Cincinnati's ambitious plan to respond to climate change

The city's 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan didn't get much attention when city council passed it recently, but it's worth a look to see how they city wants to address coming environmental challenges.

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click to enlarge Sam Dunlap of Waterfields, LLC, a local indoor farm in Lower Price Hill. The Green Cincinnati Plan recommends ways the city can support more such small businesses at the crossroads of food, environmental and economic justice. - Provided
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Sam Dunlap of Waterfields, LLC, a local indoor farm in Lower Price Hill. The Green Cincinnati Plan recommends ways the city can support more such small businesses at the crossroads of food, environmental and economic justice.

Earlier this month as many breathlessly followed the final day of negotiations around a potential professional soccer stadium unfolding at City Hall, Cincinnati City Council quietly passed a sweeping environmental plan. It got little attention — but, if implemented, it could have big implications for the city's future.

That 273-page document by the city’s Office of Environment and Sustainability, called the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, provides an updated roadmap for environmental efforts by the city, giving 80 recommendations for reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over the next 32 years and for making the city more equitable and sustainable. The blueprint assesses each recommendation on its economic equity, its cost and its feasibility, giving city leaders an idea of how inclusive each will be and how challenging they will be to implement.

The revamped plan comes at a pivotal moment: evidence continues to pile up that the earth’s climate is changing, and Cincinnati isn’t immune from those dynamics. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, Cincinnati’s average temperature is likely to rise seven degrees by the end of this century. In 1950, the state saw just two days a year where temperatures spiked above 95 degrees. These days, it sees an average of five days a year where heat climbs to that dangerous level. By 2050, the state could see more than 30 such days a year.

Many residents already feel the changes happening in Cincinnati. Eighty-eight percent of 300 residents surveyed by the OES said that climate change is already affecting the city, and three-quarters of respondents said those changes would affect their immediate communities directly.

The city drew up its first Green Cincinnati Plan in 2008, and refreshed it five years later. But the 2018 version is larger and wider reaching than the previous, 56-page plan drawn up in 2013.

The most recent update involved a wide-ranging community engagement effort and help from a 28-member steering committee made up of representatives from Cincinnati’s environmental advocacy, governmental, civil rights, faith and other organizations.

Most of the refreshed Green Cincinnati blueprint flew under the radar, save one recommendation that the city consider a five-cent tax on plastic bags, which drew opposition from council members Jeff Pastor and Amy Murray.

Cities like Austin, Texas have gone further than a bag tax, implementing a requirement that most businesses supply reusable bags instead. That’s cut down on litter in those cities, but has also caused controversy. Should Cincinnati implement a similar measure, it is sure to have its detractors.

I voted NO!,” Pastor tweeted after the meeting. “This is a repressive tax on low income people who use @cincinnatimetro or walk to and from @kroger or other grocery store. NO BAG TAX Cincy!!!”

But there’s more to the new plan than just a five-cent tax on plastic bags. One of the most ambitious elements: a series of strategies to make the city’s municipal energy use 100 percent renewable by 2035. That’s well under way, says OES Director Ollie Kroner, with the city already using renewable energy sources at 28 of its facilities and in the process of building what will be the largest array of solar panels operated by a city government in the country.

There’s also a recommendation for an entire district in downtown in which building owners commit to reducing their energy and water usage by 50 percent by 2030, as well as a goal of reducing emissions from transportation by the same margin. Commercial and industrial buildings in the city account for 53 percent of its carbon emissions, Kroner says.

Another 32 percent of those emissions come from transportation in the Queen City. To that end, the plan has a number of elements designed to encourage walking, biking and public transit use over driving cars. It also has ideas for incentivizing a move toward electric vehicles. Those include supporting bicycling infrastructure, working to create electric car charging stations and more.

Kroner says the city has made some big strides in recent years reducing those sources of pollution, but still has some work to do. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by commercial energy and solid waste are both down more than 25 percent since 2006, and residential energy emissions are down an enormous 62 percent. But not everything is trending downward — industrial energy emissions are up 14 percent and emissions associated with transportation are up 6 percent.

And dynamics outside the city’s control are also causing new challenges — ones that threaten vulnerable communities first and foremost. The city’s updated plan tries to take that into account.

“In many ways, climate change is a risk amplifier – it makes existing problems worse,” Kroner says. “Often it is low-income communities that are most impacted.” 

To that end, the plan has identified ways to fold low-income communities into wider environmental efforts. Sometimes, that means working at the intersection of food, environmental and economic justice by increasing the capacity of local food hubs like Our Harvest and Ohio Valley Food Connection — which have grown more than 500 percent in the last five years. The plan also wants to find ways to grow the local food economy in ways that increase economic equity.

One example is Waterfields LLC, an indoor farm in the West End and Lower Price Hill that grows greens for a number of local restaurants. Waterfields hires workers from surrounding, predominantly low-income communities at living wages with health benefits while increasing the availability of healthy foods grown in Cincinnati. The Green Cincinnati plan recommends the city find ways to encourage more such urban farms and grow the city's equitable food economy via zoning changes and other efforts.

The newest Green Cincinnati Plan also has a resilience component designed to help the city adapt to changes in weather patterns and equity efforts woven throughout to attempt to keep the city’s most vulnerable residents from bearing the brunt of the burden. One of the major resiliency recommendations: increase the city’s tree canopy to shield communities from ever-increasing heat in the summer and to soak up water from those massive rainfall events. 

“When we look at climate change in Cincinnati, the increase in extreme storm events has been alarming,” he says. “In 2017, the City faced over $50 million in storm damages stemming from sewer backups, landslides, and flash flooding.”

Cincinnati has seen a 40 percent increase in precipitation associated with heavy rain events since the middle of the last century, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The Army Corps of Engineers believes those increase will continue and could swell the size of the Ohio River by up to 25 percent in the next three decades.

The plan's recommendations for mitigating all those coming environmental concerns are just that — recommendations — and it's unclear how many the city will have the political will or financial resources to implement.

The city has a good track record on some efforts already. Cincinnati was just named the top city in Ohio for solar energy and placed in the top 5 in the Midwest by nonprofit Environment Ohio.  And through the city’s energy aggregation program, residents and businesses can get green electricity at a cost almost 10% cheaper than power produced by traditional means.

But others efforts, like the controversial bag tax, may be harder to put into place due to political opposition.

All of the challenges are formidable. But the city has already seen a number of successes, Kroner says.

“The Mill Creek is making a comeback, air quality is continuously improving and landfilled waste has seen a big drop over the last decade,” Kroner says. “Taken together, Cincinnati has been successful at reducing our emissions 18.4% since the first Green Cincinnati Plan in 2008.  This is a significant drop for a city with an industrial past like ours.”

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