By now, everyone has memorized the lede. Climate change is a global problem posing an existential crisis for human society. Fossil fuel energy is baked into our economy and culture, making political solutions seem impossible. Many nations, especially the United States, are moving backwards on reducing carbon emissions. And every week reveals new, alarming facts about sea ice, permafrost, weather disasters, and/or mass extinctions.
The daunting problem makes meaningful change seem impossible, so most people post something on Facebook, slap a sticker on their car, and carry on with their lives. But it turns out that city governments are trying to step into the vacuum of climate inertia, and this summer St. Paul is joining the ranks of Minnesota cities with official plans aimed at combating climate change. The big goal is to become carbon neutral within 30 years.
“Whether these goals are extremely ambitious is an open question, but a lot of folks are coming to the same conclusion,” explained Russ Stark, the city’s chief resilience officer. “These are the goals we need to hit, but they are going to be very challenging given current conditions.”
The draft plan reflects a promise that the previous mayor, Chris Coleman, made coming out of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The commitment by city governments is important because, even as Minnesota is making progress on overall electricity generation — the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, has promised to become carbon neutral by 2050 — other sectors of society are not seeing the same levels of progress.
“The plan focuses our attention more on [the city’s] two other big areas of contribution of emissions,” explained Stark, nodding to the progress on renewable energy. “[One is] building heating or thermal energy. Even if we move to 100 percent renewable electricity, we’re still heating buildings with natural gas. Just over 60 percent of emissions from St. Paul come from buildings and another 30 percent comes from the transportation sector.”
In addition to boosting energy efficiency through a variety of audit subsidies and new construction ordinances (more on that in a moment), the city’s plan is ambitious about reducing transportation emissions, a longstanding problem in St. Paul. It aims to decrease carbon emissions from the transportation sector by boosting electrification and reducing driving.
“Those basic tools in the toolbox aren’t much different today than 20, 30, 40 years ago,” admitted Stark, pointing at the need for transit, and to design streets for bicycling and walking. “But now we’re identifying the need to accelerate them by, for example, getting rid of parking requirements in new developments so that, at the very least, the city is not the driver of encouraging the continued use of more automobiles.”
The draft goal is to reduce the overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in St. Paul by 2.5 percent each year. Another key plank of St. Paul’s approach is the electrification of the city’s fleet vehicles. For example, the most widely used city vehicles are police cars. Stark is hopeful that the Police Department can begin investing in an electric fleet: in the near term, for pool vehicles, and maybe someday moving to electric squad cars.
Once a plan passes, then what?
“A plan is useful, but the devil is always in the details,” said Kim Havey, the director of sustainability for Minneapolis, and Stark’s counterpart to the west. Compared to St. Paul, Minneapolis is ahead of the curve on climate action. Its plan has been on the books for more than five years, and the challenge now is finding the right policies to achieve the city’s stated goals.
As a result, Havey is focusing on a combination of regulation and behavioral approaches to reducing carbon emissions. “We need to combine the ethical with the social, and create strategies that ask, ‘What are the human-based outcomes that motivate people?’” Havey said.
The idea is for Minneapolis to move away from a quantitative approach to changing behavior, and to think more about what drives day-to-day decisions. For example, Havey pointed to the problem of speeding up the city’s buses, so that they become more competitive with driving.
“Trying to educate people about their carbon footprint can be helpful, but only to a small segment of society,” explained Havey. “How do we get people to understand that the goals that align with action are also goals that create a cleaner city, and a healthier lifestyle?”
Compared to St. Paul, Minneapolis has had more success reducing its overall vehicle-miles-traveled levels; they are actually down 2 percent over the last decade, making Minneapolis one of very few American cities where that’s the case. (That said, that pace of reduction in driving is still far from meeting the city’s goals.) Policymakers are thus shifting more of their focus to energy used for the heating and cooling of buildings. The result is a complicated series of ordinances, requirements, inspections, and behavior nudging. For example, new buildings are offered a choice of conforming to LEED certification or participating in Energy Star evaluations.
These efforts culminate in a citywide “benchmark” — which, Havey is happy to point out, shows good progress for commercial energy reductions.
“Typically, benchmarking focuses on transparency and behavior,” Havey said. “Nudging property owners to compete and try to reduce energy to ‘keep ahead of the Joneses,’ so to speak. [That gets you to a] 1 or 2 percent annual reduction, but in places with more progressive policies, buildings have been seeing 4 percent average energy-use reduction.
Earlier this year, the city floated a change to the “truth in sale” ordinance that aims to reduce energy for the thousands of residential homes in the city. The new rule would require energy audits during the sale of homes, with the aim of encouraging investments in insulation, windows, or other carbon reduction technologies.
“Research shows that there is a very high level of interest in making improvements to a home immediately before you sell and immediately after you buy a home,” said Havey. “With this truth-in-sale housing rule, typically speaking, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 homes sold [each year]. This requirement will kick in for any home going on the market.”
Both Stark and Havey realize that city policies alone won’t be enough to alter the course of the earth’s atmosphere, but something has to be done, and change has to start somewhere. Climate Action Plans might lead the way for future efforts at other levels of government.
“There’s certainly a growing number of Climate Action Plans,” explained Ben Passer, the director of energy access and equity for Fresh Energy, a local energy nonprofit. “Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis Park, and Grand Marais have all developed or started the process of developing these plans. We know that this is not a priority currently at the federal level, so there’s a critical role for cities to play.”
The hope for St. Paul’s Stark is that climate action spreads to other cities and states, and winds up making a difference. He sees St. Paul taking a leadership role in working with others.
“We’re going to need to up our game, and our participation in the regional, local, and statewide conversation,” said Stark. “Those transit investments are the backbone of how we‘re going to create a city in which having a car is less necessary for people’s daily lives. You really get a lot of benefits when you get to the point where more people don’t have to own a car for their daily needs both for them as individuals, as households, and for the city.”
St. Paul’s plan is currently in draft form, and the city is accepting comments right now, aimed at improving the plan before it goes before the City Council.
Meanwhile, Stark’s more positive message is one shared by Kim Havey, who has been trying to emphasize climate action as a way to improve people’s lives.
“I always end by talking about the future this brings us,” said Havey. “It’s one where people are healthier, happier, have more leisure, are more connected with people socially, and we have more equity. If we use this as a way to also create a more equitable society, this can have a tremendous amount of benefit for everyone, but we need to stop being pulled in the wrong direction by fossil fuel companies and large investor-owned companies which don’t have society’s best interest at heart.”