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Adler picks out top two climate change priorities at SXSW

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

When it comes to climate change, Mayor Steve Adler believes that cities are fundamentally ill-equipped to face the challenge.

“You really do need the innovation that comes from outside of government to really act and scale in a material way,” Adler told a modest audience that attended a Tuesday morning South by Southwest panel titled “Innovative Cities against Climate Change.”

Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, moderated the discussion, which also featured Google’s lead for sustainability Kate Brandt and tech sector CEO Romain Lacombe.

According to Adler, cities can play a role in limiting carbon emissions by articulating the public will to do so.

“We need the creatives and the innovators and the entrepreneurs to find the technologies and to really help establish the economic models so that the actions can be sustained,” he said.

According to the city’s Office of Sustainability, Austin produces 13.7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. Fifty-three percent of that comes from energy production and consumption. Adler noted that the city is in the process of decommissioning its last remaining coal plant. That feat is only possible because of robust solar and wind sectors created in part by private investments made in response to public preferences, Adler said.

City Council has previously passed several resolutions spelling out the city’s climate change goals. That includes a target of zero carbon emissions for city operations by 2020. The Austin Community Climate Plan also calls for a “goal of reaching net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

After committing to clean energy production, Adler said the city’s next challenge is tackling emissions in the transportation realm, which pumps out 36 percent of the city’s carbon footprint. That amounts to just shy of 5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.

“We’re looking for the new technologies. The electric vehicles, the ride-share, the intellectual innovations, the first- and last-mile solutions as we try to make transportation a service and make alternatives to single-occupant cars less expensive and more convenient,” Adler said.

When asked by Watts about what measures the city is taking to prepare for autonomous vehicles, Adler did not directly mention the draft Smart Mobility Roadmap, but he did extol the potential virtues of robot-operated cars. Those machines, he said, could make travel safer in Austin as well as free up valuable real estate currently given to temporary car storage.

However, Adler pointed out, removing the hassle of driving from car travel could very well induce more space-inefficient vehicles on the road. He said he is most excited about the potential of autonomously driven transit vehicles “because it changes the economics so significantly and increases the opportunities for greater coverage, which will make the mode-shift from cars to transit much more viable because it will be less expensive and more convenient.”

While acknowledging the significant job losses automation would wreak on bus and train drivers, Adler predicted that the change is both unstoppable and imminent. But the mayor again returned to what he characterized as Austin’s “culture” of conservation that is reflective of the prevailing political preference to combat climate change.

“Remember, the government’s only the reflection of the people that live in the community,” Adler said.

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