On Austin Climate Equity, More Plan Than Action: Staffing crunch slows down sustainability efforts – News

Of the five biggest emissions offenders in Austin, transportation and the electricity/natural gas consumed by buildings take the highest tolls. Since 2010, Austin Energy has made progress in cutting building emissions, but between 2019 and 2020 emissions in both sectors dropped precipitously due to the pandemic. The Office of Sustainability expects them to uptick again when 2021 data is released in the fall, though the long-term downward trend remains. (courtesy of City of Austin Office of Sustainability)

At its work session June 14, City Council received a briefing on the Austin Climate Equity Plan, the successor (adopted last fall) to the city’s original 2015 climate plan. Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens began with the good news: “Communitywide emissions decreased by 25% [from 2010 to 2020] and the per capita emissions decreased 39%. I like to at least touch on the fact that there is good progress being made. “Austin is something of a climate policy leader in the US, one of only four major cities (along with Denver, Kansas City, and San Francisco) to have committed to achieving net-zero emissions as soon as 2040. But as Athens noted, “There is much to be done.”

The Climate Equity Plan’s major focus is to reduce emissions while enhancing equity and investing in community engagement. It’s a quite extensive action plan, with 17 goals to be achieved by 2030 and 74 “strategies” to get there to implement in the next five years. The strategies are grouped in four main categories-green jobs, local community/equity initiatives, regional collaboration, and carbon offsets and removal-and aim to focus the community’s attention on food and consumer-goods consumption, sustainable buildings, natural systems for emissions mitigation , and most importantly, (electrified) transportation and land use.

The Office of Sustainability‘s immediate action items include making promotional videosconducting an HVAC contractor study to find out how to “drive more electrification and high-efficiency heat pump systems,” and creating an implementation dashboard on the city’s website, planned to go live by the end of July, that tracks progress throughout all participating departments. Addressing equity, Climate Program Manager Zach Baumer emphasized OS’s community programs: the Youth Climate Equity Council and a second class of Community Climate Ambassadors, a six-month program “focused on engaging historically underserved communities.” On regional collaboration, Baumer cited a recent meeting with other Texas cities’ sustainability staff on best practices; meetings with UT’s Planet Texas team; and the Rocky Mountain Institute‘s seminars in Austin on resilience hubs and transportation electrification.

Athens highlighted the main obstacle facing the plan’s implementation: a lack of staff. Four existing full-time OS employees were recently reclassified to Homeland Security and Emergency Management, with two working on resilience hubs. “That might seem disconnected from the climate plan,” said Athens, “but the real nexus there is that Zach and his team have jumped into leading the resilience hub initiative. We really need to rebalance that workload to allow them to get refocused on the climate plan. [It’s] been a real overload for staff for a while now. “

Even as Baumer stated that the OS is “really more of a coordinator, reporter role within the city,” Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter was disappointed with its progress. “I appreciate that you were understaffed and that is not the fault of your unit. But I am frustrated that the only thing we’re getting midyear is getting our staff back who were assigned to this in the first place. “Referring to the videos and HVAC study, she continued,” We spent $ 100,000 that we weren’t planning [to], despite a resolution that said we needed to have a midyear budget amendment. That’s problematic … We need more transparency about the choices that are being made. “

Jason Alexanderchief of staff in the City Manager’s Officeconceded that “we share that desire to be a little further ahead than we are right now. For the [fiscal year 2023] budget, we are working to consolidate what those investments will be. This work kicked off right after the adoption. And it’s just, frankly, taken us this long to bring to you what we have. ”The next Council briefing on the Climate Equity Plan is tentatively scheduled for the fall.

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