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Columbus Seeks Input On Climate Action Plan, But Environmentalists Want More

Cars are absent from 3rd Street in downtown Columbus on May 6, 2020, in the middle of Ohio's stay-at-home order.
David Holm
Cars are absent from 3rd Street in downtown Columbus on May 6, 2020, in the middle of Ohio's stay-at-home order.

In the absence of a coordinated state or federal response to climate change, cities around the world have committed to ambitious carbon reduction goals on their own. Columbus signed onto the Global Covenant of Mayors in 2018, and it’s aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

The city hosts a public hearing Tuesday for its draft plan.

Columbus’ plan shoots for a 25% carbon reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. The action items set goals for direct reductions through things like increased electric vehicle ownership or rooftop solar. It also sets benchmarks for less obvious measures like increasing the tree canopy around the city, which will mitigate heat and help with storm water.

There’s just one problem: The environmentalists who should be the plan’s loudest cheerleaders say it doesn’t go far enough.

“So I give the city  a lot of credit for taking this on, and really trying to find what are the emissions and where can they be cut down," says Cathy Cowan Becker. “But we just think that the goal is not strong enough. We think that it needs to be 45% in line with the science.”

Cowan Becker chairs the local chapter of Ready for 100, a Sierra Club initiative aiming for 100% carbon reduction by 2050. The science she’s referencing is a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that indicates the world needs to cut carbon emissions by about 45% to stay on track with the goals laid out in the Paris Climate Accords.

The city’s plan also backloads many of its goals. For instance, Columbus aims to install 10 megawatts of rooftop solar by 2030, but the goal jumps to 500 megawatts by 2050. Cowan Becker has done some rough math, and she’s actually optimistic about getting there, but again, she argues the city should be moving more aggressively in the short term.

“We could do 200 megawatts with 40,000 home solar installations in Columbus through bulk purchase or incentives,” Cowan Becker describes. “The city just had set a goal of 30,000 home energy audits in two years, and they made their goal 40,000 in 10 years—it’s a lot, but you if you have a plan and you fund it, you can get there.”

Columbus has hosted a series of workshops to assist in developing its draft plan. Numerous businesses and organizations like trade groups participated, but there doesn’t appear to be an organized group opposing the underlying effort.

That said, the policy changes do face some opposition. The city employed a web platform called Consider It, which allows users to register their support or opposition for each action item in the plan, as well as leave comments explaining their position. What you wind up with is a kind of live poll, and while it may not be scientific, it does offer a glimpse of respondents' mood.

Every action item shows a majority of respondents in support, and many are weighted toward the extremes—either full support or complete opposition. But a policy goal like increasing electric vehicle ownership shows a relatively broad spectrum of responses.

Comments run the gamut: One opponent calls the idea government overreach; a supporter argues the initiative shouldn’t come at the expense of increased public transit; supporters and opponents both caution the idea will only make meaningful carbon reductions if the power grid has moved away from fossil fuels.

Columbus City Council is seeking more input Tuesday evening in a public hearing hosted by Council member Emmanuel Remy. The meeting will be streamed on the city’s Facebookand YouTube pages.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.