(Idil Gozde/PublicSource)

Mayor Bill Peduto still has a June 1 tweet pinned to the top of his Twitter page: “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement.” But how can the city deliver on that promise?

It was an unusual scene: environmentalists of every stripe praised the city of Pittsburgh for creating a plan that finally laid out just how serious Pittsburgh needed to get about climate change. And yet many of them didn’t seem convinced it would work.

“We don’t see this actually as a plan,” said Jason Beery of the UrbanKind Institute. “This is currently a list of goals and a survey of possible actions.”

The city’s ambitious new climate action plan lays out its strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the city 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. It includes many changes, from cutting the city’s meat consumption in half to planting 780,000 trees, which could transform life in the city, including where Pittsburghers live and how they get to work.

Lindsay Baxter, who played an instrumental role in writing the city’s first two plans as the former sustainability coordinator, urged the city to spell out which of its ideas would have the most impact. “The urgency of climate change necessitates a plan that leads to action rather than one that establishes a vision alone,” she said during a meeting to collect public comment in November.

The city’s plan relies on individuals and businesses to make big changes. But if it isn’t clear in its 100-page plan what should be prioritized, how will Pittsburghers know how to rally behind it?

Of all the people who showed up, only one, Robert Akscyn, opposed the plan. As he rose to speak, the room got quiet.

“Goals without plans are dreams. And plans without resources are delusions,” Akscyn said. “So if I were Pittsburgh...I would have a full-time staff of something like 50 to 100 people, volunteers and full timers in a NASA-like mission control context...because the scale of the problem deserves something of that approach.”

A number of people started snapping their fingers in support: The only person opposed thought the city’s grand plan wasn’t grand enough.

How did we get here?

Mayor Bill Peduto still has a tweet from June 1 pinned to the top of his Twitter page: “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”

He was responding to comments by President Donald Trump, who plans to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Trump said he was “elected by voters of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

The prominence the mayor has given to the city’s efforts to combat climate change has raised the stakes.

And because of inaction at the federal level, many are now looking at cities like Pittsburgh to pick up the slack. In the United States, cities are the source of most emissions. They also tend to have more money and political support to implement changes.

But even the Pittsburgh climate plan’s biggest supporters are skeptical. They say that it has a lot of good ideas — e.g. increase biking and buy green energy — but doesn’t say which of those ideas are most important or what order to implement them in. Along with that, the plan doesn’t clarify how much each will cost.

Adding to the skepticism is the city’s record so far: The city’s first two climate plans helped lay the groundwork for some of the city’s most innovative climate initiatives, like the fact that it even has a position focused on environmental sustainability.

The plan led to the widespread replacement of old light bulbs with LED bulbs and the 2030 district — a coalition in Downtown and Oakland focused on meeting the 50 percent reduction targets. Yet, despite the efforts, overall emissions have increased since the city started measuring it in 2003, rather than decreased, according to its most recent data.

The city needs a more specific plan, Nicki Aviel, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, told the city council, “so we accomplish more than a fraction of the goals like we did with the previous plans.”

The city doesn’t have additional money to implement its climate plan, according to Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resilience officer. The budget is the city’s normal capital budget.

So as the city invests in new cars and energy sources, it will start using its ordinary budget in more climate-friendly ways. And he said he expects in many cases, these changes will either pay for themselves or save money in the long run.

The same is true for the city’s businesses and people, he said. “You are making utility decisions. You are making home improvement decisions. You are buying appliances…” he said. “So that’s the [climate plan] budget.”

But the method that most economists think would allow U.S. cities like Pittsburgh the best chance of success — putting a price on carbon — is no longer on the table. And in its absence, Pittsburgh's environmentalists are confused about what exactly the city is proposing should take its place.

This is an excerpt from PublicSource, a nonprofit Pittsburgh news outlet. Read more here.  

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