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Q&A Series: Addressing Climate Change at the Local Level with Iowa City and Phoenix

Local governments play a leading role in addressing climate change. To assist those efforts, on June 20th, STAR released a Climate Change Guide that provides comprehensive and easy-to-use guidance for advancing efforts in climate change mitigation and adaptation. In our Q&A this month, Brenda Nations, Sustainability Coordinator in Iowa City and Joe Gibbs, Air Quality Specialist with the City of Phoenix Office of Environmental Programs, discuss how their communities approach climate change, the investments they are making, and how they will use the STAR Climate Guide. 

How high of a priority is climate change in your community?

Brenda Nations: Climate is a high priority with our current City Council as well as the residents in Iowa City. Working on climate issues is one of the areas that the City Council identified in their most recent strategic plan.






Joe Gibbs: Climate change has consistently ranked as a high priority for Phoenix with the last two Mayor administrations and City Council since 2009. That year, Council charged our Office of Environmental Programs, under the City Manager’s Office, to develop a Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions Inventory for City Operations for 2005, and establish an emissions reduction target of 5% below 2005 levels to be met by 2015. Since that time, we submitted a 2012 Inventory update that showed we had already reached a 7.2% reduction, so Council raised the 2015 reduction target to 15%. We have just completed our 2015 inventory showing that City operations reduced emissions by 15.6%. We are now working on a 40% reduction by 2025.

Within Phoenix City government, support for climate change mitigation is based on our city’s imperative to accept and respond to the Kyoto and Paris agreements. Just as importantly, however, our effort also springs from the well-founded knowledge that such reductions create more efficient municipal operations and reduce costs. It’s also good community-wide for economic development by attracting and nurturing talent and innovation.

What is your community doing to mitigate climate change?

BN: The community will be engaged in putting together our first climate action plan during the next year, which will identify actions needed to meet the recent reduction targets set by Council. Our local utility, MidAmerican Energy, has made a commitment to 100% renewable energy for their electricity generation and should meet this goal in the next few years. The University of Iowa power plant recently made a commitment to stop burning coal by 2025 and has been replacing coal by burning biomass.

JG: Within City operations, Phoenix is and has made a variety of investments. These include: converting all traffic signals and street lights to LED, establishing a state-of-the art methane collection system on the city-operated landfill, decreasing Phoenix fleet emissions by 12,855 MT or 9.5% due to the fuel profile being transitioned from LNG and diesel to less carbon-intensive CNG and B20 fuels respectively, and decreasing emissions from electricity use in buildings with onsite solar power generation that together with cleaner grid electricity reduced emissions by by 17,281 MT CO2e.

Looking ahead, Phoenix expects to complete the 91st Ave Wastewater Treatment Plant biogas to renewable natural gas project in late 2017. The project is estimated to reduce carbon emissions by nearly 45,000 tons per year.

What climate hazards is your community most focused on, and what are you doing to adapt?

BN: The Iowa River runs through Iowa City and we had 100 year floods in 1993 and in 2008. So with two very large floods in 15 years, flooding is the hazard we are most focused on. We are in the currently in the process of raising one of our main roads that enters the city because it floods. Additionally, we have worked with surrounding communities in creating a hazard mitigation plan and have staff trained in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to better deal with emergencies. Our zoning code was amended by ordinance in 2010 so that all construction now must be built above the 500 year floodplain level by one foot.

JG: Drought is the main hazard the city is addressing. Phoenix has a 100-year water supply to comply with Arizona’s innovative 1980 Groundwater Code. Phoenix must also meet its “safe-yield” requirement by 2025 under the Code. “Safe-yield” is the long-term balancing of groundwater withdrawals with the amount of water naturally and artificially recharged to Active Management Area aquifers.

Recently, Phoenix has added two new initiatives; 1) to add water reserves including underground water storage in Tucson per a Tucson-Phoenix Water Agreement; and 2) to create a $5 million Water Resiliency Fund that increases water storage capacity.

What catalyzed your community’s efforts around climate action?

BN: I think residents are ready for the community to take action. Since Iowa City is a college town and home to the University of Iowa, the community tends to be progressive. The City Council’s focus on climate change must in some part come from a push from residents. I believe that having a committed City Council is the main catalyst for Iowa City moving forward.

JG: Phoenix’s climate efforts at the municipal level are now approaching maturity and appear to lead other efforts in the region. According to the STAR Climate Guide, cities produce approximately 70% of total GHG emissions worldwide. So what really worked was learning what other cities are doing, mastering the terms and language and feeling each other’s pain. The science of measuring emissions and mitigation impacts and those tools to do so are still in its infancy; it’s more of an art. With all of this comparing, the competition among cities can generate inspired enthusiasm and build the case for “stretch” targets, or reductions/efforts that are very aggressive. Then networking with other municipalities, such as STAR Communities, Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) and ICLEI USA can fill in the gaps and details. A host of webinars from those groups plus EPA and the Sustainable Cities Network from the Arizona State University Global Institute of Sustainability are also very helpful.

We developed our 2050 Sustainability Goals last year through a comprehensive stakeholder process. Lessons learned were these: if we emphasize the enhancement of quality of life and our connectedness to nature, the support for mitigation will come.

What have been the biggest challenges in moving climate action forward?

BN: The biggest challenge has been getting everyone on the same page at the same time to move forward towards action. Leaders within the local government, the residents in community, the local utility, the University of Iowa leadership are all coming together now and committed to making a difference.

JG: Polarization, which has been a trademark of the climate debate, frequently prevents honest exchange of viewpoints. When we talk about smart water management, forest fire management and reducing air pollution, there is more of a receptive audience and the walls break down. These are all critical environmental concerns that many people agree upon, and all are considered resiliency strategies embedded into climate sustainability. If we take mitigation off the table, it does not matter whether climate change is natural or man-made, we have to move forward and be smart about it. If we talk about mitigation, let’s start with quality of life issues and reduction of waste that bring on the reductions, yet to which everyone can agree

What strategies or best practices have been most successful in moving climate action forward? 

BN: The City government has successfully implemented many mitigation projects in the past few years. We track our natural gas and electricity accounts for all of our buildings and have made many improvements such as LED lighting improvements and other projects. We are currently working on replacing all of our streetlights with LED lighting. It’s exciting now that we will be working with the community, because the City’s emissions are only 5% of the community-wide emissions and now we will work with others to figure out how to mitigate the other 95%.

JG: For mitigation strategies at the municipal level, the transition to LED street lights and traffic signals was an easy sell due to its short pay-back period. We have successfully transitioned away from using diesel fuel going toward either bio-diesel B20 or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Photovoltaic solar has also cut our grid-electricity purchases, especially at our largest Water Treatment facility.

Again, to gain support, we are learning to stress the benefits of efficiency against the bottom line internally and community-wide. The optics of a progressive urban center, sensitive to climate issues and the development of a walkable community appears to be successful now at drawing more top talent and innovation to our urban center and wider community.

Have you used or do you plan to use your STAR certification results for climate action purposes? If so, how?

BN: Iowa City was certified as a 4-STAR Community in March of 2016. Out of all seven goal areas, Iowa City scored lowest in Climate and Energy. It’s actually been helpful that our STAR rating identified this as an area for improvement so we can move this work forward. When writing our request for proposals for a consultant to assist in the creation of our Climate Action Plan, we requested that the consultant work with us to align our climate work with best practices in STAR. We will be using the Climate Guide as a resource in the upcoming year.

JG: The best element of the STAR certification for Phoenix was its comprehensive tracking of our efforts toward the STAR objectives and outcomes, especially those related to climate action. Because STAR systematically formats its queries so that they command detailed and quantifiable responses, it became imperative that we begin to now propose programs in consideration of our future STAR responses…not to win more points but because STAR metrics and standards build better programs and processes.

The City of Phoenix Office of Environmental Programs and our Chief Sustainability Officer will be going out to the community later this year when we open our stakeholder process to inform our next community-based Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Climate Mitigation Action Plan. We will in large part organize our public education effort around tSTAR’s Community Systems for Mitigation in the Climate Guide and STAR’s framework of goals, objectives and actions. The Climate Guide presents a one-stop source for climate action planning from assessing current conditions and strategies, through developing programmatic priorities and building support for climate action and then to tracking implementation progress using STAR.

How do you see the Climate Guide being useful for communities?

BN: I think the Guide could be useful for communities no matter what stage of the process they are in. For Iowa City, it’s going to be helpful as we start to put together our Climate Action (Mitigation) and Adaptation Plan, but even for the cities that may have one or both of these plans in place, they could still use the guide to see if there are any additional best practices that they may want to undertake. I think it would also be a good resource for any sustainability director, because it is filled with good references that are useful to know exist.

JG: The Climate Guide is a one-stop source for any climate action planning effort. From a smaller community with little climate experience and expertise to mature programs of larger urban metros, staff and management will find useful the Guide’s comprehensive approach to climate mitigation and adaptation planning. Why? The Guide is informed using detailed responses for STAR certification from over 50 STAR communities covering over 400 actions under STAR’s framework of goals and objectives.

If your community is like Phoenix, a great benefit of the Climate Guide is its robust strategy to build coalitions and expand the base of support for climate action. The guide’s strategy is to focus on the co-benefits of climate action across the STAR spectrum of quality-of-life goals and objectives. In many communities, the conundrum is how to move the climate action needle in polarized political environments. Emphasize the air quality benefits of greenhouse gas reductions; highlight the cost savings of energy conservation and efficiency and cushion price shocks with a wide array of renewable energy sources. The Climate Guide helps immensely in this arena.

Download the Climate Change Guide now.

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