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Spotlight: City staff connect the dots on climate action

It’s a relief to leave 2020 behind, but lest you fear 2021 will lack drama, remember: it’s time for a new two-year budget for the city of Ashland.

Overlapping and competing priorities abound: economic recovery, evacuation planning, wildfire fuel reduction, social equity and racial justice, affordable housing and social services.

And don’t forget an escalating climate emergency — a root cause of these challenges while also exacerbating them. Everything is connected, and we now have to work urgently to reduce future damage while grappling with the consequences of past inaction.

Against this backdrop, we sat down with some top city staff to talk about the upcoming budget cycle and how Ashland’s 2017 Climate and Energy Action Plan shapes city operations.

Climate action is like voting: We all must do our part. With over half the U.S. population living in communities of fewer than 25,000, we can’t just leave it to big cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, under the CEAP, our city has committed to cutting its fossil fuel consumption by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

That mandate helps everyone stay focused, says interim City Manager Adam Hanks. “We all know there’s a plan approved by the council that has specific things we agreed to be working toward. And it’s locked into code. So that’s strong, clear communication from council.”

City ordinance 9.40 states, “Achievement of the climate recovery goals for city operations ... shall be part of the goals for city operations.”

Just because you can’t find a “climate” budget line doesn’t mean things aren’t happening, Hanks asserts. “What people have historically wanted to see is a dedicated climate department or line item. Climate-related spending is sprinkled throughout the budget. And sometimes it doesn’t even entail additional costs. Sometimes we’re just doing things differently, and we’re diving into things that are more complicated. We grabbed the low-hanging fruit long ago.”

The city evaluates the climate impact of all its projects, says Public Works Director Scott Fleury. “We go through the process of looking at that and what the fiscal impacts are, and present this information in a manner so the council can make a decision.”

On technical projects, staff look for consultants with expertise in greenhouse gas reduction strategies in their respective fields, and provide them with the CEAP so they know the city’s climate goals and priorities. “It lets the consultants know that it’s a high priority issue for us,” says Hanks.

Fleury cites several successes. A new UV system at the wastewater treatment plant will reduce electricity consumption — a big win since the plant is a top energy user. A new section in the water distribution main will eliminate a pump station. New sidewalk materials are available that have lower embodied carbon compared to concrete.

Embodied carbon is a material’s carbon footprint, and it’s a big deal. According to Architecture 2030, a nonprofit promoting carbon-neutral building practices, energy efficiency renovations and renewable energy help reduce operational carbon emissions over time, whereas “embodied carbon emissions are locked in place as soon as a building is built. It is critical that we get a handle on embodied carbon now if we hope to phase out fossil fuel emissions by the year 2050.”

The city will update several master plans this year. The “really big one” is the Transportation System Plan, says Fleury, postponed from 2020 to allow for community involvement. The city-owned electric utility will also create a master plan, says Director Tom McBartlett. According to the CEAP, a comprehensive energy plan can help the city move toward clean renewable energy, energy efficiency, and transportation electrification. The CEAP will also be updated in 2021 to make it easier to use, says Hanks.

The CEAP is not just a “city plan” that we can stand back and watch. City operations comprise only about 2% of Ashland’s emissions, with residences and businesses accounting for all the rest. Ordinance 9.40 states that the city “shall actively encourage” climate action in the community. We need to do our part with the council leading the way, including by providing the necessary funding in the 2021-2023 biennial budget. There’s no time to lose.

In our next Spotlight, climate and energy analyst Stu Green will share his take on CEAP progress and update us on outside funding he and others have secured to support Ashland’s climate work above and beyond the budget.

Lorrie Kaplan is chair of the Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now. She can be reached at ACAPSpotlight@socan.eco. For more information about Ashland’s CEAP goals and targets, see www.ashland.or.us/climate.