It was no surprise to see Tom O’Connor walk into the public library for our task force presentation on the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.
It was Tom who enlightened me on the power of individual action to reduce carbon emissions, back in 2009 when I was the editor of the Columbia Business Times and writing the headline for a story I assigned: “Tom O’Connor reduced his electric bill 80% and says you can, too.”
O’Connor, who runs an engineering company with his father, was also serving on both the city Water and Light Advisory Board and the Environment and Energy Commission.
Now he’s installing solar systems around the city, and, as a member of the mayor’s task force drafting this plan, I was eager to get Tom’s take on our work.
The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — 35% by 2035, 80% by 2050 and 100% by 2060 — and prepare us for the dramatic changes in Columbia’s climate: more intense storms, more frequent and catastrophic spring flooding and more intense summer droughts, to name a few.
In the weeks before Monday’s City Council vote on the plan, Mother Nature gave us a scary preview of what’s ahead. More than 200 tornadoes cut across the Midwest in 12 days, including one that pummeled Jefferson City, and the Missouri River rose almost as high as the 1993 “once in 500 years” flood.
The Katy Trail was under water in large sections, McBaine and Cooper’s Landing became part of the river again, the Bur Oak Tree was inundated and a bit upriver at Katfish Katy’s, it seemed you could cast a line from the roof and catch that namesake.
O’Connor was less enthusiastic about our detailed plan to combat climate change, and the vote before City Council, than I expected: “This is the easy part.” Getting people to take real actions needed to reach our goals, that’s the hard part.
The process didn’t seem easy. Brian Treece set up our task force 17 months ago as part of an effort by mayors across the country to counteract the departure of the U.S. from the global Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions.
We were a pretty good representation of the city. Members included a prominent developer, an insurance industry representative and the managers of two industrial plants; an environmental attorney, a utilities attorney and a corporate attorney; the CEO of PedNet and the head of the local Sierra Club; an MU student and the manager of MU’s sustainability office, a Rock Bridge High School environmental activist, the bar manager at Logboat brewery and the owner of a photography studio; the city’s former energy services supervisor and a scientist specializing in policy.
We were guided by paid consultants and a management team of eight city staffers led by sustainability manager Barbara Buffaloe.
Our surveys indicated strong support for our goals, and the cross section of our membership caused us to be realistic. But there will be conflicts ahead. Change always presents the risk of a new burden to some segment of the population.
Can we increase energy efficiency in residential, commercial, municipal and school buildings without significantly raising monthly gas and electricity bills, rent and taxes?
We need to conserve existing green space and plant more trees that provide shade, erosion control and cleaner air, but can we at the same time encourage population density and provide affordable housing?
Yes, this will be difficult, but it’s also possible. How do I know?
Because we’re already making smart choices and progressing toward our carbon reduction targets.
From 2000 to 2015, we reduced our per capita emissions in Columbia by 20%. We voted to require more renewable energy, and the city now gets about 16% of its electricity from wind, landfill gas and solar sources. The costs of burning coal for electricity are rising, and the costs of wind and solar are dropping.
We’re expanding our local food supply centered at the new farmer’s market pavilion and widening our network for commuting by bicycle.
One example of smart policy that overcomes conflicting goals, such as conservation-based affordable housing, is the Lynn Street Cottages near downtown. The eight owner-occupied homes are designed for near net-zero energy usage.
Back at Tom O’Connor’s house, the natural gas supply is off and heating now comes solely from electricity.
He’s being smart about reducing his energy bill along with his carbon footprint, and we can, too.
David Reed is the program director of Alfred Friendly Press Partners, a nonprofit organization based at the Missouri School of Journalism that trains reporters and editors from developing countries.