Why Columbus needs to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050

This article appeared in the July 2017 newsletter for Sierra Club Central Ohio Group.

On June 1, Donald Trump stunned the world by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Reaction was sharp and swift. Twelve states, more than 200 colleges and universities, and more than 1,000 businesses (including two dozen Fortune 500 companies) have pledged to honor the goals of the Paris accord whether Trump is on board or not.

Also committing to the Paris goal of reducing carbon emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 are almost 300 cities in the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, including Athens, Bexley, Cleveland, Columbus, Gambier, Lakewood and Toledo in Ohio.

Of those, 30 cities – including Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Mich., Madison, Wis. Rochester, Minn. and most recently Pittsburgh — have gone further by committing to get 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2050 or earlier.

Sierra Club Central Ohio Group urges the city of Columbus to join its peer cities in committing to 100 percent renewable energy. Science tells us that climate change is real, caused by human activity and poses an imminent threat to civilization and all life on earth. We have the solutions, but the window of opportunity to implement them is starting to close. We must act now.

Columbus has taken several positive steps to address climate change. Initiatives include:

  • The GreenSpot program that encourages businesses to save energy, reduce waste and promote green transportation.
  • The Columbus Region Energy Fund to help businesses and nonprofits improve energy efficiency.
  • The Green Fleet Action Plan to reduce the carbon footprint of city vehicles and maintenance.
  • Blueprint Columbus, which uses green solutions to mitigate stormwater runoff.
  • Branch Out Columbus, the goal of which is to plant 300,000 trees by 2020.

Columbus has also received a Smart Cities grant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through modernizing the grid, promoting electric vehicles and boosting the charging infrastructure. And on June 9, Mayor Ginther signed on to the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda.

All of these things are great steps forward, and we want to recognize the good things the city is doing. But it is not enough. Columbus can’t just enact green programs; we need to become a national leader on climate.

The Paris Agreement that the city has now signed has a stated goal of holding global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius and no more than 2 degrees Celsius, which is what scientists have said is the highest we can go and still have a chance of an inhabitable climate.

However, if you add up all the pledges that every country has made under the Paris Agreement, that doesn’t get us to 1.5 degrees. It gets us to about 3 degrees Celsius, which is better than 5 degrees if we do nothing, but not good enough.

We have to do more than what the United States pledged under the Paris Agreement. Science is telling us that we must reduce emissions to zero by 2050.

In other words, we must transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

Some may think transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy is impossible. But that is not the case. Consider these facts:

  • $58.6 billion was invested in clean energy in the United States in 2016.
  • Enough solar energy reaches the Earth every hour to fill the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.
  • The cost of solar power has fallen from $79 per watt in 1976 to 41 cents per watt in 2016 – a staggering drop of 99.2 percent.
  • Wind generates enough energy to supply worldwide electricity consumption 40 times over.
  • The cost of wind power has fallen from 55 cents per kilowatt hour in 1980 to 2.5 cents in 2013 – a drop of over 95 percent.
  • The current fastest-growing job in the United States is wind turbine service technician.
  • The cost of lithium ion battery storage has fallen from $1500 per kilowatt hour in 2006 to $273 in 2016, a drop of 80 percent.
  • Renewables accounted for 90 percent of new electricity generation in 2015.

So the solutions are at hand, and adopting a target of 100 percent renewable energy community wide is within our reach.

100 percent renewable energy would also improve the health and well-being of the people of Columbus. According to the Columbus Department of Public Health, climate change will bring more extreme heat, which results in poorer air quality. This increases the number of people diagnosed with asthma and at risk of asthma attack.

Stronger, more frequent and more severe storms will increase chances of injury and death in a natural disaster. Warmer temperatures and flooding also increase the risk of diseases such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease and even Dengue fever.

Hardest hit will be the most vulnerable populations: the poor, very old and very young; those with mental or physical handicaps; and those with chronic health conditions. In other words, the people suffering most from infant mortality in our community will also be most affected by climate change. We must keep that from happening.

Finally, it is our duty to act. Although climate change is an international issue, we unfortunately have a federal government that has abdicated its responsibility to solve this problem.

In that vacuum, cities must step up. Cities account for 76 percent of carbon emissions from energy use. More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, with more than two-thirds projected by 2050. Columbus is now the largest city in Ohio with almost 1 million people, but is projected to have up to 3 million by 2050.

All of these reasons are why 30 cities have passed legislation committing to 100 percent renewable energy. In addition, 90 mayors have pledged to support a vision of 100 percent clean and renewable energy in their cities, towns, and communities and across the country.

Columbus is well-positioned to join these forward-thinking cities. Besides the green programs we already have, the city is also home to several businesses that have a 100 percent renewable energy policy, such as Ikea, Anheuser-Busch and BMW Financial Services. A 100 percent green portfolio would attract more future-oriented businesses to locate here.

As a community, we can come together and deal with the climate crisis. The Department of Defense calls climate change a national security threat, but within this crisis is also an opportunity: to make our city stronger, healthier and more vibrant than ever before.

For all these reasons, we urge city leaders in Columbus to commit to getting 100 percent of our community’s energy from clean, non-polluting and renewable sources by 2050 or sooner.

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