Ithaca was among the first cities in the country to take the threat of global climate change and local energy security seriously. We recognized the threat climate change poses to communities around the world, and boldly affirmed our ability to be part of the solution.
In 2003, Mayor Carolyn Peterson signed the Sierra Club’s “Cool Cities” agreement, pledging to lower the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions of City operations by 20% by 2016 and 80% by 2050.
Just this last year, I, along with my fellow City Council members Eric Rossario and Jennifer Dotson, accepted a petition signed by 300 Ithaca young people at the April 9th Youth Power Summit. The petition called on the City to reaffirm its commitment and cut climate-heating pollution 80% by 2050.
The reality is, however, that in recent years our ambitions have outpaced our actions.
Significant progress has been made, especially in updating our vehicles to use cleaner energy. But progress in other areas has been sporadic.
Tompkins County and the Town of Ithaca have been more consistent and comprehensive in their efforts. Both have pledged, as the City has, to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. However, both are much closer to turning these plans into tangible solutions than the City has been, and we can learn much from their efforts.
If Ithaca is to reclaim the mantle of leadership, we must renew our commitment with bold leadership, dedicated City staff, and innovative projects that propel our community towards a self-reliant, sustainable economy.
This means first and foremost having a better understanding of our current greenhouse gas emissions. The last inventory of City emissions was done in 2006, and our City has evolved significantly since. No effort to reduce our emissions will be successful without comprehensive and regular audits of our progress.
We need to initiate a new inventory so that we have an accurate estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions of all City operations, as well as the emissions of the wider community. We then must institutionalize this process and continue to audit our emissions every 2 to 5 years, so that we can track our progress.
We’ll then create a comprehensive plan to articulate our energy policy through 2050.
The County and Town already have such plans, and we should build upon their work while creating our own. As Mayor I will work closely with County and Town staff to learn from their experience and insure a coordinated transition to a clean-energy economy.
The reality is that today, no one knows exactly how we’re going to reduce our emissions so significantly. But we do know it will require commitment, persistence, and creativity. To achieve these ambitious goals, we will rely on Ithaca’s greatest resource: our people.
The citizens of our City have the skills, knowledge, and innovative ability to reaffirm our community’s leadership. It is the Mayor’s role to listen to the ideas of the citizenry and to foster the connections that can turn good ideas into reality.
To make these connections, the City must maintain a full-time Sustainability Coordinator. Experience from our recent past, and lessons from other municipalities, has shown us that without a full-time staffer to foster connections and push for action, sustainability will not be a focus of City government. We should extend the current 12-month position, taking advantage of grant-funding and using money saved from energy-efficiency initiatives to pay her salary.
Connections can also be fostered by more effective use of online resources. Once our emissions inventory is completed, we should post different options for reducing our emissions online and let citizens create their own plans for reducing emissions and lowering costs. An engaged and empowered citizenry will be crucial for our energy reduction and transition efforts.
Collaboration must also be encouraged with our neighboring municipalities, as we all know emissions do not obey political boundaries. It is the same buses, the same cars, the same roads, the same power-plants, that power the City, the Town, and the other municipalities in Tompkins County.
Working together will give us more opportunities to find comprehensive solutions. It will avoid overlap and enable us to learn from each others’ experiences. And it will make us more attractive to State and Federal grants, who are currently prioritize funding for inter-municipal projects.
A perfect example of the innovation, coordination, and leadership that we need can be found in the proposed Emerson Green project. The Emerson site is a currently unused plot of land on Ithaca’s South Hill. The plot lies 40% within the City, and 60% within the town of Ithaca, and is only 4 blocks from downtown.
A citizen group that promotes sustainable housing has outlined a plan that will add significant numbers of housing units and a Combined Heat and Power plant that will provide enough energy for thousands of area homes and businesses. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is a technology many communities are starting to use to more efficiently provide electricity and heating at a significantly reduced cost and emissions rate.
The proposed project, known as Emerson Green, would add thousands of sustainable housing units within walking or biking distance of down town. It would significantly reduce the utility bill of area residents and cut our GHG emissions. It would make Ithaca more self-reliant in the long-term by shifting our dependence from fossil-fuels to plant-based bio-gas. And it would expand the tax base and help lower property taxes and rent for working families.
I’ve been in communication with the South Hill Neighborhood Task Force that is investigating this project. If the Task Force determines this project to be feasible, we will need leadership from City Hall to make it happen.
As Mayor, I would continue to seek out these ideas, connect the people and resources needed to make them happen, and provide leadership from the City to drive these projects forward.
Only if we move forward together can Ithaca become a self-reliant, sustainable community.