How to get your city to zero emissions ASAP

by | April 29, 2022

We recently had the pleasure of hosting a webinar featuring the two people in charge of the United States’s most ambitious local climate action plan.

Luis Aguirre-Torres and Rebecca Evans are designing and implementing Ithaca, New York’s Green New Deal, which has two main areas of focus:

  • City-wide decarbonization by 2030.
  • Climate justice.

If you are someone who is working to make your community truly sustainable or want to start doing so soon, I highly recommend you give this a watch!


0:00 Intros

1:57 Luis & Rebecca’s climate stories.

5:00 The story of how Ithaca passed its Green New Deal.

11:28 Where should people getting started focus their time and energy?

18:30 Vision & goals of Ithaca’s GND.

24:50 Roadmap & elevating social capital.

33:20 Determining the breakdown of your community’s greenhouse gas emissions.

36:50 What types of organizations are needed for this to succeed?

43:30 The innovative financial model created to fund the initiative.

54:40 What this electrification & retrofitting initiative looks like from your average citizens’ perspective.

59:36 What do people need to do/understand to replicate Ithaca’s ambition and successes to date?

Q&A Section:

1:04:05 How can the average person get involved?

1:07:12 Challenges/strategies on securing buy-in from city staff.

1:11:14 Cornell’s energy tool.

1:13:10 The transportation side of the plan.

1:18:52 Embedded emissions from consumption.

1:21:00 Building retrofit and electrification checklist.

1:22:45 Luis & Rebecca’s call to action.

How Ithaca, New York passed the most ambitious climate plan in the US

It started small.

Just a conversation over drinks at the local bar between some college kids and their boss.

It was January 2019, shortly after the latest, horrifying IPCC report had come out. They were all scared. And felt they had to try to do something.

They decided to channel their energy into a launching a letter-writing campaign to demand that the city take bold climate action.

By February, hundreds of letters (mostly from students) had poured in.

Inspired by the Green New Deal and the Sunrise Movement, a common thread throughout these letters was a demand for carbon-neutrality by 2030 with a focus on climate justice.

What made them powerful, however, was that they were filled not with science or data, but with personal stories. People shared their emotions – their fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams for the future.

The Mayor read all of these personal stories. And they struck a chord within him.

The following month Ithaca held a (standing room only) town hall on the Green New Deal. The Mayor announced his full support at the end of it. And by that June the resolution had passed common council.

It’s true that not every city is going to be able to move as quickly as Ithaca did. And I’m sure how progressive and educated the city is helped. But any city that makes this transformation will see massive benefits for their citizens. And you never know what level of change is possible where you live until you start talking with people in your community and give it a try.

“I think we are collectively kind of restrained in our imagination of what the future looks like particularly around climate change. So I think giving ourselves permission to think that there could be something different is the very first step. In absolutely no world did I think that we would end up here in 2019. In no world did I think that the mayor would even read those letters. It’s amazing to see what just trying can actually do.” – Rebecca Evans

So that was step 1 – getting a bold resolution passed.

Step 2 was figuring out how the hell to actually do it.

Engaging the community

To design a plan that was going to work, they needed to start by talking to people – to see where everyone stood.

So they launched a program called “1,000 Conversations With the Community”.

What’s uniting people? What’s dividing them?

What does everyone care about, need, and want? Where do these things overlap?

They’re hosting their own conversations with the community but they’re also encouraging people to record and send in their own conversations. People have started sending in songs, videos, art and more.

Through this ongoing dialogue, they’re identifying the nexus and systemic solutions to what people care about and what would make their lives better.

And, crucially, this democratic engagement is ultimately helping to drive the participatory budget process.

“The Ithaca Green New Deal became this mission-oriented collaborative approach to carbon neutrality where at the core we are really focusing on elevating social capital, redefining the social contract, and really driving towards a model where you have equity – where you have justice at the very core of a giant effort that strives to achieve sustainable prosperity for everybody in the community.” – Luis Aguirre-Torres

Financial innovation & re-imagining the role of government

Another first step for any community tackling their emissions, is to understand where all of their emissions are actually coming from.

Once Luis and Rebecca had the breakdown of the city’s emissions by source, they saw that electrifying and retrofitting buildings would help to eliminate a whopping 50% of Ithaca’s emissions. So they started focusing in on the 6,000 buildings in Ithaca.

How much would it cost to retrofit and electrify every single one of them?

Using an energy tool from Cornell, they estimated that every residential building needed $50,000 of investment and every commercial building needed $70,000. That means they needed about $100 million for their pilot of 1,600 buildings.

With a budget of only $80 million per year, the City of Ithaca has nowhere near enough money to cover this upfront investment. And commercial banks didn’t have flexible enough terms for what they needed.

But Luis knew that private investors have enough money and their terms are flexible.

In order to attract $100 million from private investors, however, they had to get creative.

Instead of using state and federal incentives on one building at a time, they realized that they could pool all of those buildings and incentives together and leverage them to unlock massive amounts of private capital.

The government incentives help to guarantee private investors a certain rate of return, which lowers their risk and ultimately lowers the cost of capital (aka the interest rate on that $100 million).

All of a sudden, they had gone from from unlocking just $1 of investment for every $1 of government incentives to unlocking $20 of investment for every $1 of government incentives. So now they just needed $5 million to attract the needed $100 million from private investors.

You see, incentives in this situation would typically help people buy a heat pump or solar panels. They would cover a fraction of the total investment needed for a given purchase. But, even with these incentives, most people can’t afford a full building retrofit and electrification that costs tens of thousands of dollars.

So, instead, Ithaca is re-purposing the incentives (combined with insurance and some philanthropic dollars) to attract private investors and their pools of money – because these pools of money are large enough to retrofit and electrify all of Ithaca’s buildings at no up-front cost to the citizens.

Upgrading all of these buildings saves a ton of money over time. Building owners can expect to save 10% to 60% on their energy bills. These savings are split between the building-owners and private investors over a 20-year period.

Pretty nifty!

“We actually re-purpose the intention of government in that we became a convener. We became a catalyst for investment a catalyst for innovation but not really the ones doing the work.” – Luis Aguirre-Torres
“For us practitioners working on this, the key is to manage risk and to unlock capital.” – Luis Aguirre-Torres

There’s a lot more to this (layers of insurance, huge cash flows, aggregating and securitizing thousands of projects, etc.) If this sparks your interest, I’d highly encourage you to listen to the full conversation to hear Luis talk about it in more detail.

What does this look like for your average citizen & building owner?

It looks pretty damn good.

Let’s take a look. They get:

  • Tens of thousands of dollars in building upgrades at no upfront cost (e.g. depending on the building they could get insulation, high performing windows, heat pumps, electric water heaters, induction stoves, electric dryers, solar panels, charging stations, electric panel, etc.)
  • 10% to 60% savings on their energy bills. They pocket half the savings and pay off the building upgrades with the other half.
  • Healthier families (and neighborhoods) because air quality goes up when you stop burning poisonous fossil fuels to cook your food and heat your home.
  • Ownership of the equipment after 20 years.
  • No headaches. Everything is easy, turnkey. Building owners don’t have to do anything. It’s taken care of by private businesses and the local government.

The key here is to make the program a no-brainer for people. And it looks like that’s what they’ve done.

(In our conversation, Luis goes into depth on how they’re thinking about getting people to sign up for the program. He goes over the strategy, the adoption curve and who they’re focusing on first with this program and why.)

Oh, I almost forgot to mention jobs. With this bold plan, Ithaca has created a big market. They currently don’t have enough businesses to do all of the retrofitting and electrification work.

This initiative alone will end up creating around 1,000 jobs in a community of 32,000 people. Not too shabby!

Luis & Rebecca’s calls to action

“General call to action? Do something – anything. I mean it sounds very rudimentary, but seriously, the Green New Deal in Ithaca started with a bunch of 20-year-olds at a bar with their boss. That’s how this started…it’s about turning that fear of the future into fuel for action.” – Rebecca Evans
“I am a dreamer for sure. And I think that we need more dreamers and we need more people to give themselves that space to think about what could be different. What’s your utopia? What’s your passion within that? How can you plug in to make that happen? Where are the groups that align with that vision?” – Rebecca Evans
“Getting involved in local government is one of the best things that people can do. We tend to focus on national elections because they’re big and they’re splashy and of course they do have a huge impact. But again, this is a community of 30,000 people that has shaken the foundation of the energy economy in this region. And it started with a bunch of kids getting involved in local government and contacting their mayor. So figure out who your representatives are if you don’t know who they are and start a conversation. It’s amazing how far those conversations and those partnerships can go.” – Rebecca Evans
“At the end of the day this is not going to go away. It’s there. And we are the ones who are going to solve it…there is a lot to do but we know how to do it.” – Luis Aguirre-Torres

If you have questions about making your city climate positive (or stories to share with others) please do let me know!

We’ll be hosting a webinar in June to continue the conversation on this topic with Michael Boswell and Adrienne Greve who are professors at Cal Poly and literally wrote the book on how to do this.

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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