Asheville has been making plans to reduce its contribution to climate change since 2007, when City Council adopted its first energy and conservation goals. In all, at least 10 city ordinances and plans have directly addressed sustainability matters, the most recent being January 2020’s declaration of a climate emergency.
Now under development is one plan to rule them all. According to the city’s website, the Municipal Climate Action Plan, being drafted by Winston-Salem-based consultant AECOM for $95,000, “will incorporate all new additions of policies and resolutions while creating a road map on how to accomplish adopted goals” through 2030.
Work on the plan kicked off last September and was originally scheduled to wrap up by the first week of April. Progress has been slower than anticipated; a draft version, first slated for February, is not yet available, and Council’s eight-week planning calendar indicates that members won’t vote to approve the document until at least late October. (The city website lists “Fall 2022” as the current target for completion.)
However, Xpress was able to obtain all of AECOM’s work on the plan to date through a public records request. What does a review of those documents reveal about how the city plans to approach sustainability during what President Joe Biden has called the “decisive decade” for addressing climate change?
In the works
The most recent document from the planning process, dated July 29, is a “Draft Framework and High-Impact Activity List” that outlines three goals for “municipal activities over which the city has direct control.” The first aims for city-owned assets, including buildings, vehicles and water infrastructure, to be “resilient, sustainable and efficient.” The second goal would better integrate sustainability and climate considerations into city operations, while the third would support sustainability and resilience for the community outside City Hall.
Activities listed under the first goal are the most directly related to meeting previous city targets, such as the 100% renewable energy goal set in 2018 and 4% annual emissions reduction goal set in 2011. The document suggests that Asheville might implement a rule requiring new government construction to include rooftop solar, enter into solar leases with Duke Energy and establish a “green fleet” policy to prioritize electric vehicles.
Day-to-day city operations would be guided to a greater extent by the Climate Justice Screening Tool, a decision-making framework developed earlier this year. Sustainability would be better integrated into employee training, and government purchase decisions would prioritize lower-carbon options.
In its interactions with the broader public, Asheville would explore partnerships for renewable energy and local food production. The city would also better communicate its climate efforts, providing an online dashboard with data on sustainability targets and creating a “sustainability and climate ambassador program to regularly engage front-line communities.”
Xpress reached out to Karen Massey, listed as AECOM’s project manager for the climate plan, for more information about these goals and their development; however, she did not respond to a request for comment.
Bumps on the road
While that draft framework looks toward the future, other documents developed during the planning process offer lessons from the past. A gap analysis from February, for example, flags “a lack of proactive and coordinated planning” by city staffers as an obstacle to meeting sustainability goals.
“In an organization that provides a number of core services to the community and averages 50 or more projects per year, it is challenging to identify the opportunity at the right time that is also within the scope and budget of a project or program,” writes Bridget Herring, the city’s sustainability director, when asked about AECOM’s analysis. “This is why policies that support operationalizing these goals have been suggested in the high-impact activities proposed for the Municipal Climate Action Plan.”
The gap analysis also notes that, according to city staff, “sustainability projects are currently underfunded” if the city is to meet its current targets. Although the 2020 climate emergency resolution calls for the city to identify the specific projects and funding needed to meet those targets, no such estimates have yet been generated. (AECOM’s scope of work does not include estimating implementation costs for the Climate Action Plan.)
Herring says that detailed cost estimates are difficult to produce due to fluctuating prices for components such as solar panels. She also notes that different approaches have different cost implications; installing on-site solar that actually generates renewable power, for example, is significantly more expensive than purchasing “renewable energy certificates” that would give the city the legal right to claim its electricity was 100% renewable.
And multiple AECOM documents note discontent from Asheville’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment, the city’s main avenue for resident feedback on climate issues. Minutes from a September 2021 project kickoff meeting say SACEE’s members “feel let down and frustrated” because City Council has shifted priorities from sustainability to “equity, reparations and housing.” A June AECOM report from a meeting with SACEE notes that “there is engagement fatigue [and] the community doesn’t see a connection between feedback and results.”
Asked for comment on those conclusions, SACEE Chair Anna Priest did not respond. She provided a statement saying, “As members of an advisory committee, we could not speak to the consultant’s assessment of the process. Our role as community volunteer advisors is to ensure the city and Council have input from and reflective of the community.”
It’s unclear when or if members of the public will be invited to offer feedback on the plan. Asheville’s website does not list any engagement opportunities beyond meetings with city staff and SACEE, and the plan isn’t listed on the city’s public engagement hub.
“Gathering public feedback, especially from front-line communities, is a critical step to ensure the Climate Action Plan is relevant, strong and has the public buy-in required to achieve [it],” says Erica Meier, a hub coordinator for Sunrise Asheville and the organization’s representative at the N.C. Climate Justice Collective. “Most Asheville residents are concerned about climate change and will undoubtedly have suggestions to make the Climate Action Plan stronger. If the city fails to provide accessible opportunities to give public input, it does so at a loss to everyone.”
Both Meier and Judy Mattox, chair of the WNC Sierra Club, say that current planning documents contain many good steps but also have room for improvement. Meier suggests that the city seek alternatives to Duke Energy as a way to accelerate its renewable power development, while Mattox says the plan should include a ban on single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam.
Mattox also notes that the city should consider the opportunities available through the recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act, which includes roughly $369 billion in funding for clean energy and climate initiatives. “There will be significant amounts of additional funding for advancing energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable energy,” she says. “We would also like to see more focus on how [the city] can encourage residents and businesses to begin their transition to clean energy faster.”