Editor’s Note: This is the first column by Betsy Gross covering local committees created to tackle climate change.
Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide need to fall by approximately 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 to avert climate catastrophe, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserted last October in its most recent report.
The timeline was the first issued by the IPCC, the United Nations body that assesses the science related to climate change. The report detailed what must be done to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and reach “net zero” around 2050. (1)
After reading the IPCC report, I felt helpless.
At the federal level, nothing is getting done. The president has said he is skeptical about human impacts on climate change and has withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate accord.
These past few years, I’ve found it helpful to focus my efforts on trying to make a difference at the local level, so I investigated what is happening here. To my delight and relief, I soon discovered both the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County are hard at work on climate change.
In 2018, both local governments created climate action task forces to update their respective climate action plans. Their goal: substantially reduce our area’s carbon emissions by lowering greenhouse gases (GHG). Both task forces include energy sector stakeholders and local environmental experts, and have the support and assistance of government staff. They advise their respective government decision makers on local impacts of climate change and identify strategies to prevent or mitigate these impacts. Both the city and the county have formally committed to the goal of 100 percent renewable energy use.
I began attending the monthly meetings of both task forces and reading their weighty climate action plans. I learned that locally, at least, progress is being made. Nevertheless, the task to become carbon neutral is a daunting one. The better informed we are about what needs to be done and how, the more likely we will be able to get there. And, as the IPCC Report reveals, the time to do so is now. So what follows is my report.
Carbon Neutral in Bellingham
The city of Bellingham calls its group the Climate Action Plan Task Force (read the city’s Climate Protection Action Plan 2018 Update, at cob.org/gov/public/bc/climate). They have accomplished a lot. Between 2000 and 2012, municipal emissions dropped by 69 percent and the community’s by 17 percent. The goal is to reduce municipal GHG emissions 85 percent below 2000 levels by 2030 and 100 percent below 2000 levels by 2050, making the city carbon neutral. The city also has dedicated staff time to climate change, with two employees already providing their time and talents to the work of this task force, and another position is open.
Clare Fogelsong, one of the city staff on the task force, told me that the mayor had selected the members, stipulating the areas of expertise to be represented. They met for the first time in September 2018, hired a consultant, and are now rank-ordering actions that will go the furthest to meet the city’s admirable goal of carbon neutrality. The city’s plan identifies 24 ongoing and proposed emissions-reduction measures for municipal government, and 56 for the community.
That’s us. I was reminded that we, the community, create 95 percent of the local GHG emissions, so we have the far heavier lift.
They propose to reduce carbon emissions in six broad categories:
• renewable energy increase
• green buildings n waste reduction
• land use n energy efficiency and conservation.
The task force is targeting reductions in transportation and building sectors first, as they have the biggest impact. The specific actions they’ve identified are too numerous to list here. A few examples include transitioning the city’s fleet from gasoline-fueled vehicles to hybrids and electric vehicles, using LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for all government building retrofits, and using wastewater heat for buildings. The city has already switched to 100 percent green power. As the city becomes “electrified” — i.e., no fossil fuels will be used to run its operations or maintain its infrastructure — the need to generate electricity will rise.
The same is true for us, the citizenry. How will we contribute to this goal to become carbon neutral? The city provides enhancements, such as fast-tracking building permit review time for certified green building projects. The task force is charged with proposing additional ways to support and induce the community to meet this goal.
Going Green in the County
In December 2017, the Whatcom County Council passed Ordinance 2017-080, creating the Climate Impact Advisory Committee (CIAC). Meeting dates, minutes and the Whatcom County 2007 Climate Protection and Energy Plan can be found at whatcomcounty.us/2744/Climate-Impact-Advisory-Committee.
The county’s action plan uses the same framework as the city’s, focusing on lowering carbon emissions for both government and the community in the same sectors.
In my opinion, several structural problems accompany the work of the CIAC. Chair Seth Fleetwood and county staffer Chris Elder noted that the county discontinued the data collection stipulated in the 2007 plan, to cut costs after the 2008 economic downturn. Further, the county’s unfilled climate sustainability position was left vacant. Basically, no one was paying attention to the plan until the task force was created last year. Even now, only 25 percent of Chris’ time is devoted to this project. Also, the County Council didn’t appoint experts in the transportation or green building sectors, the biggest sources of GHG emissions, to serve on the CIAC. Instead, four of its 11 members work in the fossil fuel industry.
That said, this crew is undaunted. Chris said the gaps in transportation and green building expertise can be remedied by soliciting input from local experts in these fields. Both Seth and Chris assert that the strength of their now-committed, cohesive team has come about by listening deeply to people who may disagree; indeed, that is essential to the process of moving forward with wisdom.
Seth listed CAIC’s other key accomplishments including:
• securing funding to assist in the mission
• creating a work plan n updating emission inventories
• setting a goal of completing the update of the county’s climate plan by the end of this year.
Chris added the county’s key achievements are, like the city’s, their move to 100 percent green power and commitment to require LEED standards for government buildings.
A very interesting project was just added. Whatcom County was recently selected as one of three sites in the nation to design a methodology for conducting a forest inventory. This will provide information about how differing land management techniques alter carbon sequestration, to answer the question: what forestry techniques do the best job of maximizing carbon sequestration? Their climate action plan will include a forest inventory to be used for mitigation and protection initiatives, to lower our carbon emissions using trees.
Heartened by our local governments’ efforts to move us to lower our carbon emissions, I continue to attend these two task forces’ monthly meetings. Feeling less helpless is good for my health!
1. Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC approved by governments, October 2018, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/11/pr_181008_P48_spm_en.pdf.
Betsy Gross is a retired mental health professional. In 2003, she retired from the County of San Diego and moved to Bellingham with her family. She is a grandmother, outdoor enthusiast, and political activist. She has devoted her time to several local causes over the years, primarily to environmental activism.