to the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative

Equity Up & Emissions Down

My 2030 Dream for Ithaca (and Tompkins County)

by Joe Wilson, Ithaca Times, March 2020

​Joe Wilson is a local environmental activist and member of the Dryden Planning Board.

The City’s announcement of a Green New Deal--“carbon neutrality” with “equity”-- in June of 2019 gave a welcome focus and rallying point for the efforts so many of us had been making for a long time before. Looking back from 2030, it’s fun to outline some of what came about.

Getting Specific:

We agreed carbon neutrality meant that, as a community, we would quantify then reduce our community’s greenhouse gas emissions. We settled the lingering issues of the importance of methane emissions and whether we should address the impact of global warming emissions beyond our geographic boundaries.  The answers were: Yes, methane emissions are crucial because its global warming potential is so much greater than carbon dioxide over the time we have left to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, and Yes, for the same reason we need to address man-made methane emissions occurring inside and outside our immediate borders. We agreed on annual targets

We agreed that we would be progressing toward “equity” when affordable, energy efficient housing located near jobs and basic services, expanded and affordable food and transportation options, training for jobs in an emerging green economy, coupled with health and economic benefits reaching those of us who had been historically disadvantaged or marginalized.  Again we agreed on annual targets.

Staying Focused:

Activists from Building Bridges, COPE, Cornell Climate Justice, Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free Tompkins, Get Your Green Back, Mothers Out Front, Sunrise, Partnership for Outreach and Engagement, the County’s Environmental Management Committee and others alternately collaborated, pushed, and praised elected officials, business leaders, and the often-on-the-sidelines education and health organizations to treat carbon neutrality and equity with the urgency they deserved.

Keeping Score:

Capitalizing on expertise among various Planning departments, the County’s Energy Advisors, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Energy Team, local contractors and the Ithaca 2030 District, we updated our emission inventories and laid plans. We reviewed progress toward our targets frequently.  All responsible organizations included periodic reports in their public meetings. They were watched closely by various volunteer and activist groups. Visuals showing progress were everywhere. Local media diligently played their watch dog role routinely sharing “offical” views and those of knowledgeable critics.

What Got Done:

Transportation and Housing:   We made great strides in these two most challenging sectors. Pushed hard by activists and aware of the influx of those escaping climate chaos elsewhere, leaders in the City and Towns doubled down on increasing density and in-fill building within already developed areas. Short-term rental issues were resolved, and ultimately, the supply of affordable housing for middle and lower income people grew. There were more walkable/bikable neighborhoods, and they were closer to people’s work and services . In the City some streets were dedicated entirely to walking and biking. The additional spaces were used for community gardens. Open areas were made available for urban agriculture. Our outlying Towns found ways to bring residential development and services closer together often along existing public transportation corridors. Our network of connecting trails continued to grow.

 The county-wide move to electric vehicles (EV’s) became a necessity as the multi-state “Transportation and Climate” gasoline-rationing plan took effect. Under it, our region began receiving ever-decreasing rations of gasoline. All governments and the schools accelerated their conversions to EV’s of all sizes. Charging stations proliferated. Gas stations became charging spots or just disappeared.  Personal car ownership dwindled with on-demand car use, car-pooling, local delivery services, and an expanded, more flexible T-Cat picking up the slack. This transition was guided and supported by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s “Way2Go” and the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council.

Battery-powered planes made the short hops from Ithaca to airline hubs. Long-distance carriers landing at our expanded airport made carbon offset payments into local, equity-focused initiatives.

Vehicle-caused emissions dropped dramatically. Our equity goal was well served with the major costs of operating gas vehicles eliminated, locally produced food more available, services more accessible for more of us, and emission-based air pollution reduced.

Buildings: Even before Ithaca’s Green New Deal, it was widely understood that making new and existing buildings all electric and net-zero in energy use was crucial. So, following the roll-out of City’s Green Building Codes, all our Towns followed suit tailoring the details to their individual needs. Complementing these standards were industry-wide movements toward “dematerialization”--cutting cement and steel use plus computer-driven building design innovations.

With upfront costs and access to financing barriers to the transition, the County’s Business Energy Navigator programs helped guide developers. Heat Smart Tompkins helped home owners, and Sustainable Tompkins’ expanded “Seal the Cracks” assisted home owners, renters, and landlords get grants. But, more was needed. Local governments and local lenders collaborated with the State to create a combination of grants, loans, green bonds and incentives which allowed us to make great progress. Energy use and emissions dropped dramatically. All of us gained from lower utility bills and better places in which to live and work.  

Energy: By 2030 renewable energy production sites had spread across the County. This brought revenue to hard-pressed land owners, and vigilance at the Town level protected the best producing farm land. Locally we had become more comfortable with the look of these sites while state-wide popular resistance and the State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act forced the State’s big power producers away from natural gas.  Body blows were delivered to the fossil fuel industry as a whole as governments began to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and big funders like New York’s state pension funds, TIAA, and Cornell moved to steadier, more profitable investments. The result was that renewable energy and technology could finally compete on an even playing field. 

The County and cooperating Towns started a Community Choice Aggregation pilot. It resulted in participating customers saving on their utility bills while getting their electricity 100% from renewables. Participating Towns also gained additional revenue. Emissions came down because of using renewables, and the lower utility costs benefited everybody in “CCA.”  Coal ash clean-up at the old Cayuga Power Plant was underway—promising to finally end that threat to the health of those who drank Cayuga Lake water. 

Jobs & Education: Transitioning to a net zero community created jobs in fields that were growing. This created jobs with chances for advancement many of which did not require college degrees.  A good number were unionized with the likelihood of benefits and protected rights. High demand for workers and our local policies meant a living wage based on local standards. New openings occurred in a variety of fields including energy efficient construction & retrofitting, renewables installation and maintenance, clean energy production, transmission & storage, grid analytics, hydrogen manufacture, supply chain development, and various fields of engineering.  Many, including those seeing themselves as disadvantaged or marginalized, walked through the doors opened by our transition.

Our local educators stepped up. Both BOCES and TC3 were quick to offer training in the emerging fields. On a philosophical level, our public schools accepted the wisdom of what one Sunrise member called a “curriculum which recognizes the climate emergency and teaches the necessity of social and climate justice for everyone.”

Agriculture: By the time the local Green New Deal was announced, local farmers were already experiencing the impacts of climate change. As climate change outside our region made factory-style food production and long-range supply chains increasingly problematic, demand for a greater local food supply rose. Local outlets increased. Local farmers responded both by increasing the volume and diversity of what they produced but also by adopting “regenerative farming” practices. Mastering these techniques were supported by CCE and our local Carbon Farming group. They helped reduce emissions and sequester carbon while improving productivity. The increasing opportunities to buy healthy, local food kept prices in check and money in our local economy. Again, the transition had served our equity goal.  

Celebrating “Realism”:

By June of 2030, it was time to close the books on the “Green New Deal Decade” and celebrate. In that spirit, the 2030 Ithaca Festival—and several other Town’s celebrations) chose the theme the Green New Deal theme. Not bad for a community frequently scoffed at as being “surrounded by reality.” In fact, by linking equity with carbon neutrality and achieving both, we had become the realists.

309 North Aurora Street | Ithaca, NY 14850 | info@tccpi.org