Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Partners, Standards and Climate Change: Burlington's Winding Road

As Bernie Sanders flirted with the possibility of running for president in 2012, residents of Burlington, the city where he made his first electoral breakthrough, questioned the approach he and a local successor were taking to military contractor Lockheed Martin. Mayor Bob Kiss had signed an agreement with Lockheed for a local partnership to work on climate change, while Sanders arranged for Sandia Labs, a Lockheed subsidiary, to open an energy research lab at the university.

Then suddenly, on Sept. 2, 2011, the defense contractor backed out of the deal signed with Kiss in an e-mail message to the Burlington Free Press. Why the change? A few weeks earlier, after months of local debate, Burlington’s City Council had voted in favor of community standards for proposed climate-change partnerships, prompted by the agreement Kiss had signed. The resolution called for standards which, if followed, could limit or exclude working agreements with weapons manufacturers and polluters.

Rob Fuller, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, said in a statement, "While several projects showed promise initially and we have learned a tremendous amount from each other, we were unable to develop a mutually beneficial implementation plan. Therefore Lockheed Martin has decided to conclude the current collaboration."

It read a bit like a Dear John, and a silent nod to public pressure. Dozens of residents had testified during public meetings, all but a few opposing the deal. Kiss nevertheless called the standards "bad public policy” and a “restrictive and regressive approach.” In a veto message, he said the policy may even have contributed to Lockheed’s decision to pull out of the Burlington agreement.

A Progressive recruited to run for mayor in 2006, Kiss found support for his opposition to community standards from Republicans and Democrats on the council, including future mayoral candidate Kurt Wright, who questioned whether such standards represented local opinion. In the end, the vote was  8-6, more than a majority but not enough to override the mayor's veto. The question of setting standards or criteria for public-private partnerships remains open.

Since then, greenhouse gas emissions have increased in Burlington by around 7 percent.  Emissions traceable to city government activity rose 15 percent in three years, while the community’s emissions went up 6 percent. The city's official goal is a 20 percent decrease overall by 2020.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas. Local emissions from that source increased by almost 25 percent between 2007 and 2010. Of total community emissions about half come from transportation. Thus, a reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by residents and commuters would have the biggest impact on meeting the city's emissions reduction target.

Burlington’s City Council formed a Climate Protection Task Force more than 15 years ago. A resolution passed in 1998 proposed to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels. An 18-month process subsequently led to the city’s first Climate Action Plan, adopted in May 2000.

A 2007 inventory showed that Burlington generated 397,272.4 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). Based on that, local goals were set -- a 20 percent reduction by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. This would require an annual 2 percent decrease. Unfortunately, the "action" since then has been in the opposite direction.

In 2009 Burlington used American Recovery Act funds to hire Spring Hill Solutions, a clean energy consulting firm, to prioritize more than 200 “mitigation actions” generated by a community process. The resulting plan was supposed to be a framework for measuring and reducing greenhouse emissions and other climate change impacts. There is no evidence that idea has been implemented.

According to the plan, three approaches offer the greatest potential for both carbon reductions and cost savings:

- Requiring any new commercial construction to follow performance guidelines that reduce energy use by at least 20 percent

- The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which provides property owners with help making energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements

-- Reducing the number of miles driven by residents by combining trips, telecommuting, carpooling and using alternatives to the automobile
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