This story is part of our series, “Faces.” Over the next several weeks, (as part of our larger Big Picture, Local Lens project) we’ll be focusing on climate change, highlighting the people and faces here in Austin whose lives center around it. Because at its core, climate change is a human issue. It’s humans who have caused it, and it’s humans who are our only hope in fixing it.
Zach Baumer – The City Staffer
“Our job is to make people change… change from doing that unsustainable thing, to a more sustainable thing,” Zach Baumer explains, leaning forward in his chair.
In a sparsely decorated conference room, located just across from the Blue Dahlia Bistro on East 11th Street, Zach explains that “change” is what he is always working towards. It’s what he is always thinking about.
Zach is the Climate Program Manager for the City of Austin. (Yes, our city actually has an entire position dedicated to climate change). Zach works within the city’s Office of Sustainability, in an office covered in books, reports, data, graphs, and numbers, all about greenhouse gas emissions and how to reduce them.
Here’s how Zach’s job basically works:
City Council makes a big policy decision. Right now, the major point of focus is a resolution City Council passed back in April of 2014. The resolution set a bold goal of net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or earlier if possible. That means that by 2050, just about all of Austin (including the city government, businesses, and all the people that live here) will no longer be emitting greenhouse gas emissions. That includes emissions from the energy we use, the cars we drive, and the trash we throw away. Needless to say, we are not there yet.
That’s where Zach comes in.
With this new direction from City Council, it is up to Zach (and his team, which includes the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens) to turn that goal into a reality. First, that meant helping to write the Austin Community Climate Plan, which brought together stakeholders from throughout the city to create a path to help Austin reach its new greenhouse gas emission goals. Now that the report is finished, Zach is working with a whole bunch of city departments to make sure that the incremental goals established in the plan actually come to fruition.
But what does that mean?
Take transportation for example. About a third of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, so it’s up to Zach and the Office of Sustainability to work with Austin Energy, the Austin Transportation Department, and Capital Metro to make sure that they’re all working towards the community’s goals. They could do this by facilitating public transportation, bike infrastructure, or even electric vehicles, Zach says.
“From our standpoint, we kind of have to be doing all of those things,” he continues.
These are the kinds of things Zach spends his days thinking about. He knows where the city wants to be (zero greenhouse gas emissions) and he knows where the city is now (13.7 million metric tons of emissions annually) and he spends a good deal of time asking and answering questions until he can figure out a way to solve the puzzle.
Following along with the transportation example, Zach explains that Austin is making plans to grow and develop into a more compact and connected city.
But what about the people already living far outside the city center?
“With people that are far away, you can’t really get them to walk and bike because you can’t really get them to bike 25 miles to work,” Zach says.
So then you can build out your public transportation networks, but that can be expensive.
“The other solution is we… got roads, these people are going to keep living where they’re living, they’re going to keep driving cars, so we just got to get people in zero emission cars (electric vehicles)… And we’ll still have traffic problems, but at least you don’t have air quality problems and at least we’re not emitting greenhouse gas emissions,” Zach says.
And then of course, you’ve got the human element in solving the transportation/greenhouse gas emission problem.
“With transportation… you’ve got all these individual people making all these individual choices. It’s a way bigger cultural shift. It’s going to take much more of a movement.” – Zach Baumer
And unfortunately, Zach says, that’s an area where the city can only do so much.
(See how this is starting to look like a puzzle?)
The transportation scenario is very different from reducing carbon emissions related to energy, where City Council can get together with Austin Energy (which is owned by the City of Austin) and together a few dozen people can make a decision to purchase a whole bunch of solar energy, for example. Then, just like that, “you get these massive carbon reductions,” Zach says.
With transportation, the city has far less control. What it can do however, is create policies that promote things like public transportation and electric vehicles, Zach says.
“We can’t buy the people’s vehicles, but we can certainly make it as easy as possible and as cheap as possible for people to plug in.” – Zach Baumer
Austin Energy has already started to do this with its Plug In EVerywhere program, which offers unlimited electric vehicle charging at any of its 250 plug-in stations for less than $5/ a month (or about $50/ a year).
“I do it with my car and it’s just like highway robbery,” Zach says. “That’s the cost of one or two tanks of gas and that’s all the electricity you need for the whole year.”
That is the key, Zach says.
“If it’s lower cost, if it’s more convenient, and if it’s cooler, people are going to do it. But, if you’re not one of those things, people don’t do things.” – Zach Baumer
Zach and his team have internalized this sentiment and are always thinking of ways to make sustainable behaviors meet these three categories. It’s a task that he admits has gotten easier over the years, simply because of the market.
“The price of solar certainly makes things a lot easier to get people to do it,” Zach says. Just in the five years since he started his job with the City of Austin, Zach says that he has noticed a huge difference in both the price of solar and the availability of electric vehicles.
“So much of the bottom line of all of this comes down to the economics of things,” he adds.
Luckily, that fight is already being won, Zach says. The prices are finally starting to work for people.
The next step is to make sure that they’re affordable and accessible for everyone, Zach says, not just for homeowners or the more affluent.
The other thing is that there are lots of smaller opportunities for individuals to get involved in the community’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Zach says. Things like walking to yoga class, or biking to the park, or eating local food are all important things to do as well.
“Those feel like the things that almost everybody can do and that really do make everybody’s lives more fulfilling, more connected with nature, more healthy, and all those things,” Zach says. “And they reduce emissions, not on a massive scale, but they’re part of that pie and they’re super important.”
For Zach, it’s all about that pie chart, showing where all of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions come from. Eventually, that chart needs to get down to just about zero, which is pretty much uncharted territory for a major American city. That’s why Zach is so focused on behavioral change, and making it as easy, appealing, and beneficial as possible.
“I don’t think that trying to push people to do things that are more inconvenient to them is a battle you’re going to win,” Zach says. “Right?”