July 25, 2019 -- Amid concerns about the limited federal response to climate change, the city of Houston released a draft plan on the issue that calls for increasing the generation of renewable energy, greater investment in “green infrastructure” and expanding the use of alternative modes of transportation by making it easier for people to walk, ride their bikes and use public transit.
Climate change has made it imperative that cities such as Houston take action, but it will require a communitywide effort to make it happen, officials said Thursday.
“Ten years ago, a mayor in Houston probably wouldn’t be talking about climate change, maybe even five years ago, maybe even three years ago,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “But things have changed. It’s a new reality, and now we have an obligation to respond in a responsible fashion.”
City officials released the first draft of their communitywide climate action plan at City Hall on Thursday. They hope to release a final report by December; the public can comment through the end of August.
Weeks after the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate accord in 2017, Turner joined other mayors in committing to adopt the goals of the agreement, which include becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2050. Today, there are 427 such cities in 48 states. Experts say that it can be difficult to track progress, and that many other cities appear to be falling short of aggressive goals.
Houston has one of the largest per capita greenhouse emissions in the country. In 2014, Houston residents and businesses generated nearly 35 million tons of greenhouse gases through carbon-fueled buildings, cars and waste.
If nothing is done, this number is projected to rise to at least 45 million per year by 2050.
Climate change is increasing the city’s flood risk, as well as the intensity and frequency of storms, and while the problem can’t be fixed overnight, Turner told about 100 attendees, “If we take bold actions to lead our city on a sustainable path, we will leave behind a better Houston for future generations.”
Reducing the city’s emissions will not only help fight climate change, Turner said, it will lead to more resilient communities, reduce harmful pollution, cut energy waste and boost the local economy.
It will also better prepare the city for the rapid population growth that it is expecting. “Growth provides Houston with a tremendous economic opportunity, but it will result in greater projected emissions,” he said.
And part of it is changing the image of Houston, emphasizing that it can fight climate change and still be the energy capital of the world.
“We need to make sure that the next big thing in renewable energy, in carbon capture technology, in green technology comes from Houston,” said Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer. “That’s how we keep and maintain that proud leadership as the energy capital of the world.”
The city’s plan is divided into four areas: building optimization, energy transition, materials management and transportation. Each includes a list of goals, strategies and actions.
One of the biggest challenges that cities such as Houston face is that the state and federal governments primarily control regulations. “We don’t have control over a lot of things that would generate faster results,” Cottingham added.
So they will have to decide whether the entire community works together to achieve results or advocate for changes at the state and federal levels.
The plan will not be a binding document. If there are policies that need to be changed at the city or state level, for instance, they will have to go through the normal process. And many are simply recommendations.
The second is funding, she added. There’s only so much the city will be able to accomplish; for instance, once it converts its fleet to electric vehicles to reach its goals, the city will have to get buy-in from the public and businesses, which may require incentives to bring about change.
Several environmental nonprofits in attendance at Thursday’s announcement were pleased with the direction that the city was heading and by the fact that the working group seems to be taking their comments into consideration, including the general timeline for reducing greenhouse emissions.
Their biggest concern is whether there will be the political will to bring it to fruition, they said.
"I do feel we need a little bit more urgency at the political level to come anywhere near achieving the goals that have been set,” said Harrison Humphreys, with Air Alliance Houston.
“The thing about emissions and greenhouse gasses,” he added after the meeting, “is that they don’t care about city limits, so it’s going to take a lot of combined efforts with regional partners, not only the county.”
He added that advocacy groups will also have to be watchful for conflicting policies, such as calling for a reduction in how much Houstonians use their cars and the expansion of Interstate 45.
“The city has a lot of influence, and I would like to see them execute their political will to see how much they can accomplish in the next decade,” said Stephanie Thomas of Public Citizen in Texas.
For Nancy Edwards, who was a committee member, what’s important is that there’s a draft action plan now.
“That’s step one and a very big step,” said Edwards, also a member of the Houston Climate Movement.“The next is to get some political support for this.”
And her advice for members of the public as they review the proposal?
“I think the general public should not be focusing on possible inconveniences to themselves, but they should focus on the fact that Houston is on a flat plain and close to the coast and rising sea levels and hurricanes are in our future, so we certainly don’t want to make it worse.”