Ann Arbor Sets Out Toward Carbon Neutrality
It’s official: Ann Arbor has kicked off its ten-year journey to a carbon neutral future. City Council unanimously passed the Ann Arbor Living Carbon Neutrality Plan, which charts a detailed and innovative course for the city to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The Plan’s adoption is a major step forward in the city’s fight against climate change.
Furthermore, Ann Arbor’s Carbon Neutrality Plan serves as a model for other cities in how to think big and act boldly when it comes to addressing local climate action, to create solutions that inspire and empower community members, and to start right now.
Ann Arbor Goes the Extra Mile
Ann Arbor has taken action on climate change before, but its new goal promises to be transformative—no more partial solutions, no more piecemeal progress. Ann Arbor’s carbon neutrality commitment means that it will reduce emissions as much as possible and offset any remaining emissions through efforts like planting trees, in order to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.
Ann Arbor’s target is “community-wide,” meaning that it applies to not only the power sector, but also buildings, transportation, land use, waste management, and every other part of the economy.
When Ann Arbor set this goal in November of last year, it joined the ever-expanding ranks of cities across the country that are stepping up to fight climate change in the absence of federal action. But few cities have made climate commitments as ambitious as Ann Arbor’s, which aims to go farther and do it faster than most others. It is one of just a handful of cities in the Midwest to commit to community-wide carbon neutrality, and the first to set a target year as soon as 2030.
Centering the Community
For Ann Arbor, big change is not just about meeting a bold target; it’s about how to meet that target. More specifically, it’s about how to meet that target while unlocking benefits for all Ann Arborites. The Carbon Neutrality Plan recognizes that disadvantaged communities—low-income people and people of color—are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, with their health, safety, and livelihoods most threatened. And the Plan promises that Ann Arbor’s transition to carbon neutrality will be a just one that, rather than maintain or deepen disparities, brings along these frontline populations and allows all Ann Arbor residents to thrive.
To start fulfilling this promise, City staff made sure to listen to the community and get feedback on what should go into the Carbon Neutrality Plan. A2Zero, the City’s carbon neutrality planning and implementation initiative, launched a massive public outreach effort to engage with diverse populations in innovative ways.
A2Zero also solicited feedback from its partners: 66 community, environmental, and advocacy organizations. Meanwhile, groups of technical advisors lent their expertise to propose and evaluate candidate strategies for the Carbon Neutrality Plan. NRDC is proud to be both a technical advisor and a partner to an effort as bold and cutting-edge as A2Zero, which truly puts people first in the fight against climate change.
The ideas gathered from the public, partners, technical advisors, and the City’s own staff, as well as economic and greenhouse gas modeling, all resulted in a Plan that is truly transformative.
The Carbon Neutrality Plan will eliminate 2.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually, the equivalent of taking 450,000 passenger vehicles off the road. What’s more, it will transform the city to create tangible benefits for Ann Arborites. It will boost public health, improve air quality, create jobs, and support the most vulnerable.
The Plan outlines 7 overarching strategies to achieve these goals:
- Powering the electric grid with 100% renewable energy
- Electrifying appliances and vehicles
- Significantly improving the energy efficiency of buildings
- Reducing vehicle miles traveled by at least 50%
- Changing the way that materials are used, reused, and disposed of
- Enhancing the resilience of people and place
- A catch-all “Other” strategy that includes equity programs and carbon offsets
The Plan also identifies forty-four “actions” to implement these strategies, such as community choice aggregation (where the city would buy renewable power for its residents), a community solar program, and an updated building code that would make all new construction net zero energy.
These strategies and actions are not simply layered upon existing structures; rather, they will fundamentally transform the city. For example, reducing vehicle miles traveled will require new bike lanes, improved local transit, and more walkable neighborhoods--physically changing the built environment and the way Ann Arborites move.
Most actions in the Plan embed or focus specifically on equity considerations. The Plan’s community solar program, for example, will not only provide the city with clean electricity, but also give low-income people the opportunity to access clean power. Another action in the Plan will transition affordable housing sites to net zero energy (Strategy 3), thereby expanding clean energy access for disadvantaged residents, lowering their utility bills, and creating public health benefits for the entire city.
In addition to reducing emissions, the Plan will build Ann Arbor’s resilience. This means preparing the city for the unavoidable climate impacts it will face even after it has achieved carbon neutrality. The Plan’s resilience actions are crucial for protecting public health and safety and are particularly important for frontline communities. For example, a neighborhood ambassador program will identify the resources that frontline populations lack and how those gaps can be filled.
With an enormous goal, a short timeline, and a promise of transformational change, Ann Arbor’s Carbon Neutrality Plan will not be easy to implement. The Plan’s $1 billion price tag has already raised some eyebrows, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. But City staff argue that the benefits of carbon neutrality will far exceed the cost of inaction, not just in financial terms, but also in terms of public health, wellbeing, and equity.
For that reason, A2Zero is starting right now on the Plan’s resilience actions. “We’re thinking a lot in our office about how we’re jumpstarting things like our neighborhood ambassador program,” said Missy Stults, the Ann Arbor Sustainability and Innovations Manager and a key architect of A2Zero, "so neighbors understand what neighbors need and can start supporting each other now, because those kinds of things lay a foundation for success regardless of whether...it’s a public health epidemic that we’re dealing with or a natural disaster.”
There’s plenty more happening to be excited about. Throughout the rest of 2020, A2Zero will design programs and create pilot initiatives for many of the Plan’s actions. And in future years, A2Zero will work to pass state legislation that enables actions like community choice aggregation and the zero energy building code.
Moreover, Ann Arbor’s Carbon Neutrality Plan is not final; it is a “living” plan, with built-in flexibility to change as circumstances change and as more community members, especially members of frontline populations, join the initiative.
Fortunately, A2Zero has started off on the right foot, and inspiringly so. With broad public interest, a growing partner network, and the passion, care, and expertise of City staff, Ann Arbor is ready to embark on a just transition to a carbon-neutral future. NRDC will be there to support, and so can you. Visit a2zero.org to learn more about how you or your organization can get involved.