Sustainability

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In the age of Trump the people of Providence can expect little action on climate change.  Indeed, he is putting forward the most anti-urban agenda in decades -- on the environment, certainly, but also with regard to public education, immigration, housing, and public transportation.  But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't act.  In fact, it means quite the opposite.  What we need now are Rebel Cities!  To paraphrase Gil Scott Heron, the Revolution Will Be Localized. 

Fortunately, even before Trump signed an executive order undoing Obama's environmental regulations and pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, cities and states around the country were moving ahead to reduce their carbon footprints, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and shift toward more sustainable sources of energy.  In March 2017 more than 30 mayors signed a letter to Trump stressing the importance of climate policies; more recently, over 200 mayors have pledged to "adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement."  This is much more than a symbolic act.  Most experts believe that concerted and coordinated actions by cities and states can move us significantly closer to the emission reductions enshrined in the Accord.  The Global Commons Institute says that American cities have the ability to get almost 50% of the way toward the reductions promised -- if they're willing to move toward 100% renewable energy sources, swap out street lights, tighten building efficiency codes, shift to electric vehicles, put resources into public transit, and change land use laws to encourage denser, more walkable mixed-use development.

So where are we at in Providence?  And what could we do to reduce our carbon footprint, while making our city a more just and sustainable place?

The non-profit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) does a City Energy Efficiency Scorecard every two years.  It rank cities based on five criteria, weighted by their potential impact on energy savings:  1) transportation; 2) energy and water utilities; 3) building policies; 4) community-wide initiatives; 5) local and government operations.  For the third year in a row, Boston was rated the most efficient large city in the US.

Where was Providence?  31st, out of 51 cities surveyed.  We earned just 35 points out of a possible 100.  As someone who has been teaching for more than two decades, I know what that is.  It's an F.

Let's break this down a bit.  Boston did well because it has a Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure ordinance, and because of its Renew Boston program, which helps residents and businesses implement energy-saving measures.  As in so many things, perhaps we have something to learn from our big neighbor to the north.

Providence did score well in the 'energy and water utilities' category (15 of 20 points), in large part because National Grid scored very well on spending and savings for electric and natural gas efficiency, and because it offers low-income and multifamily efficiency programs.  We also did reasonably well (7 of 10) on local government operations.  Why?  Because Providence has energy savings and emissions reduction goals, and we've taken steps to manage energy use in our government buildings by adopting a comprehensive retrofit strategy, and benchmarking the energy use of all public buildings.  We're also working to increase efficiency in our municipal vehicle fleet, in streetlights, and in new buildings.  We've also adopted the goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and of increasing urban tree canopy coverage.

Where did we do poorly?  We did poorly in the two categories that matter the most:  transportation policies (7.5 of 30 points) and building policies (2 of 28).  With regard to the former, the Sustainable Providence Plan doesn't have specific goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  While the new zoning code does encourage mixed development in several areas and removes parking minimums downtown, Providence has done little else to increase transportation efficiency.  In the 'building policies' category, we have few initiatives pushing efficiency in non-municipal buildings.  We don't have audit, retrofit or benchmarking requirements, and we don't dedicate enough resources to building energy code compliance.  Given how taken our city has been with using tax subsidies and incentives to spark development, it would seem to make sense to building these requirements (and compliance) into these deals.

A growing number of Providence households have rooftop solar panel systems, and Rep. Aaron Regunberg has helped to push recent changes in state law to make it easier for people to do this.  But we have the opportunity to do a lot more in Providence -- it's low-hanging fruit.  Sun Number is a US Department of Energy SunShot-funded startup that has developed a patented, automated process for analyzing the solar potential of rooftops using a Sun Number scale from 1 to 100.  They recently did a study identifying the northeastern cities with the most untapped solar potential.  Guess which city came in first?  Providence.  We got a 79 out of a 100, topping the list.

I believe that moving Providence toward the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will not only help to move the needle for the planet -- it will save money, create jobs, reduce inequality, and make our city a more healthy, just, walkable and sustainable place for everyone.  If I'm elected to the city council from Ward 3, I'll push the city to consider some of the following steps:

1.  Use our building codes and regulations to encourage high efficiency retrofits for private and non-profit buildings in the city.  Upgrades of heating and cooling systems will shrink our carbon footprint, and save on energy bills.  Imagine if some of our wealthy land-owning (and non-tax paying) anchor institutions -- think universities and hospitals -- took this on in a major way, and passed the savings on to the city!  It would create local jobs, and build our capacity to do this work elsewhere in the city.

2.  Work with National Grid and other public utilities to expand the percentage of energy they get from renewable sources

3.  Consider working with other New England cities to leverage the power of collective purchasing agreements.  Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and other cities have made a combined effort to purchase over 130,000 electric vehicles in the coming year.  Because this expands the market, it will push the industry to expand its productive capacity, putting downward pressure on prices.  Of course, this also means that Providence has to expand the number of charging stations for private electric vehicles too, perhaps by requiring new residential and commercial development to include them, and making sure that all municipal and state-owned properties have them too.

4.  Whenever possible, shift city and state buildings (including public schools) to solar, and renovate them to meet LEED Gold status -- and use a combination of regulations and incentives to encourage similar changes in the private and non-profit sectors.  This should also include working with state officials to make it easier for home and rental property owners to install solar panels.  Perhaps this could be done through property tax incentives.

5.  We need to shift transportation use in Providence away from private gas-guzzling cars, and toward public transit, bicycles, and electric vehicles.  One way of doing this is to eliminate parking minimums from the zoning code, which will reduce our carbon footprint and housing costs.  We might also consider a parking lot tax, to encourage denser and more walkable development.  More protected bike lanes would create another viable and healthy transportation alternative.  RIPTA needs more frequent service in walkable dense areas.  I would argue that it should also be free, for everyone.  In combination with some of the things I've suggested here, it isn't hard to imagine free public transit paying for itself.  At the very least, we should look into it.

6.  In general, Providence needs to move toward more walkable mixed-use development and affordable housing,by changing its land use laws to reflect this goal.  This is where equity and sustainability goals overlap; if we can move toward denser mixed-use development that is well-served by public transportation, we will reduce racial and economic segregation, and foster a way of living that is healthier and more ecologically sustainable, and more able to support small local businesses -- thus reducing our dependence on expensive tax subsidies to attract large outside companies.  We have some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, especially in the rental sector; these units are expensive, and far more likely to have lead paint, be in poor condition, and have asthma triggers.  We have some of the highest rates of child asthma in the country.  Both lead and asthma directly affect the health and academic achievement of our children.  Part of having a healthy and sustainable city has to include fixing this, by providing better and newer affordable rental options in neighborhoods of opportunity. 

If I'm elected to the city council from Ward 3, I will work hard to build a coalition aimed at helping Providence to become a more just, healthy and sustainable place.  I believe we can do this, and provide opportunity in the process.  We have tremendous intellectual and financial resources in this city.  What if we aimed them at this in the coming decades?