Environment

The Trump administration formally announced last week that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, thrusting the burden to act against climate change upon cities like Louisville.

Already, Louisville is one of more than 150 U.S. cities committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount countries agreed on in the Paris Accords — 80 percent by 2050.

It is fitting, then, that just days before the U.S. notified the United Nations of its plan to exit the agreement, Louisville released a long-awaited plan to cut its own carbon emissions.

The report fulfills a promise Mayor Greg Fischer made in 2016 as part of the Global Covenant of Mayors, and builds on his September declaration that Louisville is facing a “climate emergency.”

A Louisville sustainability staffer said the plan is a roadmap that’s going to require  cooperation from local businesses and residents.

“This is a community-wide plan. We will take the lead as Louisville Metro in doing everything we can,” said Allison Smith, Brownfields program manager at Louisville’s Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability. “But this is not something we can do on our own.”

The roughly $71,000 report from Stantec Consulting comes in the wake of budget cuts that downsized Louisville’s Office of Sustainability, eliminating the standalone agency, cutting the director position and folding the two remaining employees into the Office of Advanced Planning.

Advanced Planning is now responsible for enacting city-wide change to reduce emissions, much of it outside the city’s control and, at times, working with partners whose interests don’t always align.

Louisville Climate Action Network Executive Director Sarah Lynn Cunningham said November’s report looks a lot like a plan she helped the city write in 2009. That report has spent the past decade gathering dust. 

Either way, the city’s 80 percent goal still falls short of the emissions reductions the United Nations says are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

Still, peer cities are overcoming similar challenges and seeing results. Cincinnati for example, is already using 100 percent renewable energy to power city operations.

“The momentum and the burden has shifted to cities, and cities are small enough to be agile and large enough to be impactful on climate issues,” said Oliver Kroner, Cincinnati’s sustainability coordinator. “So all of a sudden cities are really leading the conversation on how cities are decarbonizing our economy.”

The Bulk Of Emissions

Greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. These emissions are now higher than at any time in human history and climate scientists say it’s imperative for the global economy to drastically reduce them as much and as fast as possible. 

Louisville completed a greenhouse gas inventory in 2016 that found the city’s per capita emissions were higher than the national average by about five tons per person.

Overall, the city emitted about 21 million tons of carbon equivalent in 2016 — that’s the same as burning 278,000 tanker trucks worth of gasoline.

The report breaks down emissions further, finding that Louisville Metro has the greatest influence over about 16 million tons of emissions. And about 81 percent of those emissions come from the energy used to heat, cool and power buildings.  

Let’s focus on those emissions.

This is a two-fold problem: Louisville, like many other cities in the region, has a bunch of older, draftier buildings that are not very energy efficient. On top of that, the power used in these buildings comes largely from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

So Louisville needs to use less power overall while transitioning away from the fossil-fuel power plants that create those emissions. 

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is generally seen as the low-hanging fruit of emissions reductions. It’s everything from purchasing energy-saving light bulbs and washing machines, to weatherizing and retrofitting buildings to use less energy overall.

There are upfront costs, but these upgrades can save money long-term.

One of the most effective strategies could involve updating building codes to make new buildings more efficient, but that’s not something the city has control over. Cities in Kentucky can’t enforce regulations that are stricter than the state’s building codes, so any changes would have to be approved by the state legislature.

Louisville’s plan calls for lobbying the legislature to update building codes, but so did the emissions reduction plan the city produced back in 2009. In fact, that report made several of the same recommendations as this year’s report, but little came of them. 

“It took four months just to get the thank you letter [from the city for the 2009 plan] and the thank you letter talked about how we didn’t have any money four times, and the urgency once,” said Cunningham of the Louisville Climate Action Network.

Similar building code restrictions exist for cities in Ohio, but Cincinnati has found ways around it. City officials have had luck incentivizing local developers to build energy efficient buildings; they offer up to 15 years of property tax abatement in return for receiving efficiency certifications.

Louisville’s plan calls for similar financial incentives for residents and businesses. It also includes several other strategies, including free building inspections, building permit fee rebates and new zoning requirements that promote high-density development.

“I think some of the biggest things are our energy efficiency efforts, reducing energy consumption where we can, deep energy retrofits and investing in renewables is a big one as well,” said Natalie Vezina, Louisville sustainability coordinator.

Reducing Reliance On Fossil-Fuels

Today, about 99 percent of Louisville’s power comes from Louisville Gas & Electric burning fossil fuels. About two-thirds of LG&E’s generating capacity comes from coal, and another third comes from natural gas.

Retiring coal power plants, in particular, can dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Looking back at recent history, Louisville emissions dropped 10 percent from 2010 to 2016, in large part because LG&E closed the coal-fired power plant at Cane Run in 2015 and switched to natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal.

The long-term problem is that most of LG&E’s coal-fired power plants have a remaining lifespan of 30 years — meaning if they do retire by the 2050 deadline, it will be just in time to meet the city’s goals, but will still fall short of those laid out by climate scientists.

“We are continually analyzing the lifespan of those facilities, the viable lifespans, and as part of our ongoing generation planning, we are able to make modifications for future plans as needed,” said Natasha Collins with LG&E.

Now, LG&E and parent company PPL Corporation say they are committed to reducing emissions to 70 percent of 2010 levels by 2050. This year, they also refurbished the Ohio Falls hydroelectric generating station and began looking at proposals to expand solar generation up to 200 megawatts. 

In Louisville, the Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability is taking LG&E’s timeline into account.

“The 80 by (2050) target was largely modeled off of the fact that LG&E won’t retire the majority of its coal plants until 2040,” Vezina said.

Even then, the utility’s plans fall well short of the deadlines set by scientists in the United Nations report on climate change.

In Cincinnati, officials got around the state’s continued reliance on coal power by purchasing an equivalent amount of renewable power on the open market. Now city government operations are 100 percent renewable and the city is offering a program to power more than 80,000 businesses and homes with renewable energy credits, said Kroner with Cincinnati.

Louisville too, is considering purchasing renewable energy credits, though that won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions locally.

The new greenhouse gas report also advocates for a resolution the Louisville Metro Council is currently considering that would transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy for city operations by 2030, and the entire community by 2040. However, even if it passes, that resolution is non-binding and could be ignored by city officials. 

Meeting Climate Deadlines

Last year’s U.N. report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the world needs to reduce carbon emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels no later than 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with any remaining emissions offset by reforestation or carbon capture technology.

Environmental advocate and former mayoral candidate Jackie Green said the city’s entire plan is based on a timeline that won’t realistically address the changes needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“That document and the city are not dealing with reality,” Green said in an email. “Here is the reality. Our economy will crash as a result of climate change. It is better to make the needed changes now rather than wait until they are forced upon us.”

Cunningham, a longtime Louisville environmentalist, said the city’s latest proposal has fewer recommendations and less detail than the one she helped produce a decade ago. Some of the suggestions in the latest report don’t seem to take the current landscape into account, like references to programs that no longer exist, she said.

For example, the city recommends LG&E offer demand side management programs (another term for energy efficiency) for residential customers. LG&E did have those programs for several years, but ended them at the start of this year saying it wasn’t worth it for the utility to incentivize energy efficiency if customers were going to make improvements anyway.

Smith, with the Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability, said Louisville recognizes the urgency laid out in last year’s IPCC report, but is sticking with the original deadline because it’s what the city’s emissions reductions models are based on.

“It is going to be hard for all of us to keep up so we felt it was better to go ahead and finish the plan, have a sound set of strategies then work to move that time-frame up as quickly as possible,” Smith said.

What is clear from the report is that whatever happens, it’s going to have to be a community effort. The Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability is encouraging residents to read through the entire study and offer comments at this website ahead of the Nov. 30 deadline.

“We lay out the high-level strategies and then we work with communities to make those happen,” Smith said “Everyone has a role to play in this.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.