Just as the United Nations has released a new study warning that the effects of climate change could be felt sooner than previously thought, the city of Flagstaff has started the final stages of drafting its own plan to help combat climate change.
With the climate action and adaptation plan, which has been over a year in the making, the city hopes to reduce Flagstaff’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 when compared to 2016 levels.
“The city of Flagstaff has been taking climate action for years,” city sustainability specialist Jenny Niemann said. “[But the action plan] will provide us with the policy prescriptions for moving forward, which we haven’t really had before."
The current draft plan outlines how the city can reduce emissions by 60 percent, but Niemann said this is a good first step and that the document will be reviewed and revised every five years. The city will then be able to take further action to ensure the goal is met.
To help make reaching this goal more feasible, the action plan lays out two target goals as well. The plan outlines that the city should reduce emissions by 15 percent by 2025 and by 30 percent by 2030.
The plan is based heavily on reducing emissions created in providing electricity to buildings and especially those caused by transportation. In 2016, vehicles alone accounted for 40 percent of the emissions generated in Flagstaff.
That same year, the combined electricity required by residential, commercial and industrial buildings in the city amounted to 43 percent of the emissions generated. Niemann said when it comes to emissions, the city government makes up a comparatively small portion of emissions produced.
And this presents a particular challenge. Reducing emissions by so much isn’t just a matter of making city buildings more energy efficient or by replacing city vehicles with greener models. It means changing the way residents live.
“Taking climate action will require change in the way that we do business, in the way we get around town, in the way that we consume things, and there’s no one magic policy that does this,” Niemann said. “We try to talk a lot about shared action, so we're not going to solve our climate problems through city action alone -- we will absolutely need to have everyone taking action.”
When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and buildings, the plan follows in the footsteps of the 2030 regional plan and the high occupancy housing plan that was adopted by Council earlier this year.
This means encouraging increased density and more walkable neighborhoods, where you don’t need a car to go grocery shopping, and plenty of alternative forms of transportation so when someone does need to get across town, riding a bus or a bike is more convenient than driving.
“Dense housing and multi-family housing uses far less electricity and far less water than single-family housing,” Niemann said. “It also has less of a transportation footprint. So we know that the data says that that type of building has less of an environmental impact.”
But in recent years, many citizens have shown a reluctance toward the city changing in this way. Controversy surrounding past high occupancy housing developments has highlighted the conflict between what the city has been historically and how it is changing.
Niemann said they have heard these concerns, but they believe these changes can be done in a way residents not only accept but that also improves their lives.
“We actually think you can have tall buildings in appropriate places that are right for the neighborhoods that they’re in, that are near [public] transit, and those denser buildings have benefits for all of us,” Niemann said. “They reduce traffic, they put more people into a smaller place, which can reduce housing costs.”
Although transportation and the energy consumed by buildings are the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions, they are not alone.
The pumping of water and the process of treating wastewater accounts for 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions while solid waste creates 11 percent.
When it comes to solid waste, a substantial portion of the greenhouse gasses are created by food and other organic materials breaking down in the landfill. One suggestion the plan makes is diverting the waste from the landfill by encouraging composting practices.
But as Neimann also points out, creating less waste is better than finding greener ways of dealing with it.
“So the food that we consume, and this table that we just bought and the things that we buy on Amazon,” Neimann said. “Those cost energy to create and those also cost energy to transport, they cost energy to manufacture, so that is also part of our total pie of greenhouse gasses.”
At the moment, the city does not measure the emissions created by such activity, but the addition of that measurement is laid out in the action plan. As such, finding ways of reducing residents' consumption of goods may be an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whether that be through city action or the encouragement and outreach of community ambassador.
Should the council adopt the climate action and adaptation plan, the goals and strategies laid out within the document will essentially be on Council and city staff's radar. But that doesn’t ensure those strategies are followed.
When the council reviews city codes or updates water priorities, the plan may suggest a direction that will forward the goal of reducing emissions, but it is still up to Council to decide to follow that direction.
If climate change stops being a priority for the council, there is nothing in the plan committing the city to action.
“The plan may say we want to pass this type of policy or we want to pass this type of ordinance,” Niemann said. “Those will all have to be passed separately.”
The plan is before Council for a work session focusing on public health, emergency services and implementation on Oct. 23.