Issues of the Environment: City of Ann Arbor shares new dashboard to track greenhouse gas emissions
- On November 4th, 2019, Ann Arbor City Council unanimously adopted a Climate Emergency Declaration, stating that climate change is one of the most important issues of our time and that responding to the climate crisis necessitates a mobilization on par with those activated during times of disaster. In passing the resolution, the Council also committed to charting a path for how the entire Ann Arbor community could achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2030. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.a2gov.org/departments/sustainability/Documents/A2Zero%20Climate%20Action%20Plan%20_4.0.pdf) The city is spending millions of dollars to achieve this benchmark,. but so far reductions in GHG emissions have decreased only slightly.
- Thea Yagerlener, Senior Energy Analyst (with the City of Ann Arbor’s Office of Sustainability and Innovations) completes an annual greenhouse gas inventory for Ann Arbor. She says, “When comparing emission sources to the year 2000, emissions dropped 25% by 2019. COVID impacted emissions in two main ways: driving less, and changing where energy was used. Emissions dropped 20% from 2019 to 2020.”
- “Since then, emissions have nearly returned to 2019 levels due to an increase in the reported carbon intensity of the electricity supplied to Ann Arbor and an increase in miles traveled in cars. These numbers are developed using the US Community GHG Inventory Protocol. When we also look at voluntary green power purchases, which aren’t included in that protocol, emissions in 2022 were 9% lower than 2019.”
- Ann Arbor’s A2Zero plan adopted by City Council in 2020 envisions a large-scale shift to renewable energy, all-electric buildings that don’t burn gas, adoption of plant-based diets and significant reductions in driving, among other measures like recycling and reusing goods more.
- The city has launched a new online dashboard showing Ann Arbor emissions by sector and source. Buildings are the primary source, with transportation second. The city’s overall greenhouse gas estimates include emissions from buildings, driving and other sources, including local rail and aviation trips, solid waste, gas leaks and more. But they don’t count “scope three” emissions related to supply chains and personal consumption, Cornell University estimates up 60% of emissions are attributed to these sources. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2023/08/ann-arbor-carbon-emissions-up-2-years-in-a-row-new-estimates-show.html#:~:text=The%20city's%20estimate%20of%202.05,and%20down%2012%25%20from%202015.)
David Fair: This is 89 won WEMU, and I'm David Fair. And I have a question for you. With all of the focus on achieving carbon neutrality in Ann Arbor by the year 2030, how much progress do you think we've made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions so far? Well, the question is far more complex than I thought, and, certainly, more complex than it may appear on the surface. Answers vary depending on context. Well, welcome to WEMU's Issues of the Environment. It's our regular Wednesday conversation series. The City of Ann Arbor has created an online dashboard, so we can follow progress and better determine where improvements are needed. Our guest today is in the middle of the questions and answers, and Thea Yagerlerner serves as senior energy analyst for the City of Ann Arbor. And thank you so much for the time. I appreciate it.
Thea Yagerlener: Yeah, thanks for having me.
David Fair: In taking a 10,000-foot view for a moment, how would you assess progress toward meeting the 2030 goal of achieving carbon neutrality?
Thea Yagerlener: I think we may look at progress. One, it's important to look at a variety of factors. The driving factor is, obviously, our emissions levels. The City of Ann Arbor set a goal in 2019 and 2020 to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. Since then, our emissions are about the same in 2022, as they were in 2019. But we can also look at other metrics of progress as well. The City of Ann Arbor's carbon neutrality plan is based on equity and being transformative. We have a lot of projects in the works that focus on moving those items forward as well.
David Fair: And I think if we look at progress in reducing gas emissions between the years 2000 and 2019, it provides a little context. During that period of time, that 19-year period, we saw a 25% drop. Given that the city didn't declare the climate emergency, as you mentioned, until November of 2019, that seems pretty significant. To what do you attribute those previous declines?
Thea Yagerlener: Yeah. So, there's a few main drivers that we see moving those emissions reductions. First off is the carbon intensity or how much greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the electricity that we use. We've seen the grid get cleaner and use less coal since 2000 and 2015. We've also seen the cars that we drive on the road get more efficient, and that's been a driver as well.
David Fair: And you mentioned that, since 2019, there's not been a lot of reduction. So, I do want to cover what we saw in the pandemic. When the state shut down, there were very few cars out on the roads, people were homebound, many businesses shut down or at least were having employees work remotely. We all saw the pictures from around the country and around the world where typically smog-ridden areas had clear skies, and the air was measuring cleanest in memory. What were we measuring in Ann Arbor during the pandemic?
Thea Yagerlener: Yeah. So, Google has come out with a very useful data source that tracks pretty much real-time, year-over-year vehicles' miles traveled in our cars. And so, we were able to see, during the pandemic, those vehicle miles traveled drop significantly over 30%. We also saw perhaps a shift in where we're using energy out of our commercial buildings and into residential buildings. I will caveat that and say residential energy use really tracks with how hot and how cold it is outside. And so, those fluctuations could also be affiliated with the weather that we were experiencing and having it be hotter in general.
David Fair: We're talking with City of Ann Arbor senior energy analyst Thea Yagerlener. This is WEMU's Issues of the Environment. And I'm glad you mentioned the buildings because I think most of us probably think that the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions comes in the area of transportation. But it is in our buildings, isn't it?
Thea Yagerlener: Yes. It is as well.
David Fair: The new online dashboard tracks the various sources of emissions and the progress toward carbon neutrality. How do we in the community use this tool to make some sustainable decisions in our personal lives, at home, and as we move out and about?
Thea Yagerlener: Yeah. I think what are the biggest changes that we can make is the vehicles or the miles that we travel in our vehicles. Working from home policies actually have a huge impact on emissions. And how you get to work every day can really make a difference, whether that's advocating for working from home or, like, taking public transit, driving an EV or riding your bike. I know it's not the most sexiest thing but also reducing how much energy your building uses, whether you're renting or you own a home. Pursuing energy efficiency improvements is really significant and saves money in the long run.
David Fair: And there has been a lot of investment in energy efficiency, both from the state, from the city, from Washtenaw County. There have been programs available to help people who might have difficulty affording it get to a higher level of energy efficiency, isn't there?
Thea Yagerlener: Yes. There are some great resources. The federal government has a tax credit for pursuing those improvements. There are lots of programs out there for low-income residents. We also have some programs upcoming that I'm really excited about. The city passed the Community Climate Action Millage in November. One of the things that unlocks is the ability for the city to provide rebates to residents to pursue energy efficiency improvements. We also are seeing the Inflation Reduction Act rebates come out as well. We expect those in the next year or two to start to be available with some really significant financial incentives for residents as well.
David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Thea Yagerlener on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. She is a senior energy analyst for the City of Ann Arbor. I'm glad you brought up the millage because this effort to get to carbon neutrality is multifaceted and touches on so many different programs and aspects of the way we live, and it requires that financial investment. As you mentioned, in November of 2022, the Ann Arbor voters passed the millage that provides roughly $7 million a year for a period of 20 years. Now, obviously, that's a timeframe that extends well beyond the 2030 goal for neutrality. Is that enough money, or will the city perhaps have to look at borrowing against future collections of that millage to increase near-term investment to achieve its goals?
Thea Yagerlener: You know, that's a great question. It is, for the city, an unprecedented amount of funding to work towards these important goals, and it's certainly exciting. There are also some really large investments that would need to happen. While the goal for carbon neutrality is set for 2030, that includes pursuing things like offsets to fill the gap in emissions. If the city has achieved that yet, there is still going to be a lot of work that needs to happen after the year 2030--things like electrifying our vehicles and our buildings. And so, that funding going past 2030 is important. And then, depending on the projects that we're looking at, the city looks at leveraging federal funding, grants, and other sources to pursue programs as well.
David Fair: When it comes from so many different angles in trying to achieve this really significant environmental sustainability goal, how important is communication between city departments and city employees in making sure that everybody is on the same page, focused in the right direction and moving towards the ultimate goal of neutrality?
Thea Yagerlener: Yeah, I think communication is really important. I think it's important for the community to know where they can engage in carbon neutrality and what actions that they can take will have the highest impact and resources available to them to help support them in making those changes. One program that we're working on right now is the city's home energy advisor to help provide some of that information to residents.
David Fair: Based on all you know today, Thea, and all you can reasonably project based on the information you have at hand, is 2030 a reachable goal for carbon neutrality in Ann Arbor?
Thea Yagerlener: I think it has to be. I think we have to have an audacious goal and commit the resources to achieving that goal. The 2030 goal for Ann Arbor is a science-based target. That means that it takes into account, one, the reduction in emissions that have to happen to keep temperature changes under 1.5 degrees. It also takes into account the level of affluence that nations like the U.S. have and cities like Ann Arbor have and as an equitable goal as well. So, I think it's more a question that we need to versus can we? And having that goal helps us commit resources to doing so.
David Fair: Washtenaw County and many of the other communities in the area are also committed to achieving carbon neutrality. But most of those goals are five years later--2035. You know, the wind doesn't care what your zip code is. How much does the efforts of other communities impact Ann Arbor's abilities to get to its goal sooner?
Thea Yagerlener: I think it's incredibly impactful. I think it's important for this work to happen at a regional scale. And even greater than that, then hyperlocal is important as well. But I think when we start looking at change at the regional level is when it gets to be really, really impactful. I think having a relationship set up, you know, emissions don't necessarily stop at boundaries. People commute, people experience and go to other communities, and we're not going to get this done alone.
David Fair: I thank you for the time and for sharing the information today. I'm most grateful.
Thea Yagerlener: Thank you.
David Fair: That is Thea Yagerlener. And she serves as the City of Ann Arbor's senior energy analyst and has been our guest on Issues of the Environment. We have a lot more information for you, and you'll find all of it with links to get you to where you need to go on our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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