Leaders talk solutions to climate crisis at League of Women Voters panel

As the world continues to reel from emergency after emergency related to a changing global climate, an increasing number of people want to take action but may not know where to begin.

“One of the big things I hear from people is that they’re overwhelmed by climate change and don’t know where to begin and don’t know what to do in their personal lives to make an impact on this incredibly enormous problem,” said Susan Kruse, executive director of the Community Climate Collaborative.

Kruse was one of four speakers at a panel discussion put on by the League of Women Voters of the Charlottesville Area called Hot Matters: Climate Crisis. Around 50 people attended the February 16, 2020 event.

“The Natural Resources Committee members were wondering what could be done with all of the possibilities of combating climate change,” said Muriel Grim, the committee’s chair. “What are some of the steps that we could take that would be most effective?”

A deadline for action is looming. In November 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced the global temperatures need to be kept from increasing above the 1.5 degree Celsius of warming in order to avoid cataclysmic changes for world ecosystems. To get there, IPCC scientists recommended a crucial target of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030.

“That’s 10 years we have to get there and we have a long way to go and need to all pull as a community together to figure out ways to move forward,” Kruse said.

In February 2019, Albemarle County, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia all announced they would set seek to achieve the 45 percent reduction by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Last December, the the University of Virginia went one step further and announced they would become carbon neutral by 2030 and to be fossil-fuel free by 2050.

The co-chair of UVa’s Sustainability Committee said it is important for public agencies to set aggressive goals, but the follow-through is crucial if the community is to meet its goal.

“You’ve got to have tactics and a road map to get you there,” said Cheryl Gomez, operations director for facilities management at UVA. “2030 means you have to be really focusing on what you have to do to get some quick wins. You have to be thinking about strategy because that’s less than a decade away now. It’s starting to tick away.”

Gomez said UVA does not have all of the answers of how it will get to the 30 percent goal, but they are working on strategies.

“Every decision we make today will be totally driven and informed by that ultimate goal,” Gomez said.  That means each new building is more energy efficient than those that came before. It means trying to reduce demand for parking by encouraging alternatives.

“If there is still some fossil fuel emissions, carbon emissions, left associated with that new construction we will need to offset that by additional renewable energy in some form,” Gomez said, giving the example of installing more utility-scale solar.

The environmental sustainability manager for the city of Charlottesville said UVA can move faster to implement policies because it has more control over its own destiny.

“Sometimes a city or a county is a little envious of a large local partner like a university that has control over a lot of what happens in that footprint,” said Kristel Riddervold. “We have similar plans on a different scale of improving the efficiency of our existing buildings, looking at expanded deployment of solar [and] looking at electrifying our municipal fleet. The challenge is how to move forward and what areas to focus on.”

Charlottesville conducted inventories in 2000, 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2016. Overall, the city saw a 23 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions over that period.

“You can’t manage what you’re not measuring,” Riddervold said. “Having benchmarks at the home scale or community scale is incredibly important because we have more biases on where to focus our efforts.”

Local government also contributes to transportation systems to help people get around the community. Land use planning can create dense neighborhoods where more people can efficiently. [1] 

Riddervold said local planning should be taking climate and emissions into consideration. Charlottesville has begun a new effort to update the Comprehensive Plan.

“This is going to be looking at the housing strategy and the zoning ordinance,” Riddervold said. “Going to those meetings, which may feel like they were something other than climate action, in my opinion are the right meetings to go to talk about climate action.”

One bill pending before the General Assembly would require localities to add a resiliency plan for climate change to their Comprehensive Plans.

“You may have heard of things like small area plans, or Streets that Work, transportation improvement Plan, housing redevelopment plans and urban forest planning,” Riddervold said. “All of these topics are places where we are starting to sort of demand of ourselves that we look at those things through the emissions lens.”

Riddervold the city is working on many projects, including a landfill diversion strategy to reduce the amount of solid waste that ends up being buried. 

“There is an extraordinarily large portion of the waste that goes to landfills that is organic and when the decomposition happens, the gases that come off of that are things like methane,” Riddervold said.

The Rivanna Solid Waste Authority now offers a drop-off point for household composting at the McIntire Recycling Center, as does the city of Charlottesville at the farmers’ market.

Staff is currently researching the Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy program to help encourage businesses to upgrade their cooling and heating systems. (one resource)

“Climate protection or climate action sometimes feels like it’s a topic people are tackling in parallel or in isolation to a lot of other things,” Riddervold said. “I would suggest one of the opportunities is to integrate the topic in other core priorities that we’re tackling.”

For instance, if you give up driving alone to work, you’re also taking one less car off of the highways during periods of congestion.

Kruse said programs run by C3 like the Better Business Challenge are designed to bring people together to lower the barriers to participation.

“When people are acting alone they tend to feel like it’s not enough and what they’re doing doesn’t matter,” Kruse said. “It’s also hard to know if you are choosing the right path forward.” 

Gomez said the public also needs to be aware of the current gutting of environmental regulation at the federal level.

“Some of you may recall [enactment of] the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Protection Act and all of these amazing [bills] that were enacted in the 70’s under President Nixon,” Gomez said. “We could literally absolutely see from year to year, decade to decade, the incredibly positive impact these regulations had on our air, water and land. We cannot let these regulations get gutted and eliminated and taken away.”

Gomez said money spent to address climate change should be considered an investment rather than a cost.

The reality of fighting climate change at the local level is that no one is ever really in charge. Our elected officials come and go, leaving staff to implement plan after plan.

“Decision makers are trying to figure out what part and what [role] local government should be playing and those decisions are being influenced by conversations over coffee about things that are important to constituents,” Riddervold said. “There’s a role for staff, for the community, and for city management to bring initiatives and ideas to the decision-makers about what [climate action] looks like in our community.”

“We have got to figure out how to achieve mutual goals around climate and affordable housing,” Kruse said. “We need to be expanding our definition of who is a climate leader. I think affordable housing is very much a climate issue. If you can’t afford to live near where you work and you have to live far out from the community and you have to drive in every day, that is a climate issue.”

“One of the challenges is how do you tackle this topic at the 30,000 foot level but have it be granular enough and accurate enough that you can have real policy and program decisions,” Riddervold said.

One woman pointed out the forum was held on a Sunday, when transit service is drastically reduced.

“I’m optimistic because I’m seeing some really cool and innovative things happening in technology where there are huge and dramatic improvements,” Gomez said. “UVA currently uses 30 percent less water today than our high water mark of usage.”

“You need larger institutions to put in the investments for things like battery storage to make it more deployable and applicable for smaller scale uses,” Turner said.

Albemarle County is continuing to develop a climate action plan after making that the number one strategic goal in the fall of 2018.


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