Dr. Lee Anne Willson
Ames releases Climate Action Plan update: what you need to know
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Take me straight to the summary
Review: Steps towards a Climate Action Plan?
A Climate Action Plan starts with a goal informed by climate science; it extends well beyond the present decade. Our city council adopted such a goal in December 2021: 83% reduction in emissions by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
The second step is determining what constellation of policies and actions could, over time, accomplish the goals. A climate action plan contains both actions that are feasible with present technology (such as the SSG Six Big Moves and 29 steps), and principles and processes that allow the plan to adapt to the future. Step three looks at what can be done immediately, or soon. The city staff analysis of the Six Big Moves focuses on this third step, identifying actions that can be started now.
Review: Where is Ames in our process?
On Tuesday, November 15, 2022, the City Council held a workshop. The consultants, SSG, presented an update on the CAP process for Ames, and gave examples of initiatives being taken in other places to achieve goals identified in the Six Big Moves report. Their Powerpoint presentation is here.The city of Ames presented its analysis, available here.
A closer look at the process, both good and gaps
In this post, I’m going to highlight some items from these presentations and put them into the broader context of Ames’ climate action.
Steps in the development of Ames’ Climate Action Plan
A CAP starts with a calculation of what will be needed to achieve a science-based goal – one that will, if done by cities, allow the climate to stabilize with a temperature increase below 1.5°C. (That sounds small, but even at that level we will need a lot of resilience against storms, floods, fires, and droughts.) Ames’ City Council set our goal at 83% reduction in emissions by 2030, and 100% by 2050, based on a fair share analysis. See my post about setting climate goals and my post about fair share analyses for more information.
SSG then used data about Ames to calculate our potential emissions reductions. They worked with city staff to identify a set of 29 emissions-reducing actions for Ames. This evaluation focused on use of current technology, and also selected for actions where the resulting emission reduction was relatively significant. This approach eliminates by its design actions such as tree-planting and prairie restoration, which although feasible, would make a smaller difference than the 29 listed items. The result of this stage of computations was the “Six Big Moves” or low carbon scenario report from SSG. In terms of the overall process, this is the fifth circle in the Project Overview illustration below.
The results so far
The “Six Big Moves” report was used to suggest a pathway to 70% reduction by 2030 and 96% by 2050. These numbers fall short of the goal adopted by Council in December 2021. However, there are many unknowns — including new technologies — that may be available long before 2050, if not before 2030. Additional ways that are not included in the report but that can push us closer to the original goal set by council include smaller-impact actions such as planting trees and prairie areas, replacing lawns with deep-rooted alternatives, and encouraging changes in food habits. These small actions are additive. The City may also consider (as other Cities have done) adding a program of offsets to get to its goals – these can be purchased, or they can be collaborative projects with nearby communities.
The SSG 29 actions that add up to the Six Big Moves are illustrated in this colorful graph of carbon emissions vs time. The blue area is total emission after the 29 actions have been applied, while the very top line reflects Business as Usual (BAU, also called Business as Planned, BAP).
After the City Council saw the Six Big Moves report, one or two council members became very concerned at what they perceived to be an unrealistic cost. They asked for a more detailed understanding of what goes into the cost estimate. City staff undertook a review of these 29 actions, applying a set of criteria focused on whether they could see a way for the city to do this in the context of present laws and current sources of funding. At a council workshop, staff presented their report (summarized immediately below). See further discussion of the cost estimates in ‘More about the Total Cost’.
The City of Ames staff report on the six big moves
City staff looked at the 29 actions and evaluated each according to these criteria:
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
The eight criteria determine what is possible or reasonable to implement now, and all are relatively straightforward to answer (is it legal for the city to do this?) or quantify (what would it cost in dollars and people-time?). Criterion number 7, mostly considering “if prices go up, this will affect our lower-income residents adversely,” is less straightforward. A number of other cities are finding creative ways around this obstacle, and indeed some funding sources are directed for use for these residents. Lower-income residents are more likely to be living in leaky, substandard buildings, so they have the most to gain from retrofitting, if a way can be found to fund the retrofitting.
What is very exciting is that this report identified eight actions (seven listed in the report and one mentioned at the meeting) that can be initiated now, though possibly not all eight at once. These are: increased wind and solar generation; waste to energy improvements; changing rules related to new construction; retrofitting existing buildings (a pilot program); retrofitting municipal buildings; electrifying the municipal fleet (non-CyRide); creating a Mayor’s Climate Action Plan Leadership Task Force, and hiring a senior staff member as sustainability coordinator for Ames. For details, look at the full report for the city.
This very encouraging staff analysis is also important because the information collected for it will be provided to SSG, making the forthcoming implementation plan more accurate, and thus more useful.
The staff analysis does, however, come up short by only considering the eight (very basic) criteria. A more robust and inclusive list of criteria could and should be used to prioritize actions. This list would include several criteria that speak to community health and wealth, but that are harder to quantify: Does this improve the health of Ames residents? Does it improve the health of our natural environment? Does it make life in Ames more interesting, more pleasant, more appealing? Does this improve the resiliency of our community in the face of climate change and natural disasters (for example, expanding wetlands near rivers that tend to flood vulnerable areas of our city)? Does this increase overall economic activity for Ames in a healthy way, for example by providing residents with a variety of new opportunities for entrepreneurship and/or employment?
What we expect to find in the final Climate Action Plan
SSG is now working on the implementation portion of the report. Some items that need to be included in the implementation section are:
A set of criteria for evaluating actions and setting priorities when several actions are feasible but not affordable all at once.
A process for involving stakeholders in the decision-making process, taking advantage of experience and expertise in the broader community.
A list of actions that are possible given today’s technology (such as the City has provided in its report).
A robust outline for what accomplishing each action will require in terms of voluntary cooperation, regulation changes, education, and collaboration.
A clear analysis of the money side – how much is needed up front? How much is saved? What are possible sources? Are incentives needed, and if so, how much?
A matrix for consideration of co-benefits – does this improve the health or welfare of residents? Does it enhance Ames? Examples: Green areas. Investing in “arts district” to make downtown more appealing for residents. Allowing for or encouraging development of alternatives to single-family homes. Making neighborhoods walkable, people-centered. Improving public transportation options. Reducing air pollution. Making more spaces accessible to all residents – independent of age, economic status, etc.
A process for reviewing and adding actions as new ones become feasible or as residents express enthusiasm for particular approaches.
A process for keeping the CAP up to date – new technologies, new funding sources, etc.
Consideration of mechanisms to get to the original goals, including offsets. These may be purchased or developed, for example by assisting nearby communities to reduce their emissions.
Context not addressed in the analysis, but critical for the implementation
Small Actions (Related to 6,7, and 8 in the previous section): Small actions don’t appear in the SSG 29 actions but will play a crucial role in the outcome in several ways. One is that once an individual, family, or business has decided to take action to protect our climate, even if that first step is small, they are more receptive to considering bigger steps. They are “on board” with the process. The other is that many small bits add up – as is clearly illustrated by Project Drawdown. I discuss the relevance of these solutions Ames to aims in an earlier post.
Valuation of co-benefits (Related to 5 & 6 in the previous section: Analysis of co-benefits for each action, such as impact on health, quality of life, equity, and differential impact on various demographic groups including older individuals, needs a place in the final plan. It will be important to involve individuals at different life stages and in different economic, employment, and other groups. We already have an example where inaccurate assumptions were made: in a recent council meeting, something was said about older residents not being interested in walkability and bicycle paths. As an older resident with many friends in the 65–90-year-old category, I can say with authority that this is not at all universally true. Indeed, people who decide to give up driving are more dependent on walkability and public transit and should have more choices than just moving into an expensive progressive living space.
Processes for keeping the CAP active and up to date (Related to 2,4,7, & 8 in previous section): To be effective, these processes need to integrate ideas and insights from a variety of residents, organizations, and businesses – not just those with big resources and a vested economic interest in city policies. They need to be robust, transparent, and dynamic.
Urban redesign: Adapting our processes and codes to limit sprawl and make neighborhoods walkable is a challenge that must be addressed. People-friendly neighborhoods such as campus town, Somerset, and downtown are attractive because there are destinations to walk to, and life can proceed with minimal use of the automobile. Car-friendly neighborhoods such as Sunset Ridge do not have destinations for a walk, and a car is needed to get groceries, eat out, or get to and from work. Some ideas about how to painlessly transition from car-based to people-based spaces can be found at Strong Towns.
Other impactful action areas:
Food choices: Discussion of what we eat, how much we eat, and how much waste (organic and other) we produce as a result. This can also include food packaging considerations. This is an item that can bring people on board.
Yard and green space aesthetics: encourage culture change around urban green beauty __ using deep-rooted alternatives to standard lawns and landscaping; planting trees and prairie areas in Ames parks and along roadways, and cultivating wetlands. These actions can provide greater variety in the experience of nature in Ames’ parks and neighborhoods. Using alternative landscaping can also reduce the yard work needed by a homeowner and thus may contribute to older individuals being able to stay in their home longer.
The moose in the room
It’s not quite an elephant, but one place that the Ames CAP needs to be strong is in the mechanisms for citizen engagement. What we have so far is a “Supplemental Input Committee” that has served mainly as a focus group and a megaphone for SSG and City Staff. There has been relatively little attention paid to ways that our educated and diverse community can contribute ideas, people-hours, and resources to the implementation of the CAP, as individuals or as part of various community groups. For example, many churches and retirement homes have “green teams” set up to find ways to be more energy efficient and reduce emissions. Non-profits have experience managing volunteers, have volunteers with experience running the non-profits, and have the ability to attract donations. Our group, ACAT, spends many hours searching for creative solutions and examples that may help Ames move forward with its Climate Action plan. Some of this energy could be harnessed by the City, and perhaps the new Sustainability Coordinator position will let this happen.
The proposed “Mayor’s Leadership Council” will be an important step, as it will bring together business leaders whose cooperation and leadership can make a big difference in how rapidly this goes forward. However, there are many other individuals and groups/organizations with the potential and the interest to contribute, and as yet no mechanism has been suggested for them to do so in collaboration with the city. If the City does not encourage this collaboration, some groups may step up to fill gaps in the plan, and the City will lose its opportunity to guide, and some of its chance to benefit from, these actions.
More about the total cost of the 29 actions
The city report pointed out that most of the “Total cost” born by the community, not the City government:
This table from the staff report shows that the community share of the total cost is about $2.12B out of $2.32B or just over 91% of the total; the City cost over 28 years is about 200M. The average per-year City cost comes to just over $7M, or roughly 2.5% of the City’s $280.3M budget for 2022-23. If shown as a wedge in the budget (below) it would be between Community Development (2.4%) and General Government (2.6%) and represents about 8% of the Utilities budget. Many other factors are likely to produce fluctuations or changes of that magnitude in the City’s budget over the next 2.8 decades.
Much of the “community cost” is members of the community buying goods and services from other members of the community – that is, it is a component of Ames’ Gross Domestic Product, GDP. The plot below shows the average cost per year for 2023-2030 and 2031-2050 from the SSG report in relation to Ames’ current GDP.
This makes it obvious that the costs associated with the Climate Action Plan, when compared to other costs and economic activity, may be substantial but they are not out of range of what is possible.
The City analysis of the Six Big Moves identified actions that can be started more or less immediately. That is huge!
SSG will continue to develop a Climate Action Plan for Ames, with the next step using data, the city analysis, and SSG’s models to develop a more detailed Implementation Plan.
Some important elements of the CAP are included in the Six Big Moves and the City Analysis. Other elements are not yet included: robust mechanisms for citizen involvement, a priority-setting process that takes into account co-benefits, and procedures for keeping the plan up to date and flexible.
Most of the cited overall cost (or investment) would be made by citizens choosing what to buy or install, and would create a small addition to Ames’ GDP. The amount the city would need to fund (through grants, fees, and taxes) is substantial, but not out of line compared with other activities the City already funds. The biggest challenge is the timing — upfront investment paid for with savings extending over years or decades.