Tompkins County Meeting the Climate Challenge
By Peter Bardaglio
Communities with the foresight to undertake the transition to a clean energy economy now rather than later will be the success stories of the 21st century. This transformation will be profound and ultimately more sustainable than the one brought about by the automobile, national highway system and cheap fossil fuels.
Tompkins County has gained national visibility as an early leader in the clean energy movement. Undergirding this effort has been the recognition that energy is a central factor in the area’s environmental and economic sustainability. In particular, the county has grasped the essential point that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that taking steps to mitigate and prepare for climate change, for example, will generate important opportunities for jobs and economic growth.
As early as 2002, the Tompkins County Legislature committed to a 20 percent reduction in the county government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2008, compared to 1998 levels. Mayor Carolyn Peterson was an original signatory of the 2005 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and the Ithaca Common Council in 2006 adopted a goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2001 levels by 2016. The following year, Cornell University and Ithaca College signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits them to move toward a zero carbon footprint. Tompkins Cortland Community College joined Cornell and Ithaca College as a signatory in 2008, and the three institutions have since devoted significant time, energy and money to fulfilling this promise. Indeed, Cornell’s climate action plan has led to its receiving a national award in October for campus leadership from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative, launched in June 2008, seeks to leverage this impressive array of commitments to establish and mobilize a coalition of local community leaders who are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to an efficient, clean energy economy. With support from the Park Foundation, TCCPI has brought together the local higher education institutions, including Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension, government bodies such as the county’s legislature, planning department and council of governments, and nonprofits such as the Cayuga Medical Center, Museum of the Earth, Tompkins Community Action and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Key business organizations such as the Ithaca Downtown Alliance, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, Tompkins County Area Development and Landlords Association of Tompkins County round out the coalition. (A full list of members can be found at www.tccpi.org).
Guiding the efforts of TCCPI is the Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions element, adopted as part of the 2004 Tompkins County Comprehensive Plan in 2008. The EEGE element, which received the 2009 Planning Excellence Award for Innovation in Sustainability from the American Planning Association, calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an annual reduction goal of 2 percent of 2008 levels over the next 40 years. County planners recently secured endorsement from the county legislature for an energy action plan that would lead to a 20 percent reduction in the county’s carbon footprint by 2020.
To begin with, TCCPI’s main strategy focuses on efficiency upgrades to decrease energy consumption and produce critical economic, social and environmental benefits associated with climate protection. As part of this effort, TCCPI has been a co-sponsor with the Cooperative Extension office of the Tompkins Energy Conservation Corps. Launched last summer as a pilot program, the Corps’ mission is to dramatically expand residential energy efficiency, strengthening local self-sufficiency and reducing carbon emissions. Adopting an innovative approach to the social marketing of home energy retrofits, Energy Corps members, primarily students from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and TC3, conduct energy assessments on the homes of formal and informal leaders, including some of the most influential people in Tompkins County. This summer, 56 community leaders participated in the Energy Corps program. For the fall, the Energy Corps has ramped up its outreach efforts through community blower-door workshops, youth activities, employer brownbag lunches and a marketing campaign.
To complement this program, TCCPI is working with staff and students from New Roots Charter High School to carry out a similar initiative on Ithaca’s Southside, one of the city’s most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. Energy Corps will lend its experience and expertise to this effort through training, sharing of materials and technical support.
In the long run, TCCPI has four major goals
There is still much work to do in all of these areas, but perhaps the most significant achievement so far, and a great source of hope for the county, is the culture of collaboration that has developed over the two years since TCCPI came into being. A good example was the recent submission of a proposal to the federal EPA Climate Showcase Community Grant Program, which seeks to highlight efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Drawing on the experience and expertise of EcoVillage at Ithaca, a member of TCCPI, the grant proposal seeks to disseminate the important lessons learned at EcoVillage about reducing a community’s carbon footprint. The proposal outlines how the county will incorporate the key principles into its planning for future development.
“We’ve had almost two decades of experience in developing environmentally-oriented, densely clustered neighborhoods which provide a very high quality of life,” says Liz Walker, co-founder and executive director of EcoVillage. “It feels great to think that some of our hard-earned lessons can be translated to more mainstream residential development.” Walker notes that were it not for TCCPI, this collaboration might not have happened. “Whether or not the funding from EPA comes through, this strengthens our ties to the county planning department and opens up all kinds of opportunities,” Walker concludes.
As is the case in virtually every New York county, Tompkins has an astounding number of municipalities, major employers with internal interests, multiple green initiatives and a county government with its own set of planning protocols. TCCPI has succeeded in working through various turf issues, specific agendas and parallel tracks with a can-do, progressive forum that’s about inclusion, resource-sharing, mutual respect, pushing the envelope and getting things done for the common good, now and in the future.
Peter Bardaglio is the co-author of "Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change" (2009) and coordinator of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative. A senior fellow at Second Nature, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability in higher education, Dr. Bardaglio was the provost and vice president of academic affairs from 2002 to 2007 at Ithaca College, where he helped to launch the college’s nationally recognized sustainability initiative.
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