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Committee seeks to create zero emissions plan

Friday, September 5, 2014 by Alex Dropkin

A recent study by climate scientists predicts dire consequences for the Austin region if it does not act to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly over the next 20 to 30 years. The National Climate Assessment says temperatures in Central Texas could rise by an average of 3 to 4 degrees and average rainfall rates could drop by 20 percent over the next three decades.

With marching orders from City Council, the city’s Office of Sustainability has gathered a group of prominent scientists, policy wonks and community leaders tasked with peering into the future and countering climate change by finding ways to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Council formed the Community Climate Steering Committee in April, with a charge to create a community-wide plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as early as possible. According to the resolution, as of 2010 Travis County produces an estimated 15.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent each year, and it is projected to get worse.

To eliminate those emissions, committee members are targeting four big sources — energy, transportation, waste management and industrial production. The committee has formed technical advisory groups to study options in each of the four target areas.

“When it comes to the industrial emissions and the transportation emissions, those are going to be tough,” said Kaiba White, a policy analyst for Public Citizen and a member of the committee. “I don’t think they’re impossible. I think we can get them under control, but it’s going to take some real creative thinking and real public commitment to achieve whatever goals we end up coming out with.”

The committee estimates that 52 percent of Travis County’s emissions come from energy use, 36 percent from transportation and 12 percent from landfills and manufacturing combined. Its emissions per capita (about 14.5 metric tons) are lower than both the national average of 19 metric tons and the Texas average, 25 metric tons.

“If Austin is successful, and Dallas and San Antonio and Houston were to adopt similar policies, which are all City Council decisions and City Council-controlled, we would cover 80 percent of all Texans,” said Joep Meijer, co-founder of Climate Buddies and co-chair of the committee.

The plan is still in its infancy, and committee members expect much of the legwork on drafting it to come together in the next few months. The resolution says the committee needs to bring a plan to City Council by next March.

This committee’s work is an extension of the city’s original Climate Protection Plan approved in 2007, which Council later began updating  specifically for various departments. In 2010, it passed the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan, which included specific utility strategies to be in place by 2020. In 2011, Council adopted the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, which included zero waste goals, carbon footprint reduction efforts and goals for expanding public/private partnerships. In addition, in 2012, it adopted the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, which established goals related to land use and transportation policies.

In the resolution creating the Community Climate Steering Committee, Council members said developing climate adaptation strategies is “an important missing piece” of the puzzle from the original Climate Protection Plan.

Zach Baumer, climate program manager for the Office of Sustainability, envisions the plan working in three time periods: what is possible between now and 2020, 2020 to 2030 and 2030 to 2050, the end goal for net-zero emissions. The farther along the committee has to think, he said, the harder it is to anticipate new technologies and make recommendations.

“Anything could happen in 2030 to 2050,” Baumer said. “Solar panels could be so cheap that they’re everywhere, gasoline could be $20 a gallon, and so everything changes things.” He acknowledges that part is “more visionary.”

The committee is staffed by members of the city’s Office of Sustainability and includes experts from across the board, including former Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan, Francois Levy from the American Institute of Architects, and Al Armendariz, former regional administrator of the EPA.

Baumer said the committee recognizes a balance between making the plan cost effective and as environmentally efficient as possible.

“There’s no reason to develop a plan that says we should just make everything really expensive and drive everyone out of town,” Baumer said. “The group is very cognizant that this has to be done in a way that’s going to work economically for people and for businesses.”

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