Commentary: How Austin is proving its dedication to clean energy

Last year provided more evidence that we are changing our planet in dangerous ways. In September, top U.S. scientists confirmed that some human activities — like burning coal, oil and gas — are responsible for the global warming we are experiencing. The U.S. was 2.6 degrees warmer than normal this year. Supercharged by the warming climate, western wildfires destroyed communities and millions of acres of forest, while Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast.

Though the president announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, much of America said, “Not so fast.” In many cities and states, the political climate shifted as state and local governments stepped up action. Fifteen governors and 2,500 leaders of cities, counties, corporations, and universities – representing more than half of the U.S. economy and population – committed to the Paris Climate Agreement.

CITY HALL: New solar contract tips the scales on Austin Energy’s renewable efforts.

In the Northeast, five Republican and four Democratic governors finalized new rules to strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, making polluters pay and expanding the use of clean energy. California reauthorized its landmark climate protection law with bipartisan support. While it was the poor economics of coal and not climate leadership that led to their decision, in another win for the climate, Texas’ largest electric generator, Luminant, announced plans to shut down three of the state’s dirtiest coal burning power plants by the end of this month.

Cities and counties took concrete actions as well. Austin Mayor Adler proclaimed that “regardless of what’s happening around us, Austin will not stop fighting climate change. Worldwide, cities will lead in achieving climate treaty goals because so much of what’s required happens at the local level.”

Montgomery County, Maryland — a D.C. suburb — passed one of the most aggressive pollution reduction targets in the country, and more than 50 cities – including Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and St. Louis – have committed to generating 100 percent of their energy from clean sources by 2050.

In December, the Austin City Council approved buying electricity from a new solar farm in a deal that will boost the city’s renewable energy use to 51 percent by 2020 at a price that may be the cheapest of its kind in the U.S. Twelve cities, including L.A., London and Paris, signed on to a “fossil fuel streets” pledge, committing to only buy electric buses as of 2025 and set aside a part of the city as car-free.

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The Trump administration is doing its best to pour gasoline on the fires of climate change by reversing prior administrations’ actions. But state, local and corporate initiatives to slow climate change are showing the world that the U.S. wants to be part of the solution. We’ve got our work cut out for us — and we don’t have the luxury of time.

Here in Austin, we’ve got opportunities this year to do our part. Austin Energy is studying what it would take to get the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Capital Metro plans to have 10 electric buses operating in 2019 — and Austin should build on this by committing to the Fossil Fuel Streets pledge. We should make sure that CodeNext — the city’s revision of its land development code — helps reduce car dependency by allowing more walkable opportunities in the urban core. And our flagship university UT should follow Exxon’s lead and reduce its climate impact by cutting dangerous methane emissions from oil and gas operations on its west Texas lands.

Despite the progress we’ve made, the U.S. still needs to step up the pace on climate action. We need to thank the leaders who have already acted — and call on all those who haven’t to get a move on.

Metzger is the executive director of Environment Texas.

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