Local climate policies reduce emissions and save money

Despite having had the biggest cumulative impact on the climate of any country in the world — we are now the first nation to officially begin withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord. On a long list of terrible policies from the last three years, I think history will look at this as the worst. We’re already thirty years behind in taking action on the climate, we don’t have the luxury of continuing to twiddle our thumbs for another four years.

Because we’ve taken so long to get our act together, we are locked in for more than three feet of sea level rise this century. According to the Hawai’i Sea Level Rise and Vulnerability Adaptation Report, that means that over the next 30 to 70 years Kaua’i will have the highest per-capita losses in the State of Hawai’i for economic impact ($2.6 billion in lost property value — that’s $37,000 per person), displacement (3,370 will lose their homes), lost structures (the sea will claim at least 940 structures), impassable roadways (6.5 miles of highway will be underwater), and chronically flooded land (5,760 acres).

Regardless of what we do today, those of us under 40-years-old and all of our children will experience those types of devastating losses. Plus, wildfires, crop shortages, refugee crises, the potential collapse of our coral reefs and nearshore fisheries, rain bombs (as we all already know too well), social instability and all of the rest. It’s already bad — and it’s going to get a lot worse. That’s the cost of thirty years of delay.

But, it’s not game over.

Every fraction of a degree of additional warming is significantly worse. According to a recent IPCC report, the difference between 1.5C of warming and 2C of warming is an additional 10 million people displaced by sea level rise, double the decline in marine fisheries, double the decrease in maize harvest, and higher probabilities of extreme drought and extreme rain events.

Yes it’s terrible that we’re withdrawing from Paris. Yes, we should all do everything we can to elect a President who will recommit us to the agreement. Yes, it’s going to get worse.

But, how much worse is up to us.

So, here’s the good news. Even if none of us live in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Florida (and so our votes will only have a negligible impact on the 2020 election); even if none of us is going to invent the next cheap electric car or source of renewable energy; and even if none of us has the power to sit around a table making deals with India and China to reduce emissions — — we all have the power to influence local government.

But wait! It gets even better. Unlike a lot of the higher level policies which cost money to implement, local level climate policy is FREE for government to enact, results in cost savings for residents, and can often improve our quality of life.

(As a quick aside — it’s important to note that even with the upfront cost of many federal and state policies (such as investment in renewable R&D and subsidies, investment in electric vehicle infrastructure, a price on carbon, etc.) these policies pay for themselves over time and result in massive booms to local economies (for example, more people work in the solar industry than oil, coal, and gas combined). Oh yeah, and they’re necessary to avoid an uninhabitable Earth.)

The difference between local and federal policies though is that with local policies we’re not talking about cost savings down the line — we’re talking about cost savings right now. At a local level we can drastically reduce emissions while saving money. Which is important, because local governments are perennially cash strapped and are facing a gloomy future of declining financial bottom lines (as I’ve written about here).

Nearly every analysis or blueprint on local action around climate centers around four areas: renewable electricity, building efficiency, transportation, and waste reduction.

Actions within all of those areas require no money from local government and result in cost savings for residents.

Renewable electricity
While electricity gets the most attention, it’s the area least influenced by local policy and on Kaua’i it’s a smaller source of emissions than transportation. But, it’s still a vital piece of the conversation because, in the words of climate writer David Roberts, the biggest key to solving climate change is to get to zero-carbon electricity and then electrify everything.

Here on Kaua’i, we have the rare luxury of a utility that is way ahead of the curve in terms of transitioning to renewable energy. KIUC went from 10% renewables in 2010 to over 55% today and 99% during the day on most sunny days — with 80% renewable expected by 2023. That exponential growth curve in renewables happened in part because of the bold goals outlined by their board nearly a decade ago — but also in part because the cost of solar has fallen by 99% over the last forty years (largely driven by federal investments in clean energy R&D which deserves another plug for why federal investment results in cost savings down the line) and KIUC took quick advantage of those falling costs.

While Kaua’i electric rates were 78% higher than O’ahu in 2003, they were merely 17% higher at the end of 2017 with rates expected to fall over time. Investing in renewables has saved Kaua’i ratepayers money. Let me say that again, but this time in bold letters: investing in renewable electricity saves Kaua’i families every month on their electric bill.

And this isn’t just Kaua’i. Check out this Vox piece from yesterday showing how “Colardo’s cleanest energy options are also its cheapest” and the State can reach full decarbonization while saving money.

Emissions from transportation are the largest source of carbon emissions on Kaua’i (and in most places around the country). And, unlike emissions from electricity which are falling, emissions from transportation are steadily climbing because we’re driving more and more. As I’ve written before, during the same ten year time period where KIUC went from 30 million gallons of oil per year to just 15 million gallons — most of that saved fuel from renewable electricity was still burned by our cars as total driving on Kaua’i went up by nearly 11 percent (which is an increase higher than any other State in the country). Meaning that even with all of the progress we’re making on the electricity front, we’re basically making no progress reducing island wide emissions.

Why are we driving so much more? Because the large majority of our new home construction since 1995 has occurred far from our towns and less than one percent of new homes have been built within our town cores. Even if you want to live close to where you work on Kaua’i, it’s impossible to find an affordable home. And so overall mileage increases, the percentage of trips taken by vehicle increases, and the percentage of trips taken by walking and biking decreases.

As the Framework for Long-Term Deep Carbon Reduction Planning describes it,

a city’s transportation system is closely linked to city land use decisions… higher levels of residential and employment density support more local amenities within walking and cycling distance, and justify high levels of transit service… a diverse mix of land uses and housing types makes it easier to live, work, shop, and play without having to travel far.

At a local level — the single most important policy tool that we have to flight climate change is to ensure that new homes are built close to jobs. And land use policy is one of the most fundamental roles of local government.

Building housing near jobs doesn’t require any government money, it just requires government to get out of the way so that our towns can grow incrementally like they have for all of human history (check out this great Strongtowns piece on the power and historical nature of incremental growth).

Not only can building lots of housing near jobs reduce the cost of housing (as I’ve written here), but it also reduces the cost of transportation. While the cost of housing on Kaua’i is more than 300% the national average, according to the Kaua’i General Plan “transportation costs outweigh housing costs” when you factor in “automobile ownership, insurance, repair, and fuel costs.”

For much of the country, that means allowing multifamily houses by right on all lots, increasing or eliminating density caps within town cores (and instead regulating the form of development, which I’ve written about before), eliminating minimum lot sizes for multifamily homes, eliminating minimum parking requirements near transit, and reducing or eliminating fees for units where infrastructure exists (quick plug for Kaua’i just passing five bills to eliminate $20k in fees for affordable rental units!).

Along with reducing housing and transportation costs, building housing near jobs contributes to healthier residents, makes it easier for people to age at home, increases the viability of local business (because small businesses in walkable areas get more customers), leads to increased property tax revenue and more efficient use of infrastructure and government services, and encourages civic engagement by supporting social interaction.

And yes, of course we need to also invest more in public transportation, electric busses, electric vehicle infrastructure and all the rest, but, in the words of Bloomberg Philanthropies Climate Action Playbook Brief,

Cities cannot ignore the link between housing and transportation: transit investment won’t lead to increased ridership if no one lives close enough to the stations to ride.

Solid Waste and Building Efficiency
I’m going to skim more quickly through these final two emission reduction strategies — — both because I know less about them and because this post is already too long.

Composting food waste instead of letting it breakdown into methane in a landfill can help lock up significant amounts of carbon dioxide— and by composting on site or at a commercial composting center, restaurants and hotels can save money in avoided landfill tipping fees while boosting the local compost industry.

Lastly, energy efficient building codes not only lead to less emissions from electricity, but every avoided watt of energy saves residents money on their electric bill. Hawai’i residents pay the highest electric bills in the country and every effort we can make to reduce electricity consumption through energy codes like IECC 2015 saves residents money.

And the best part is that local governments can prohibit commercial food waste in the landfill and require stricter energy codes to save residents money without spending a dime.

For the three readers that made it this far — let me finish by saying that there are so many other tools and policies to reduce emissions: cap and trade (as I’ve argued) or a revenue neutral carbon tax, electric vehicle incentives, wide-scale tree planting efforts, electric vehicle infrastructure, reducing red meat consumption, no till agriculture, oyster and seaweed growing etc etc.

We need to be reducing emissions at every level and in every industry as fast as possible. Local level policy is just unique in that there are no upfront costs, it saves residents money immediately, and no matter where we live, we can impact the development and passage of local policy today.

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