Austin Has Some Big Climate Goals… But How Do We Actually Reach Them?

Chevy Bolt

Austin has a big goal. Net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050… at the latest.

This means that we have less than 30 years to virtually eliminate the climate-change causing emissions from the electricity we use, the cars we drive, and the trash we throw away.

So how do we actually do that?

City Council took some big steps toward addressing that question earlier this month with the passage of two new climate-related resolutions.

Together, the two resolutions basically do three things:

  1. Plan for the electrification of Austin’s transportation system (especially electric vehicles)
  2. Announce the city’s support for the Green New Deal
  3. Take the first step toward developing a climate resilience plan

And what does all that mean?

Let’s start with the electric vehicles resolution first.

Many of the ideas behind Austin’s zero emissions by 2050 goal are laid out in something called the Community Climate Plan, a massive document that was adopted by City Council in 2015.

The plan was a good first step in getting Austin on a path towards emission reduction, but as Joep Meijer (local climate activist and co-founder of Climate Buddies) explained to AEN in a recent interview, there’s still a lot more work to be done.

According to Joep, the current plan is pretty general and it also lacks, “in clarity of numbers, specific targets, and responsibility.”

That’s what this latest resolution tries to tackle.

The idea is to improve the structure and accountability measures within the plan, as well as to ensure a more quantitative results-driven approach… starting with the section dedicated to vehicle electrification.

“So the thinking changes from doing good things, which Austin Energy is doing, to are we doing enough good things that it actually adds up to the results that we’ve set as a community,” explained Joep.

Makes sense. So what kind of things does the city need to work on to allow for more electric vehicles?

As one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Austin, all eyes are on transportation. But, as Council Member Alison Alter explained in a press conference announcing this latest resolution, “we recognize that we cannot reach Austin’s 2050 net-zero goals through mode-share shifts alone. As we’ve heard from staff, in order to meet our emission goals, we need not only to reduce the total percentage of trips taken in single-occupancy vehicles, but we also need to shift the entire transportation system. That includes electrifying the city’s fleet, reimagining our bus system, changing the types of load-carrying trucks on the road, and switching more passenger vehicles over to clean energy.

It also means making this EV technology more accessible and more equitable. It means taking advantage of the economic possibilities that EV electrification of our transportation fleets provide.”

These economic opportunities include putting Austin Energy in the place to become a national leader in selling electricity to electric cars and integrating electric cars (and their batteries) into our city’s electric grid.

Plus, in imagining a world where the majority of vehicles are electric, there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built and planned out to allow for everyone to have inexpensive, easy, and equitable access to charging stations.

In our interview, Joep and and AEN Editor-In-Chief Amy Stansbury got real wonky into this stuff. You can learn more by listening to the entire thing below.

Now let’s talk about that Green New Deal/climate resilience resolution…

“Austin and the Hill Country are widely known as flash flood alley for a reason,” explained Council Member Leslie Pool in a press conference announcing the resolution. “It’s because we’re one of the most flood-prone areas in North America.”

In 2011, we faced record-level droughts. In 2013, flooding killed four people in Austin and Travis County. In 2015, 14 people died from rising floodwaters. In 2018, flooding overloaded our water treatment plant, and forced the entire city into a boil-water notice for the first time ever.

In other words, we’re no stranger to extreme weather… and because of climate change, things are only likely to get worse.

So as Council Member Pool explained, “we need a plan y’all.”

And that’s exactly what this latest resolution aims to do. It calls for city staff to do some research and come back to Council in August with more information about how the city might be able to fund a Chief Resilience Officer and create a comprehensive climate resilience plan.

So what exactly is a climate resilience plan? As Council Member Pool explained, “It’s essentially a blueprint that helps us, all of us, be better prepared to face the challenges of disastrous events, like floods and wildfires…”

In particular, Council Member Pool called attention to the importance of incorporating equity into the plan, saying, “As we know… dramatic climate events are equal opportunity destroyers, crossing socio economic lines. They destroy homes, lives, our pets, our memories… More often than not though, it’s the most vulnerable and low-income communities that are hit hardest.”

It’s this tie to climate resiliency that also led Austin City Council to include in this resolution a general show of support for the Green New Deal, the proposed federal policy that aims to address both climate change and inequality.

“We know that these big, aspirational efforts take time to build momentum,” Pool said during the press conference. “Our work here locally is an important prod to that larger, broader effort.”

 

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