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Finding equity when a city reduces its environmental impact

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/18/17 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Climate

City of Cleveland is updating its 2013 Carbon Action Plan this year, convening a group of 50 stakeholders to share ideas on improving the reach and impact of the existing plan whose goal was to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050. (A noteworthy parallel track, Cleveland signed on to the Paris Climate Accord this year, when the U.S. under the Trump Administration withdrew). The goal is to reach a broader range of people especially those living in poverty and disproportionately affected by climate change. Vulnerable populations do not have the resources, perish at higher rates when unexpected shifts in temperature and moisture occur. Extreme heat and flooding events are predicted with higher certainly to occur in Northeast Ohio due to climate change unless global emissions can be curtailed and unless other big changes aren’t made.

(Full disclosure: GreenCityBlueLake was invited to participate as a steering committee member, so, I will not report on any conversations, rather, I’d like to devote this post to the preliminary data on greenhouse gas emissions produced in Cleveland).

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Vulnerability is a big topic in cities — including Cleveland where 17% of the population is 70 years old or above and poverty afflicts many people. Vulnerability to climate shifts is particularly acute in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs, according to research conducted by University of Buffalo, because the majority of homes in the region were built before 1950 when air conditioning become standard equipment and because the lack of tree canopy cover (Cleveland has a below average 18% of its land covered by tree canopy)/preponderance of paved surfaces all combine to raise the risk of heat-related illness or death.

An update to the Cleveland Climate Action Plan is intent on addressing the inequities found in Cleveland where poverty, access to jobs and healthcare, and a large percentage of the population is without robust options to live car free.

It is the first storyline behind the city's four percent reduction of GHG emissions, according to a GHG inventory conducted on data from 2010 to 2015. A look inside the city’s GHG emissions reveals some positive trends. Emissions from energy generation dropped by nearly one million metric tonnes. This can be attributed (mostly) to a switch made by FirstEnergy, Cleveland Public Power, Cleveland Thermal and others from coal to natural gas and hydro power. The analysis looks at factors like weather, population change and GDP, so, the mild winters — and alarming rise in average temperatures — and continued population loss in Cleveland are unnatural contributions to lowering energy and GHGs.

Clevelanders also emit less heat-trapping carbon from driving cars. Cleveland had a 3 percent drop in emissions from on-road transportation (for vehicles traveling inside the city limits) — a figure that runs counter to the region’s vehicle miles traveled (VMT). It speaks to an inequity as Cleveland and the region should be closer aligned in VMT and emissions from vehicle travel. It also speaks to the inequitable nature of the suburbs that have low-density land uses and a lack of transportation options; and to a lack of access to economic opportunity. Car dependence in the suburbs of and persistent poverty in Cleveland combine to drop the Cleveland-Elyria region to 99 (below Detroit) in a new, well-respected ranking of the 100 largest metro regions in equity and sustainability, The U.S. Cities Sustainable Development Goals Index.

It is truly amazing that emissions from natural gas use dropped by 15 percent and electricity by four percent in Cleveland, despite industrial users increasing emissions by 13 percent. It speaks to a few things.

The idea that a city is shedding carbon emissions while increasing industrial output challenges an assumption that environmental goals are inequitable. That said, if poverty rates are not falling for Cleveland residents then the focus of the Cleveland Climate Action Plan to generate green jobs AND reduce vulnerabilities is going to be very important.

It is noteworthy when discussing the lighter carbon footprint of Cleveland that there has been a decoupling of sorts. That is, industries like steelmaking and bulk-materials transport have enjoyed steady growth in the last five years. Their carbon emissions have increased as a result, but overall GHGs in Cleveland have declined. If the industrial process emissions are taken out of the equation, overall Cleveland GHG emissions fell from 9.09 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent to 8.07 from 2010 to 2015, a 11 percent reduction. Decoupling continues to be an important conversation nationally.

During the same five-year period, the U.S. economy grew while its carbon emissions fell (mostly due to shifts in energy generation from coal to natural gas). It shows that it is possible to make progress on the environment and the economy simultaneously. It should bode well for Cleveland, and put wind in its sails (and turbines) that setting a goal to reduce emissions is really a story of finding opportunity again, that the goal this time is to produce a more abundant, equitable, people-centered Cleveland while keeping consumption of fossil fuels in check, for the people who are closest to needing both.

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