In the news
Austin commits to carbon problem
Local successes prompt city to further engage on climate.
By Asher Price firstname.lastname@example.org May 11, 2015
Over the past two years, the city of Austin has paid app developer JouleBug about $20,000 to build and maintain a smartphone program that educates users about how to cut their water and energy use. As of May, 839 people had downloaded the Rethink/Austin app.
It was not Austin’s first foray into the digital-and-sustainability game. Back in 2009, the city contracted with a software developer for a Web-based carbon calculator. The company was paid nearly $70,000 for the work, which ended up being used by 1,100 or so people, according to documents obtained through a public information request.
The efforts to marry environmental awareness and technology get at larger issues of how the city has tried to implement the progressive environmental goals set by its City Council, and, arguably more ambitiously, change the behavior of its residents.
In recent years, the city has hired a chief of sustainability at a salary of nearly $150,000 annually and opened a sustainability office, now with a total of 11 employees. It has paid a climate scientist nearly $20,000 to brief the City Council about climate change matters. It has embarked on projects to collect compost and do away with telephone books. And it has expanded the sorts of materials Austin homeowners can recycle. Austin City Council members will soon consider recommendations in a draft plan that would deepen the city’s commitment to addressing climate change.
In one sense, the moves reflect Austin’s reputation as a green-minded city. And the expenditures appear small in the scope of a $3.5 billion city budget.
The city has had some success: It saw a 65 percent reduction in 2013 in greenhouse gas emissions associated with city buildings, vehicles and electricity, compared with emissions in 2007, before the Office of Sustainability was created.
But in a state that has scoffed at climate change, let alone enacting policies to address it, the moves sometimes feel more symbolic than practical.
“The smaller the unit of government, the weaker the argument that there’s much they can do, beyond ‘doing-our-share’ type of activity,” said Severin Borenstein, who teaches energy and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley. Issues of global importance “traditionally aren’t a focus of cities. Cities have a history of taking a stands on international issue, like wars, but there’s not much evidence those stands have had much impact.”
Yet city officials say that taking action here is important for the very reason that Austin faces the other way in the Texas political winds.
“There’s disappointment there’s not more action on the federal and global level,” said Lucia Athens, the city’s sustainability officer. “But action can happen on the local level. If you want to create change in the world, you have to start with your own backyard.”’
If anything, Austin appears to be accelerating its commitment to do what it can to address climate change.
A year ago, the City Council ordered the city manager to figure out how to drive community greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Austin Energy chief Larry Weis has said the city will end its use of coal power by the end of 2022, and Mayor Steve Adler recently convened health officials to address the consequences of a hotter climate on Austinites. Environmental groups, composed of engaged voters, continue to have endorsement clout at City Hall.
Climate plans face hurdles — including deep concerns about how climate change plans will affect monthly utility bills and the outspoken, if vastly outnumbered, Council Member Don Zimmerman, who rejects evidence of a link between industry emissions and global warming.
But at the end of April, the Sustainability Office circulated an Austin Community Climate Plan, which includes 130 items to ratchet down its emissions.
Some are straightforward (increase HOV lanes on roads); some are more arcane (“expand upon programs that use smoother street pavements to increase fuel efficiency”). Some could get cheers from the traffic grumps (“increase mobility by managing traffic speeds with regular synchronizing/retiming all traffic signals along arterials”); some recall efforts by other cities, such as New York’s soft drink tax, to influence the behavior of the public (“Promote programs for individuals to manage their own carbon footprint [carbon diet].”)
Many are already part of city plans. Others won’t necessarily get adopted as policy, said Austin climate manager Zach Baumer.
“The idea is to have a plan that gets anything and everything that’s technically feasible down in one place,” he said.
According to the report’s volunteer authors — headed by the Sierra Club’s Al Armendariz, architect François Lévy and Climate Buddies’ Joep Meijer, whose nonprofit helps individuals and businesses assess their carbon impact — benefits include “a more secure future for our families, innovation that results in local jobs and stewardship of the natural resources that make Austin such a special and desirable place to live.” (Survey and production costs of the plan came to about $21,000.)
We don’t do enforcement; we’re not the eco-police,” Athens said of the office she heads.
But her group is leading the charge not only to green up Austin operations (successful initiatives that have saved money include printing out far less paper), but to influence the behavior of city residents.
Facing a preaching-to-the-choir challenge — most Austinites who pay attention to sustainability issues already are environmentally engaged — the city decided in 2013 to partner with North Carolina-based JouleBug to customize the company’s sustainability app to reach the growing number of Austinites who get the majority of their information through their phones.
The JouleBug app provides data and analytics about when, where and how the community is using the free app, called Rethink/Austin, to engage in sustainable behavior — biking to work, for example, or composting — as well as the environmental impact of these actions. It then eggs on users to undertake sustainable activities by setting up com petitions against friends on social networks such as Facebook and offering virtual rewards.
The app informs users about the monetary savings associated with the sustainable actions it encourages, “appealing to a broad range of potential users, not just to people who already consider themselves ‘environmentalists,’ ” according to a city document that lays out the partnership.
So far, Austin participants have collectively done the equivalent of planting 2 acres of forest in reducing carbon emissions through activities recorded by the app.
But as nifty as the app might be, it remains relatively seldom used, pointing to a larger problem of the well-meaning efforts of cities to influence individual behavior on an issue that extends far beyond any single place.
“More people should be involved in communities, and it’s neat they’re trying to be more efficient, but that’s definitely not where the big prey is,” said Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, which studies sustainability and climate change. “The big prey is moving away from coal. That’s where all the emissions come from — that and more efficient cars.”
In other words, the most effective way to tamp down carbon emissions is to regulate on the federal and state level. “What Austin alone does is not going to make a difference. We are going to need a lot of action from everywhere in the world,” Borenstein said. “But if anyone in Texas is going to raise the issue of the state’s dependence on fossil fuels and contribution to climate change, it’s probably going to come from Austin.”
Contact Asher Price at 512-445-3643.
Climate Change: City Targets Zero Emissions
City aims for carbon neutrality by 2050
BY LIZZIE JESPERSEN, FRI., MAY 23, 2014; Austin Chronicle
The resolution, sponsored by Council members Chris Riley, Sheryl Cole, and Bill Spelman, passed April 10 with Mayor Lee Leffingwell casting the only opposing vote. It’s said to be the most aggressive locally adopted climate change plan to date, and expands on past resolutions to include more city sectors, more benchmarking measures, and more community-held responsibility. In addition, the resolution emphasizes the City Council’s preference to “achieve this goal as soon as it is feasible.”
Joep Meijer, owner of sustainability consulting firm the Right Environment, and a founder of nonprofit Climate Buddies, helped draft the resolution. He said it is too early in the process to detail how each specific sector – mainly targeting energy, transportation, and waste/industrial – will be involved. The drafters decided to “set the goal, make it as ambitious as possible, and then do the planning and implementation process afterward.” Sector-specific plans are currently in their development stages, and will be presented by City Manager Marc Ott to Council by Sept. 1, “including a framework for meeting short- and long-term community-wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.” The final, comprehensive Climate Protection Plan, including “all applicable greenhouse gas emission reduction strategies and climate change resiliency plans,” will then be presented for community review and City Council adoption by March 1, 2015. Not only will this final plan include action plans for each major sector, it will also include secondary goals and measures for “sector-specific factors such as renewable energy, building energy use reductions, vehicle miles traveled, waste diversion rates, and more.” The plan will detail what steps toward zero-emission are achievable for each sector, and how other sectors can pick up the slack, should one sector fall short in reaching its goals. Austin’s 2007 Climate Protection Plan was intended to make Austin “the leading city in the nation in the effort to reduce the negative impacts of global warming,” according to the program’s website, and was indeed one of the most progressive plans of its time. According to Meijer, that project is now near completion – and its lack of a goal beyond 2020 is why having a new plan is so important.
“The current Climate Protection Plan [from 2007] was very outdated,” said Meijer. “It only focuses on city operations, but city operations compared to a [whole] city is only a small drop in the bucket.” Meijer also said the old plan lacked updating mechanisms, planning processes, and review periods to keep it up-to-date. All of these things will be addressed by the new plan. Riley’s chief of staff, Lewis Leff, a primary drafter of the resolution, said the original plan also failed to address climate resiliency, which is a climate’s ability to absorb the impacts of climate change without significant negative effects. “We realized that was the missing piece to our Climate Protection Plan,” Leff said. “We thought it was important as the environmental leaders to set a new target, and that it would be long term.” Meijer said he believes the resolution’s bold goal is not only an achievable reality for Austin, but that it will be completed before the 2050 target date. The resolution acknowledges that for this to happen, however, the plan must take into account the considerable challenges that may be presented by variables such as population and business growth. In a city that becomes home to approximately 110 new residents each day, the community’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions is significant.
Jay Banner, climate change expert and director of UT-Austin’s Environmental Science Institute, said population growth would be a huge challenge in reaching net-zero emissions. “An increased population will need more resources, more water, more transportation,” said Banner, “all of which will require more energy, which in turn will require a bigger effort to achieve net-zero emissions.” Banner also said that while it is possible that enough Austin residents will take personal responsibility over their emissions to reach the resolution’s goal, it would require a cultural shift in attitudes. “City leadership can only go so far in this regard,” he said. “In my opinion, ATX residents have the potential to go the distance in making this shift, but an external driver will likely be essential.”
Meijer said he considers Austin’s population growth not a challenge, but an opportunity. “Adding more people, increasing density, is a really good mechanism for lowering environmental impact,” Meijer said. “Change means we can make decisions. If this city was stagnant, it would be much more difficult.” Banner said despite potential challenges like population growth and community ownership, the resolution presents an excellent goal. “Austin could be a leader in this regard and catalyze change elsewhere,” Banner said.
There’s a new book in town for people of all faiths, a guide to climate action
By Barbara Kessler, Green Right Now, April 18 2013 We are not separate from our planetary home, Earth. We breathe Earth’s air into our lungs, our muscles feed off its oxygen in the blood that flows through our veins, and all that passes through us comes from sunlight, soil, and water.— Rev. Tom VandeStadt, introduction to Becoming Carbon Positive By Barbara Kessler Green Right Now Churches and synagogues and other houses of faith have been involved with social justice and ecological movements for decades, and many are becoming proponents for climate action, taking up recycling and starting edible gardens. But as faith groups move toward addressing the 21st Century crisis of climate change, they may find themselves without a clear road map. A new manual,Becoming Carbon Positive, being released by Austin’s Interfaith Environmental Network (IEN) in collaboration with Climate Buddies, aims to fill that vacuum. The manual, being released at Austin’s Earth Day celebration on Saturday, will be available as a free download or in a $20 printed version. It was “community drafted” by volunteers from IEN and Climate Buddies, which helps organizations assess and reduce their carbon impact, said Chris Searles, outreach coordinator for the Interfaith Environmental Network. The IEN, which has 15 organizational members, among them Jewish, Quaker, Zen Buddhist and protestant congregations, joined with Climate Buddies, also based in Austin, in late 2011 to develop the action plan for faith groups. The concept: Help churches and synagogues get their own energy action teams together and guide them in finding successful ways to reduce their carbon impact. IEN members began with some of their own congregations, a pilot project that uncovered vast carbon savings. The five participating congregations — All Saints Episcopal; Austin Zen Center; Central Presbyterian; First Unitarian Universalist; and Saint David’s Episcopal — saved an estimated 1 million pounds of CO2 emissions in 2012, Searles said. Becoming Carbon Positive evolved during that process and also helped guide the faith groups’ progress. Now, in finished form, it could work as a foundational “toolbox” for any faith group wanting to address the crisis of climate change, Searles said. “I don’t think there are too many people out there who aren’t concerned [about climate change], especially people who are concerned about ethics and the consequences of their actions,” Searles said. “There are plenty of people out there who want to do the right thing and this is a way to speak to them.” The 58-page manual starts by recapping the faith basis for taking action against climate change, includes chapters on team building and an addendum on best practices, showcasing successful recycling, weatherizing and solar projects. It opens with a call to action from Rev. Tom VandeStadt, pastor at the Congregational Church of Austin and co-chair of the Interfaith Environmental Network: ”
We are not separate from our planetary home, Earth. We breathe Earth’s air into our lungs, our muscles feed off its oxygen in the blood that flows through our veins, and all that passes through us comes from sunlight, soil, and water. We are of the Earth, and its beauty and complexity reveal deeper truths about us, and mysteries that inspire words like sacred and holy and leave us in awe. May we awaken to the ways we harm that which sustains us, and choose the journey to “heal the damage done.” May our grandchildren and their children look back upon us with love and gratitude for the choice we have made. May this manual guide us as we journey together”.
Joep Meijer, co-founder of Climate Buddies, approached the Austin IEN in late 2011. Climate Buddies felt it could help organizations reduce their environmental impact, but it wanted to work with groups that were already persuaded that climate action is necessary. Climate Buddies is an all-volunteer group and offers its services for free. Becoming Carbon Positive contains some basic information on how greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is heating the planet.“We’re here to help you, but not to convince you,” says Meijer, a sustainability expert and environmental chemist. He explains that Climate Buddies’ philosophy is to be positive and action-oriented, in other words, to be a “buddy” to anyone who wants to seriously work on climate action. ” Anybody who wants to work on climate change, on a daily basis, we can help them,” he said. The group has kept its services free, because so far they can, and they’ve found that not asking for money has “changed the conversation” in several instances. In a meeting with the city, officials decided to help them with some printing needs, he said. The Interfaith group seemed to be a perfect partnership, Meijer said, because it fit the Buddies’ criteria for linking up with people seeking to protect the earth but needing guidance. For the churches trying the pilot program, Meijer and his colleagues measured the carbon imprint of all their purchasing decisions, including energy, operations and food expenditures, and then turned the information over to internal committees that hashed out ways to reduce carbon emissions. The group sought to pin all changes the churches made to an actual carbon savings, so that the participants could project ahead to concrete goals. For example, a church could switch to a wind energy program, and instantly reduce the carbon impact of its electricity budget by around 90 percent, Meijer explained. By making the program more concrete, the participants were able to enjoy incremental successes that could be integrated into the big picture. Climate Buddies calls these “Victory Scenarios,” in which participants celebrate when they’ve won. Winning on the energy front, for instance, means getting to the point where the energy is clean, local and abundant, Meijer said. This specificity is a crucial difference between the Climate Buddies and Becoming Carbon Positive approach and other green programs, he said. “We give people tools, so they know what’s important. So it becomes ‘I do this and I get there’ ….instead of just, “I do this, it feels good.” “All the education and the group process around this has culminated in the manual that we’re releasing on Saturday,” he said.
Local faith groups produce manual on how to go green
Austin American Statesman, April 20 2013 By Juan Castillo The relationship between religion and the environment is often portrayed as an emerging alliance, but really, it’s an old story, says the Rev. Tom VandeStadt of Austin.
By following the document and its tips covering myriad things such as energy and water efficiency and improved waste management, the congregations have reduced their carbon dioxide use by a combined 1 million pounds, said Rabbi Steve Folberg of Congregation Beth Israel. Congregations that use the manual commit to forming a team to lead participation and to getting a free climate assessment of their facility. Folberg said the manual is designed to achieve meaningful and measurable results. But another hope is that those who participate will say, ‘If we can push toward zero waste at the church, we can look at some of the same stuff at home,’ ” Folberg said. The manual addresses climate change scientifically, Folberg said, “but also philosophically and theologically in the sense of, ‘How is climate change a religious issue and what can we as religious communities do about it?’ ” VandeStadt said the manual can help future generations. Without action, he said, “our children and our children’s children are going to inherit a lot of problems that our generation and generations before have created for them.” While meeting in Austin in January, meteorologists and scientists from across the country said they sometimes struggle sharing their knowledge about climate change with people of faith who don’t believe in global warming or who believe that God created Earth and humans can do little to influence it. “That mindset is out there,” Folberg said. But “religious communities tend to get painted, ‘If you’re a person of faith, you’re anti-science and anti-research.’ That’s just not true.” The network’s approach, Folberg said, has been not to try to convince the unconvinced, but to link up people of faith who are concerned about the environment, “and to say to them, ‘You are not in this alone.’ ” The network was founded in 2008 by a small group that sought to bring together those who saw environmental stewardship as part of their religious obligations, Folberg said. About 15 member congregations pay annual dues, said the network’s Chris Searles. About 300 people are on the network’s mailing list, and about 600 people follow its Facebook group, Searles said.
Joep Meijer, co-founder and chair, Climate Buddies
What I’m working on now: I am part of a local group in Austin Texas called Climate Buddies. We want people to include climate change in their decision making. From buying bread to choosing your electricity contract. We have a couple of rules that we follow. 1) it has to be positive; we want to work on things we want or need to see more of 2) we want to work with groups of people that are willing to engage with us for at least a year; in other words, we want to initiate change that is goal-oriented and with the aim of self-sufficient and internalized climate change resilience 3) it has to be fun; if it is not fun, why are we doing it anyway? We feel this is very important dealing with climate change which can be so overwhelming for people. We believe it is not. When we talk to people we talk about the victory scenario. We are developing a Carbon Positive Pledge Program for congregations, we are working on a coalition around a program for individuals and businesses, we are initiating local policies around energy efficiency. We are developing what we call the Carbon Positive Challenge Toolkit that includes actions that are ranked on ease of implementation, cost, and climate impact. We offer a building walk through to see where groups are and help them define their first steps towards Carbon Positive status for their homes, congregations or offices. Why I initially started working on climate issues: I wanted to be more involved locally and with people. I am a sustainability expert and decided that climate change is the most pressing challenge for mankind that is on its way to change how we live, where we live and how we work together on this earth. The impact on the earth is unprecedented and we have to turn it around. Climate, Energy, Water and Food issues are very much intertwined and all of them can greatly benefit from an economy. Climate change is man-made, so we can fix it. All the technology that we need to do it, is available. There is no reason to not be able to win this fight. However, it does require people to do their part and take responsibility in their work and private lives. I want to inspire people to do this. Every step is one. All steps together are huge. This is how we got into this mess to begin with; one clothes dryer, one energy-inefficient house, one flight at a time. There are a few ingredients that are part of my professional and private life that drive me; I know there is an abundance of free and clean solar energy to power the world’s economy, so there is no energy problem; if only we can then make things in a way that leave the soil/nature better than how we found it, then we have solved the resource issues, then the only thing we still have to do is to make things non-toxic. Just do not make stuff that we and nature cannot deal with. I chose to work on the first one, the transition to a clean energy economy to become the driver of a sustainable economy that is local, clean, flourishing and has a reverse impact on climate change. I refer to that as Carbon Positive. I want to inspire people and organizations to become Carbon Positive. The climate work I’m most proud of: I am really proud when people come up to me and say, “this is what I have done last week to help fight climate change”. That just makes my day. And, yeah, it happened right now, one of the congregations that we are working told me that they are getting a load profiler installed so they can actually track their electricity use. The first step to empower yourself: know where you are, see what you can do to improve, track progress. Thank you Jessie Coulter from Central Presbyterian Church Austin. The biggest obstacle I face in my work: The lack of urgency to include climate change considerations in our choices as humans and as society is not motivating. We are still fighting the idea of “uncertainty” too often. People hear too many different things. The other obstacle is the unknown impacts of our own actions. Every time we spend a dollar we make a decision and have a climate impact. People also feel overwhelmed by the difficulties in working on climate change in their personal lives, so much information is missing. I want to work on this last part, if I can empower people to integrate climate into their decision making than I am on track and our journey will be worthwhile. The reason why I joined Climate Access: If we accept that we are part of a society, then approaching big challenges can only be dealt with as a society. We have to find fellow people to keep us inspired, to motivate us to take the next step, to inspire action for the next day to come. Sharing what works is a good excuse for this. The Climate Access community motivates me to do more, and then some more, and then some more. Something you probably don’t know about me: We rent out a room in our house and try to find a room in someone’s home wherever we travel. It is a great way to share current infrastructure and puts money into people’s pockets. The best thing about it, you get to know many people that share what they like most of where they live. It is a treasure hunt that makes visiting new places way more rewarding. My favorite quote: As only my wife can put it, “I love you”.
Going green with God: The Energy Action Team aims to educate congregations on earth-friendly energy
http://austin.culturemap.com/newsdetail/03-27-12-12-28-going-green-with-god/ By MELISSA GASKILL Does God, in whatever form you see such a higher power, expect us to take good care of the earth? A group of people from various faith communities in Austin think so, and in 2009 founded the Interfaith Environmental Network. Their stated goal was to work together to “claim the common call of environmental stewardship.” The activist group, which meets monthly, sponsors speakers on relevant topics such as Austin’s water issues, recycling, the proposed electric rate increase and community gardening. Last November, a group discussion on “The Energy Challenge: A moral imperative for climate change,” spawned a sub-group called the Energy Action Team, or EAT, facilitated by a coalition of energy professionals called Climate Buddies. Since then, more than 20 EAT volunteers have been meeting three times a month, ramping up their environmental efforts and spreading their message. EAT’s goals include building awareness about the environmental consequences of reliance on fossil fuel energy sources and other human activities affecting climate changes, and examining best practices for energy conservation, efficiency and promotion of renewable energy sources. Joep Meijer, co-founder and chair of Climate Buddies, is an environmental chemist who has helped groups, governments and businesses quantify sustainability for more than 15 years. He says the end goal is a tool kit and manual that a congregation anywhere in the world could use to become carbon positive. Currently, the EAT is developing a tool kit for Central Texas and looking for two or three congregations to run a pilot program. The Team uses the term “carbon positive” rather than the more common “carbon neutral,” he adds, to emphasize a positive attitude toward dealing with the issue. “The goal of both is the same, to get to zero carbon as quickly as possible. We hope to inspire members to do the same in their households. That is where positive spin-off will happen and grow.” EAT’s goals include building awareness about the environmental consequences of reliance on fossil fuel energy sources and other human activities affecting climate changes, and examining best practices for energy conservation, efficiency and promotion of renewable energy sources. To implement the tool kit, a congregation needs an organized team of people to do the work. The EAT will conduct a baseline energy audit, Meijer says, “so everyone knows where they are on energy consumption and climate.” EAT then selects specific actions, starting with those that are simple to implement or that don’t have significant costs, yet will make meaningful progress toward becoming carbon positive. “Based on the audit, we know the most important areas to work on, the high leverage items,” says Meijer. A congregation may need to start from scratch and weatherize, switch out lighting and upgrade or replace HVAC, for example, or it may be ready to implement alternative energy sources. “We’ll find actions that deliver the most result for the money and effort put into it. It’s not a list of things that work for everybody, but from which we can select items that work best for that church.” The focus is always on three things, though: conservation, or using less energy overall; efficiency, or doing the same things with less energy; and switching to renewables for the consumption that is left. “Wherever a church spends a dollar, that will go into our review,” Meijer says. “We’ll tell them where most of their carbon footprint comes from and how to mitigate and reduce that. We want measurable results.” The EAT currently offers free climate audits to any interested congregation. This helps the Team understand how typical congregations work, energy-wise. The audits are also an important awareness and education tool, teaching congregations about their carbon footprint and what it means. Why a specifically faith-based approach? For results, Meijer says. “We wanted to find groups that include a significant amount of people, and that were willing to make this a focus for an entire year. We looked at what is here in Austin, and thought, why not find a group with a high buy-in for taking care of the earth? IEN gives us a platform for being positive, and also inclusive. We can talk about the things that join us, not that separate us. They also committed to making it an issue for 2012.” The Team’s carbon positive efforts will ultimately not be restricted to the faith community, but, Meijer says, it is a wonderful one to start with.