected based on things we know now, the Climate Action Plan is a reasonable start — a map for our journey based on what is known now.
Nationwide, the main sources of emission of greenhouse gases include agriculture; forestry, oceans, and land use (AFOLU); transportation (including air travel); energy generation; and construction.
For Ames, the major components are construction of and energy leaks from buildings; transportation (including commuters to and from Ames); energy generation; and waste management.
Given this, SSG grouped the 47 actions they identified as possible into Six Big Moves:
Renewable energy generation
Net-zero new construction
Reduce vehicle emissions
Increase active transportation and transit use
Reduce waste emissions.
CAP NOW: A staff report and seven immediate initiatives
Over the past few months, the city staff looked at the actions proposed by SSG. Using eight criteria having to do with legality, authority, and cost (below), they decided on seven actions that could reasonably be started now. Their list of seven actions appears below and is described in the staff. Read the report about the seven actions.
The eight criteria were:
Cost — cost of investment; gain on investment; marginalized abatement cost
Amount of Administrative Effort Needed
Feasibility of Achievement
Impact on Residents in Terms of Property Taxes, Utility Rates, etc.
Impact on Inclusion
Cost Compared to the Tonnage of Carbon Reduced
It is natural for the city to choose these criteria, but we all need to remember the reason that we are building a climate action plan: Not to save money, but to save the planet. If we don’t combat climate change, there will be many costs that will not carry the co-benefits and savings that we can achieve by taking action to reduce climate change.
The seven action steps that can be started now are:
Increase wind and solar generation for electricity
Improve waste-to-energy process to reduce emissions
Work for lower emissions standards for new construction
Develop a pilot program for retrofitting older homes
Retrofit municipal buildings
Electrify the municipal fleet (in addition to plans for Cy-Ride)
Create a Mayor’s Climate Action Plan Leadership Task Force
If we continue the analogy with a journey: We might be embarking on a bike trip from New York to San Francisco with a goal of completing the trip in 27 weeks. We aren’t sure that our resources (fitness) will be able to move us fast enough, or how our fitness will improve on the journey. We also don’t know where we may encounter road construction, interesting detours, or even new bike paths along the way. We can plan the first week with some assurance, and we know the average distance we need to travel to make it in 27 weeks. Even if the first week is going to be a substantial challenge, we can still be optimistic that we’ll make it on schedule. The seven actions provided in the staff report are a plan for the first week or two or three of the bike journey — the first year or two or three of the climate action plan.
CAP forward: How the implementation works — many decisions yet to be made.
Nothing is set in stone by the upcoming city vote to accept, or reject, the CAP. The plan shows what needs to be done, and what can be done if cash flow and public support are found to do them. Many of the actions involve a lot of citizens making decisions about what to buy or what to do, and the city’s role here may be none, or minimal, or significant – for example, how much should the city invest in encouraging rooftop solar? Nearly every city-led action requires a specific vote by city council or broad permission from the council to pursue a collection of actions.
Some of the staff’s seven initiatives could be started by staff without any further action by council, although most would require approval for the expenditure as part of the budget, as part of a capital improvement plan, or through changes in various ordinances. Some of the staff’s seven initiatives may proceed more quickly if the city can partner with other entities – businesses or non-profits. But all seven are feasible now, within the constraints of the city’s legal powers and obligations and with manageable changes in city staff or budget.
Challenge: is the per capita emissions goal reasonable?
One way of looking at the path to a net-zero 2050 emissions goal is to consider per capita emissions. In 2018 this was 18.8 tons per person in Ames. In 2023 this is now 15.2 tons. (These numbers do not count air travel.) The goal for 2050 is 0.8 tons/person/year. Some of that will require no effort on the part of citizens, as our electric power is increasingly supplied by renewables. Some will come about relatively naturally as people follow the trend to shift from internal combustion to electric vehicles for the reduced cost of ownership, or to heat pumps and home retrofits for reduced cost of heating/cooling. Some will be incentivized by city, state or federal rebates and incentives, and for others, as more people adopt the technologies the prices will come down.
Still, this is a big change, and there is a substantial upfront investment with a relatively long payback period for a number of key actions. Both for the city and for some of its residents, the challenge will be cash flow: finding money now to invest for future savings.
Opportunity: What the CAP Leaves Out
Nature-based solutions didn’t make it into the “big moves” but can make a significant contribution. These include planting trees or deep-rooted plants/prairie plants, replacing traditional lawns with more sustainable alternatives (usually also requiring less care), and protecting existing green areas. See the blog post about nature-based solutions.
Cement production and use were also not called out in the CAP. This is a big and difficult challenge, but we can choose to use less concrete (permeable parking lots and other construction choices), use concrete manufactured with CO₂ capture technology, and/or use more wood and bamboo (contains captured carbon).
Food choices: Production, transportation, packaging and preparation of we eat produce a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, but this category is not directly included in the CAP. There is an opportunity for the community to recognize the benefits of a reduced-meat, especially reduced-ruminant, diet; to encourage options of smaller servings at restaurants; to encourage less single-use plastic in the packaging of our groceries; and availability of foods in smaller quantities for small households. While the state forbids cities to outlaw plastics, we can vote with our feet as citizens to use stores with bulk purchase other low-plastic options, we can encourage stores to provide alternatives to everything-in-plastic, and we can choose paper over plastic if our shopping bag will end up in the trash can. Food waste is another issue, as it causes problems if it is burned and different problems if it goes to a landfill; composting is the preferred option.
The CAP goals as laid out by SSG are ambitious but possible. The challenge is getting things going sooner rather than later. The city has begun by identifying seven things that can be started more or less immediately. Some of the actions can be started with citizen action. The initial investment is substantial, but the net cost is much smaller and may become net gain as the situation evolves over the next 27 years.