AUSTIN (KXAN) — In 2014, Austin City Council adopted its citywide clean energy initiatives, establishing a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Now, the city is accelerating that trajectory with a new target of 2040, incorporating equity and social justice components in its climate change approach. On Thursday, Austin City Council approved the adoption of the Austin Climate Equity Plan and committed to specific benchmarks to meet in less than 20 years’ time.
“Because the climate crisis can only be addressed fully when we also address racial inequality, we set out to create a plan that would include everyone in the Austin community to make our city cleaner, healthier, more affordable, and accessible for all,” the document read.
What does it mean to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are balanced by the removal of greenhouse gases emitted. When this balance is achieved, communities reach a net-zero status, which can help stabilize global temperatures.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the largest human-led contributor to greenhouse gas emissions are the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, heat and electricity.
Austin’s climate equity plan outlines the creation of a Texas Climate Collaborative to develop a regional response to greenhouse gas emissions. The group would include city leaders in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, which have recently adopted climate plans. It would also partner with neighboring cities within the five-county Austin metro region, such as Round Rock, Pflugerville, San Marcos and Kyle.
Denoted in the plan is expanding on green jobs and employment opportunities, with an emphasis on working with lower income and non-white communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change, per the plan.
What are some of the immediate climate equity goals Austin is pursuing?
In advance of that 2040 goal, the city has outlined some shorter-term initiatives it aims to achieve by 2030, including:
- Establish net-zero carbon emissions for all new buildings; reduce carbon emissions by 25% for existing buildings
- 40% reduction in local construction’s carbon footprint
- Lowering all natural gas emissions by 30% in Austin-based buildings
- 80% of new non-residential development being built within Austin’s activity centers, central corridors
- 50% of all trips made in Austin done via public transit, walking, carpooling or remote work
- 40% of all vehicle miles traveled in Austin done via electric vehicles
- Reach zero-waste goal following adoption of new Austin Resource Recovery Zero Waste Plan through composting, waste reduction and recycling initiatives
The city also established a goal of maintaining or creating 135,000 housing units by 2027. Of those 135,000 housing units, 60,000 of those will be designated affordable housing, with 75% of all the 135,000 housing units located “within 1/2 mile of activity centers and corridors.”
The climate equity plan also denotes a 2050 goal of minimum 50% tree canopy coverage citywide and ensuring protections for 500,000 acres of farmland in the five-county metro area from development.
How do equity, social justice policies factor into climate change?
The Austin Climate Equity Plan specifically highlights ways climate change disproportionately impacts lower-income and non-white populations.
For people experiencing homelessness, those without stable shelter are exposed to more extreme weather and hazardous conditions. From a food and utility cost standpoint, more extreme heat expounds on water and energy use and increases utility prices, while climate impacts on agricultural production limits food availability and increases costs.
On displacement, relocating lower-income communities to the suburbs increases dependency on cars, raising transportation costs and leading to an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions. For gentrification, the plan highlights that a significant number of climate mitigation measures “lead to investment in communities that can case gentrification,” per city documents.
“Climate change is often referred to as the ‘great equalizer,’ but we know that climate change does not
affect everyone equally and that low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately
bear the brunt of the impacts,” the document read. “The effects of extreme weather — an increasing number and severity of natural disasters, worsening levels of air pollution, depleting water supplies, diminishing crop yields, and the general exhaustion of natural resources — exacerbate the inequities and injustices that these
communities are experiencing.”