At 10, city cli­mate-change plan solid

Austin’s on track to meet its am­bi­tious re­duc­tion goals, but big­gest ef­fect has been im­pact on pol­icy.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Marty Toohey mtoohey@states­man.com

Per­haps no im­age, pledge or ac­tion sym­bol­izes the city of Austin’s take on global cli­mate change bet­ter than that of Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr.

In 2015, Kerr spoke bluntly on cli­mate change in a White House video star­ring fire chiefs from around the na­tion. She linked a chang­ing Cen­tral Texas en­v­i­ron- ment to sev­eral years of in­tense drought and a sub­se­quent yo-yoing be­tween dis­as­ters.

The re­gion “is a huge area for wild­fires, then it’s floods, then we have wild­fires, then we have floods,” Kerr said, call­ing on all Austin res­i­dents “to do their part.”

That is a more somber chord than city lead­ers struck a decade ago, when they adopted Austin’s ground­break­ing Cli­mate Pro­tec­tion Plan to great fan­fare. Then-- Mayor Will Wynn framed the plan as an ex­ten­sion of Austin’s soul, a way to demon­strate to the na­tion how a city could re­duce the green­house gases that the vast ma­jor­ity of cli­mate sci­en­tists say are warm­ing the planet and caus­ing in­creas­ingly se­vere weather.

Ten years later, the Cli­mate Pro­tec­tion Plan has evolved, along with the broader cli­mate change dis­cus­sions.

Austin has one of the most am­bi­tious mu­nic­i­pal cli­mate plans in the na­tion, ex­perts say — par­tic-

ularly con­sid­er­ing that the city sits in the heart of Texas, where state lead­ers wary of cli­mate sci­ence have not passed the kind of man­dates and in­cen­tives that have com­pelled cities to cut their re­liance on fos­sil fu­els, as Cal­i­for­nia and other more lib­eral states have.

Austin’s take on cli­mate sci­ence also stands in con­trast to views ex­pressed by U.S. Rep. La­mar Smith, the in­flu­en­tial Texas Repub­li­can whose dis­trict in­cludes parts of Austin, and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. In 2012, Trump posted on Twit­ter that the “con­cept of global warm­ing was cre­ated by and for the Chi­nese in or­der to make U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing non-com­pet­i­tive.” He mocked the con­cept again in 2015 and, de­spite say­ing af­ter the elec­tion that he has an “open mind” on cli­mate sci­ence, vowed to elim­i­nate pre­de­ces­sor Barack Obama’s cli­mate change poli­cies, which are in line with Austin’s.

The city is on pace to meet its am­bi­tious goals, such as re­duc­ing the com­mu­ni­ty­wide green­house gas emis­sions to 11.3 mil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon equiv­a­lent, ac­cord­ing to city analy­ses. But many civic ac­tivists say the plan’s real sig­nif­i­cance is not in tailpipe emis­sions, re­cy­cling or na­tional recog­ni­tion — it’s how the plan in­flu­ences the en­tire mu­nic­i­pal oper­a­tion.

“It serves as a pol­icy back­drop for ev­ery­thing that gets done,” said An­drew Dobbs, pro­gram di­rec­tor at Texas Cam­paign for the En­vi­ron­ment. “There’s noth­ing less af­ford­able than the dis­as­ter fac­ing us if we don’t change our ways.”

An all-in ac­count­ing of the cli­mate plan’s ben­e­fits, costs and sub­tle in­flu­ence on city pol­icy hasn’t been done, nor is it likely to be pos­si­ble.

“The chal­lenge with cli­mate change-re­lated ac­tions is that there isn’t a clean bound­ary for cal­cu­lat­ing a di­rect or im­me­di­ate ben­e­fit from any sin­gle ton of green­house gas emis­sions be­ing avoided or re­duced,” said Amy Petri, a spokes­woman for the city’s Of­fice of Sus­tain­abil­ity. “This is the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic chal­lenge with cli­mate change.”

Crit­ics have de­rided the cli­mate plan as an un­nec­es­sary van­ity pro­ject. Ob­jec­tions arose in 2011, when city lead­ers de­cided that the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment should power it­self en­tirely with re­new­able en­ergy. The change moved the city gov­ern­ment closer to its car­bon emis­sion goals. But it also added $8.6 mil­lion to the bud­get that year be­cause re­new­ables were more ex­pen­sive than Austin En­ergy’s stan­dard mix of coal, nat­u­ral gas and nu­clear en­ergy.

In the early days, city cli­mate talks fo­cused mainly on elec­tric­ity: how much to rely on coal, which emits sig­nif­i­cant amounts of green­house gases, and how much to rely on re­new­ables such as wind and so­lar, at the time more ex­pen­sive.

But Austin has been ef­fec­tive in pur­su­ing its car­bon goals, said Bruce Mel­ton, the cli­mate change chair­man of the Austin Sierra Club. He noted, though, that Austin has ben­e­fited from de­vel­op­ments that city lead­ers did not orig­i­nally en­vi­sion. For in­stance, the city shrank its car­bon foot­print as the cost of nat­u­ral gas dropped sharply and gas be­gan sup­plant­ing coal.

The next steps in car­bon re­duc­tion might not be as easy, even with the price of re­new­ables plum­met­ing, Mel­ton said.

Amid talks of car­bon re­duc­tion, the City Hall ver­nac­u­lar has also shifted to terms such as “adap­ta­tion” and “re­silience.” Ev­i­dence sug­gests Austin is get­ting hot­ter and more prone to the drought-to-del­uge pen­du­lum that has al­ways been a threat but ap­pears to be get­ting worse, ac­cord­ing to an ex­ten­sive anal­y­sis done in 2014 by Texas Tech Univer­sity cli­mate sci­en­tist Katharine Hay­hoe.

The Austin Fire Depart­ment is now de­vel­op­ing longterm strate­gies with an eye to­ward that pen­du­lum. In 2012, the depart­ment es­tab­lished a $1.6 mil­lion wild­fire preven­tion divi­sion, a move that had been un­der con­sid­er­a­tion for years and was fi­nally made af­ter La­bor Day 2011, when nine ma­jor wild­fires, in­clud­ing the Bas­trop Com­plex fire — the worst in Texas his­tory — burned across Cen­tral Texas.

Re­gard­less of whether hu­man-made cli­mate change played a role in those fires, the city has to pre­pare as if that sort of cat­a­strophic event could hap­pen again, city of­fi­cials say.

A sim­i­lar line of think­ing led Austin to limit lawn wa­ter­ing to once a week, said Daryl Slusher, an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the Austin Wa­ter Util­ity.

That de­ci­sion came in re­sponse to the five-year drought that ended in 2015, the hard­est drought on record and one that threat­ened the re­gion’s wa­ter sup­ply.

Slusher said Aus­tinites seem to have re­al­ized they live in a new sit­u­a­tion. He is fond of one cli­mate statis­tic in par­tic­u­lar. Austin, he said, has added about 180,000 peo­ple since 2006 but uses less wa­ter now than it did a decade ago.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2012

Then-Austin Mayor Lee Leff­in­g­well (left) and then-Travis County Com­mis­sioner Ron Davis (right) join SunEdi­son’s Mark Men­den­hall in open­ing the Web­berville so­lar plant, which helps Austin En­ergy meet its goals for re­new­ables.

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