Time for Some Good News?

There are plenty of discouraging climate-related developments out there — Hurricane Matthew, wildfires in the West, the ongoing drought in central New York. You don’t even have to look beyond our country’s borders to find enough bad news to make you want to pull the covers over your head. And, globally speaking, we’re still on track for 2016 to be the warmest year since records began in 1880.

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Hurricane Matthew

But believe it or not there’s actually been quite a bit of good news so far in October. As Vox reported the other day, here’s what this month has brought so far:

1) Canada is putting a nationwide carbon tax in place. On October 4, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government the  tax starting in 2018.

2) That same day the Paris climate agreement went into effect. Enough countries ratified the the deal so it’s now officially “in force.” Governments will have to regularly report and review their progress on emissions to the UN.

3) A new global deal on aviation emissions was signed two days later. More than 190 countries  agreed to offset much of the global growth in aviation emissions starting in 2020. This deal has plenty of flaws but it’s the first time the International Civil Aviation Organization has addressed the climate impact of flying, one of the fastest-growing sources of CO2.

4) Finally, on October 15, 197 countries  agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a very potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Vox described this as “probably the most important climate policy taken to date.” It’s estimated that the HFC treaty alone could prevent between 0.2°C and 0.44°C of warming by the end of the century. When ratified, this agreement will be legally binding and enforceable through trade sanctions.

Closer to home, we’ve also seen some positive developments recently:

1) Cornell just issued an important report outlining its options for meeting its target of carbon neutrality by 2035.  The release of the report by the Senior Leader Climate Action Group, will begin the next phase of campus and community engagement around this very ambitious goal.

2) New York’s  2016 Energy Conservation Construction Code went into effect on October 3rd for residential and commercial buildings. The new code calls for improvements in the design and construction of energy-efficient building envelopes and the installation of energy-efficient mechanical, lighting and power systems through requirements emphasizing performance.

3) The Tompkins County Planning Department announced that it has completed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories. The report shows that the Tompkins County Community reduced its emissions by 21% between 2008 and 2014 and Tompkins County Government reduced its emissions by 53% during this same period. The not-so-good news, however, is that when fugitive methane emissions outside of the County are taken into account total emissions due to expanded natural gas use have probably risen significantly.

4) Last but not least, in August New York established the Clean Energy Standard, a mandate that requires 50 percent of New York’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030. The Clean Energy Standard is critical to reducing the State’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Of course, even when the impact of all these developments is added up, we still don’t come close to keeping global warming below 2°C, the generally agreed upon ceiling for preventing runaway climate change. But they demonstrate that collective action is possible and by joining together we can build on these achievements to make further progress. As Bill McKibben points out, “”The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual…Job one is to organize and jobs two and three.”

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Will Alaska Be the New Florida?

The current debate over the proposed construction of the West Dryden Road natural gas pipeline raises a fundamental question: at what point will we acknowledge that we can no longer conduct “business as usual”?

Implicit in this question is another one: what does it actually mean to put this understanding into operation? Are we willing to move in a radically different direction, as uncomfortable and anxiety-producing as that may be? When will we stop saying, “yes, but …” and recognize that the time to act is now?

The County target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is not just a nice idea; it’s the minimum necessary to avoid runaway climate disruption. If we can’t accomplish this task in Tompkins County, then where in the U.S. will that target be met?

Oroville Lake, California, in 2011 (top) and the same lake in 2014 (bottom).

A New York Times article in late September examined the issue of climate refugees, not in Bangladesh or the South Pacific, but in the United States. At current rates of global warming, one of the climate researchers observed, “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”

Matthew E. Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, predicts that “millions of people” will be moving inland to cities such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit to escape coastal flooding in the East and Gulf Coast. By the middle of this century, California and the Southwest will be experiencing catastrophic water shortages and extreme heat.

Aside from the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska will be among the few refuges left. Even in these places the weather will be dramatically altered. “Summer in Minnesota is projected to be like the climate is in northern Oklahoma – the trees and the forests there, the crops that farmers plant,” according to Thomas C. Peterson, principal scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center.

We still have time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we recognize that the decisions we make now will determine whether we do so or not.

“Hope is a Verb With Its Sleeves Rolled Up”

Since its founding six years ago, TCCPI has advanced the notion that the only effective way for communities to fight climate change is by working together. The many challenges we face in dealing with climate mitigation and adaptation can only be met if we break out of our silos and work across sectors.
The achievement of “emerging district” status for Ithaca is a good example of what can be accomplished when we collaborate. Made up of business, local government, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of their buildings, the Ithaca 2030 District seeks to foster the establishment of performance benchmarks, the collecting and sharing of data, and the dissemination of best practices in the areas of energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Through the collaboration of diverse stakeholders, leveraging existing and developing new incentives and financing mechanisms, and creating and sharing joint resources, the Ithaca 2030 District will demonstrate the business case for healthy and high performing buildings.


Solar Tompkins is another terrific example of what can happen when we work together toward a common goal. Director Melissa Kemp recently announced that the program has exceeded its target,

enrolling nearly 1,300 families in the program. The initiative aims to double the amount of solar-panel electricity generated in the county. The deadline for enrollees to decide if they want to go solar is October 1, and already 120 have done so. In order to stimulate the growth of solar adoption in the County, Solar Tompkins is selling photovoltaic (PV) solar panel arrays at well below market rate. A typical residential 7,000-watt system could cost only $6,216 through the program once all of the tax credits and rebates are taken into account, according to Kemp.

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, often likes to say. The continuing news about the onset of significant climate disruption could easily lead to despair and paralysis. But by local citizens and institutions coming together on projects such as the Ithaca 2030 District and Solar Tompkins, and rolling up our sleeves for the long haul, we make it possible to build a more sustainable future for Tompkins County.

No Easy Answers

With Earth Day weekend fast approaching, the calendar is filling up with all kinds of events to mark the observance: conferences, lectures, summits, fairs, and film screenings. Spring is late in coming to the Finger Lakes this year but, if we’re lucky, the weather forecast might hold up and the warmer temperatures will continue and maybe, just maybe we’ll even get some sunshine in time for the celebrations.

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Cayuga Power Plant

It’s no little irony that at the same time we recommit to becoming better stewards of our life support system otherwise known as “the environment,” we are faced with the dilemma of how to respond to the news that Cayuga Power Plant is seeking to shift from coal to natural gas. While many are touting natural gas as a cleaner burning alternative to coal, recent reports coming out of Cornell and elsewhere suggest that the methane emissions released during the life cycle of natural gas production and distribution, not just combustion, make it as dirty or perhaps even dirtier than coal.

So what to do? Cayuga Power Plant supplies over 300 megawatts of electricity to the grid and is not easily replaced. It also is a key source of property taxes for both the town of Lansing and Tompkins County. Shutting it down would have a major impact on the area’s economy.

There is no easy answer and there will be huge trade offs regardless of what course we take. If nothing else, the Cayuga Power Plant stands as a stark reminder of just how deeply embedded we are in the fossil fuel regime and just how difficult it will be extricate ourselves from it.

The debate over how to move forward has the potential to be a crucial teachable moment in the life of our community, reminding us that there are always consequences to our decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional. Perhaps one of the best ways we can observe this year’s Earth Day is to recognize there are no easy answers, only complexities and challenges that we must confront and work our way through.

Tompkins County at Forefront of New Clean Energy, Climate Plans

Recent events have underscored the slow and uneven pace of progress at the national level regarding clean energy and climate change policies.  In this light, it’s also clear that in the immediate future, most real work on these fronts will occur at the local, state, and regional levels.

As early as 2002, the Tompkins County Legislature committed to a 20 percent reduction in the county government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2008 compared to 1998 levels. Mayor Carolyn Peterson was one of the original signatories of the 2005 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the Ithaca Common Council in 2006 adopted a goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2001 levels by 2016.

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Cornell University and Ithaca College in 2007 signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), whose long-term goal is to achieve climate neutrality. Tompkins Cortland Community College became a signatory the following year, and the three institutions have since invested significant effort towards fulfilling this promise.  Cornell’s climate action plan earned it a leadership award last month from Second Nature, which launched the ACUPCC and oversees its operations.

The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), beginning in 2008, has built on this impressive foundation to forge a coalition of local community leaders who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to an efficient, clean energy economy. With generous support from the Park Foundation, TCCPI has brought together Cornell, IC, and TC3, Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension, the County Legislature and Planning Department and nonprofits such as the Cayuga Medical Center, Museum of the Earth, Tompkins Community Action, and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Key business organizations such as the Ithaca Downtown Alliance, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Tompkins County Area Development, and Landlords Association of Tompkins County round out the coalition.

The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (EGGE) element, adopted as part of the 2004 Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan in 2008, provides the guiding framework for TCCPI. The EEGE element calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an annual goal of 2 percent of 2008 level over the next four decades to achieve that reduction. County planners recently secured the support of the County Legislature for an energy action plan that would lead to a 20 percent reduction in the county’s carbon footprint by 2020.

Besides facilitating the implementation of a common strategy, target, and timetable for achieving significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, TCCPI’s networks are exploring potential financing strategies for purchasing and investing, and new tools that will allow us to monitor our progress through effective data collection and analysis. In the process, by creating a culture of collaboration, we hope to become a model for other communities throughout the nation seeking to adopt efficient, clean energy and effective climate protection.

Note: This piece appeared originally in the Ithaca Journal, December 6, 2010.