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Climate Equity Plan proposes speeding up net-zero emissions goal to 2040

Thursday, September 30, 2021 by Willow Higgins

Austin’s much-anticipated Climate Equity Plan was presented to City Council on Tuesday morning after almost two years of hard work and delay. The city’s last climate action plan was adopted in June 2015, with the intention of updating it every five years. Its update – the final draft of which is now complete – proposes that the city reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, a decade sooner than an earlier version of the plan proposed.

This climate plan is unique in that its focus is racial justice. The plan seeks to engage a comprehensive cross-section of Austin stakeholders, emphasizing input from community members who have historically been left out of climate action planning. The plan was described as a “co-creation” by city staff and over 100 community members and businesses.

“While we’re trying to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, we’re also trying to eliminate disparities that can be predicted by race,” said Zach Baumer, the Office of Sustainability’s climate program manager, who presented the plan. “If we’re not proactively addressing equity and centering it in our plan to address climate change, we would just be perpetuating injustice.”

While the 100-page plan is not an exhaustive list of everything the city needs to do to tackle climate change, it does provide action steps and strategies to reduce the community’s carbon footprint. In 2019, the community as a whole emitted 12.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, of which 40 percent came from gasoline- and diesel-based transportation and 37 percent from electricity usage. The rest of the emissions came from things like natural gas, refrigerants, industrial emissions and landfills. While the city’s carbon footprint is much bigger than climate activists would like it to be, emissions have been steadily declining since its peak in 2011.

The previous goal was to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But in 2019, Council asked for staff to take a closer look at the goal and determine if it was aggressive enough. The committee concurred in the final version of the plan, speeding up the emissions goal by a full decade and outlining a steeper path to a fossil fuel-free future.

Many cities “are now increasing the urgency of their targets up to 2040, and even earlier than 2040,” Baumer said. “So we think this is an important step for this plan and for the city to move towards a more aggressive target.”

But Austin is not quite yet on target to reach the outlined goals. The plan, which examines decadelong increments, projects the city falling just short of its benchmark in 2030. But Baumer was confident that even though the current trajectory doesn’t quite meet the mark, science and policy will change with time, making the goal feasible.

“While we don’t have all the answers to reach this super-aggressive target by 2030, we know that we’re going to revise the plan in five years,” he said. “We know that things are happening at the federal level. We know that things will change over time and we hope that we will be able to reach that target by 2030.”

To reach its objectives, the plan offers four big-picture themes, 17 goals and 74 strategies, all underscoring equity. The presentation to Council highlighted a selection of goals to give a general idea of how the city can achieve the metrics it has set forth. Looking toward 2030, the plan recommends:

  • 50 percent of trips should use alternative options like public transit, carpooling or biking, not single-occupancy vehicles
  • 40 percent of vehicle miles traveled should be in electric vehicles
  • all new buildings should be constructed to be net-zero carbon
  • greenhouse gases from food and product consumption should be reduced by 50 percent

Some Council members expressed strong support of the plan and its urgency. In response, Council Member Greg Casar spoke of February’s deadly winter storm, one of the most dramatic recent consequences of the climate crisis. 

“I just can’t emphasize how serious this work is,” Casar said. “We have a responsibility to show the country how we can indeed address climate change and the accelerating change that we’re experiencing in the crisis, but then also to prepare our community, because we’ve already experienced too much.”

Council will vote on the amended plan and a plan for its implementation at today’s meeting.

Photo by Renwang101, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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