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American Cities Climate Challenge brings support, not cash

Friday, January 25, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

The announcement two weeks ago that Austin was one of 25 U.S. cities to receive Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge award was greeted with much fanfare from the media. The press especially touted the $2.5 million Austin would receive to help the city meet – and perhaps exceed – its carbon reduction goals.

It turns out, however, that Austin isn’t actually getting $2.5 million. That’s not to say that Bloomberg has not provided Austin with funding in the past. Previously the former New York City mayor’s nonprofit has worked with the Innovation Office’s “iTeam” to grapple with the city’s homelessness crisis, and last year Bloomberg Philanthropies gave millions in awards to 26 Austin arts and cultural groups.

This time though, City Climate Program Manager Zach Baumer explained to the Joint Sustainability Committee at its Jan. 23 meeting that “this program is more like a partnership and a support network … it’s not a grant, it’s not money that the city is going to receive.” What the city will receive is facilitated information-sharing between cities, accelerator workshops, targeted consulting engagements, and a city support team, including a strategist, implementation coach, climate adviser and expert support.

Among the sparse crowd at the committee meeting was Gabe Hatcher, the city’s new implementation coach from Delivery Associates, one of two organizations consulting with the winning cities as part of the Bloomberg acceleration program. (The Natural Resources Defense Council is the other organization.)

Hatcher told the committee he will be working with two city strategists and a climate adviser, a position for which he just received the first stack of candidate resumes.

Baumer informed the committee that the Bloomberg challenge is not encouraging cities to plan for change with a light touch. “The focus is really on the implementation of the project(s),” he said. According to him, part of the reason Austin was a winning city is that city departments are already implementing many carbon-reduction initiatives in some form or fashion. With the new support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, all the departments are hoping to take their projects to the next level.

The six projects that the city hopes to take to the next level are incentivizing sustainable commuting, working with car dealerships to increase electric vehicle sales, retrofitting municipal buildings to render them more environmentally sound, increasing Austin Energy’s commercial rebate program, and implementing new parking management and pricing to help reduce vehicle emissions. Baumer noted that staff is hoping that having these projects as part of the Bloomberg initiative will spur budget allocation from Council.

“These projects, if they’re successful, could play a role in a future version of the climate plan,” explained Baumer. He said Austin’s current carbon footprint is about 13 million metric tons per year, but that with these projects, the city is in good stead to reduce communitywide greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent by 2020.

He noted that there are already preliminary studies on the effects of carbon emissions from the 25 Climate Challenge cities which estimate upon completion of the projects, there will be 60 million metric tons of carbon savings between 2020 and 2025.

In conjunction with the American Cities Climate Challenge projects, the Joint Sustainability Committee is also working to revamp Austin’s climate plan to reflect four years of analysis since the implementation of the original 2015 plan.

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