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City’s Climate Protection Plan director set to retire next week

Friday, February 18, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

It will be the end of an era Feb. 25, when Ester Matthews, director of the Austin Climate Protection Program, retires after more than 25 years in city government. During her tenure, she’s worked for a Council member, the Austin Music Network, and Austin Energy, but in the end it might just be her three years at the helm of the still-nascent, hotly debated Climate Protection Program for which she’ll be best remembered. 


It was in March 2007 that Matthews was given the director’s job at the program, a group assigned the task of implementing the city’s Austin Climate Protection Plan, which Council had approved one month earlier. The plan mandated, among other things, that all city facilities, vehicles, and operations be carbon neutral by 2020 through the expansion of conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy programs.


“When I started, we immediately tried to move some of the departments to the GreenChoice renewable program, using carbon-neutral electricity from solar and wind power,” Matthews told In Fact Daily. “We started working with the fleet to find ways to reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels we were using. Then we started looking into the use of biodiesel in our diesel vehicles and shifting to E85, which is 80 percent ethanol, on our police vehicles.”


For the first few years of the program, Matthews and her staff spent most of their time gathering data on the amount of carbon emitted by each city department. “We started doing an inventory of all the emissions by department,” she said, “and once we had two years of that information we went to the departments and said, ‘This is what you need to reduce. This is your total greenhouse gas emissions. You have to reduce that and these are the ways we will help you.’”


Despite their efforts, the program and Matthews have come under fire over the last three years for moving too slowly, for failing to meet deadlines, and for not doing enough to bring down emission levels. But Matthews believes part of the problem is that her department lacks the authority to demand anything of anyone.


“That’s where all of this kind of broke down. There was an assumption on the part of many that I had that kind of authority, but I didn’t because I was an employee in one department reporting to a vice-president of that department,” she said. “I went with the assumption that this was a policy put in place by the Council and all city employees should do whatever they could to implement the policy. We were all directed to do it. I was the one coordinating the reporting on it, trying to give everyone the tools they needed to move in that direction. But the authority was coming from the City Council and the city manager.


“If I went to a department and they said, ‘We don’t want to use biodiesel,’ I would say, ‘Well, I’d be happy to work with you, but you understand it’s the policy of this city? You can’t just say you don’t want to.’”


Despite all manner of bureaucratic difficulties and departmental disagreements, the city’s carbon use did drop by nearly one million metric tons between 2007 and 2009. That’s good, says Matthews, but much more work is needed if the city has any hope of being carbon neutral within nine years.


“We need to move all the city departments to GreenChoice to really make the big effort to demonstrate the most reduction in emissions we can,” Matthews said. “The big departments aren’t on GreenChoice yet – Austin Energy, Austin Water Utility, Aviation, Solid Waste – four of the biggest departments. If we put them on GreenChoice, emissions will be reduced dramatically.”


Under the terms of the Climate Protection Plan, all city facilities and departments are supposed to be using the GreenChoice program by FY2012, eight months from now. Asked whether all the departments are prepared to include GreenChoice as part of their upcoming budgets for the year, Matthews said simply, “As far as I know.”


As Matthews prepares to hand over the reins of the program, perhaps her most lasting achievement is that she got the directors of 23 city departments to come up with their own individual climate protection plans for which they will now be accountable. “Those plans have become a performance measure for the department directors that they are supposed to try and meet these reductions that they committed to in their plans. We created a process where we hung it on the department directors to come up with the plan and made them responsible for reducing emissions to zero by 2020,” said Matthews.


And with that, Matthews will bow out of the city spotlight. But not before she has a chance to say goodbye. All are welcome to join her at a farewell party today, at City Hall from 1:30 to 3:30pm.

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