‘We’re not stopping’: Ann Arbor pushes ahead on carbon neutrality initiative amid COVID-19 crisis

Thursday, April 9, 2020 - 7:07pm

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design by Mariah Parker

The city of Ann Arbor launched a billion-dollar plan March 30 to make the city carbon neutral by 2030. 

The plan, named A2Zero, includes more than 50 points aimed at slashing the community’s 2.1 million metric tons of carbon emissions to zero in 10 years. This would ideally be accomplished by powering the electrical grid with 100 percent renewable energy, switching appliances and vehicles to natural gas and electric, and improving energy efficiency in homes, businesses, schools, places of worship, recreational sites and government facilities.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said the plan will be disruptive, but will create a community that better incorporates its values of sustainability and equity. 

“Ann Arbor 2030 will be materially different than Ann Arbor 2020,” Taylor said. “It’ll be a denser community, a more electrified community, a community that emphasizes renewable energy.”

The plan will dedicate $900 million to reduce miles traveled in vehicles by at least 50 percent, which will eliminate 8 percent of community-wide emissions. 

Missy Stults, Ann Arbor’s sustainability and innovations manager, said some of the costs can be offset by outside sources of funding, but A2Zero’s billion-dollar price tag is necessary. 

“It is expensive, but inaction is far more expensive, as we’re coming to find out,” Stults said. “Whether or not we do this, the climate is still changing. This is just an imperative to help mitigate the impacts of what’s coming.” 

Though City Council passed Resolution 19-2103: “A Resolution in Support of Creating a Plan to Achieve Ann Arbor Community-Wide Climate Neutrality by 2030” long before COVID-19’s disruption, leaders designed A2Zero as a “living plan” prepared to adjust to obstacles. 

Taylor said the COVID-19 crisis will hurt and hinder the community’s ability to achieve carbon neutrality, but the scope of the crisis can be viewed as an opportunity. 

“All lines of work, all manners of doing things, are open to interrogation,” Taylor said. “The old way of running an economy, the old way of doing business, the old way of operating civil society is subject to change, subject to reexamination, subject to improvement. As we figure out where we go next, reconstituting as a functioning society with the goal of carbon neutrality will be a part of our recovery.” 

Stults said the current COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to double down on the plan’s resilience efforts intended to strengthen community responses to a changing climate. She said while most of our lives have paused because of the pandemic, natural and manmade disasters will continue.

“From a resilience standpoint, I’m terrified thinking about what’s going to happen during a pandemic when we’re socially isolated and the storm takes power out,” Stults said. “What do we do then? What does it look like when our food supply chain gets disrupted? The pandemic isn’t related to climate change, but the pandemic is laying bare the vulnerabilities that we have regardless.”

Stults said the community needs to accept a degree of failure as part of the process to achieve the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality. 

“This idea of being okay with failure, or failure positive as we call it, is a total paradigm shift in most situations, but so is climate change,” Stults said. “So, we have to be comfortable with trying something and being okay coming back and saying, ‘You know, that was not as successful as we thought it was going to be.’ The ultimate objective is a safe climate, it’s a high quality of life. Basically, a bunch of things can fail for different reasons, and we have to be okay with that.”

Rackham student Matthew Sehrsweeney, an organizer in Michigan’s Climate Action Movement, said environmental activists on campus have been grappling with how to continue their work amid social distancing measures. He said activists have worked to understand how to maintain low-carbon lifestyles after social distancing measures are lifted, demonstrate solidarity with movements fighting for racial, economic and carceral justice and highlight the danger posed by environmental injustices such as poor air quality.

Sehrsweeney pointed to ways the University could reduce its carbon emissions.

“Universities are always flying people in and hosting big conferences where people are flying across the country,” said Sehrsweeney. “Now we’re demonstrating all these online tools that we can use to bring people in virtually and you don't have to be flying them across the country.”

Sehrsweeney said there are significant barriers to achieving carbon neutrality, pointing to state laws and COVID-19, but that the community’s plan is essential. 

“It’s absolutely necessary,” Sehrsweeney said. “Especially for a city like Ann Arbor that has pretty concentrated wealth. If Ann Arbor can’t do it, then how are any poor cities going to do it?”

Taylor said the community will accomplish carbon neutrality by 2030. 

“The bottom line is, we have a carbon neutrality goal,” Taylor said. “That is a commitment from the city government, and we’re going to do everything we can to achieve that goal.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at julrubin@umich.edu.