Sustainable Cleveland holds first Decarbonization Summit to find ways to reduce emissions levels
Sustainable Cleveland held the city’s first Decarbonization Summit Thursday to discuss pathways for reducing the city’s carbon emission levels.
Decarbonization is the process of reducing carbon emissions by avoiding the use of energy sources that produce greenhouse gases, relying instead on clean-energy resources.
“This elimination of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide, but also methane and nitrous oxide by mid-century, that's what we call decarbonization,” Senior Advisor to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Gordon McCord said, “and figuring out how to do that is an enormously complex challenge.”
The issues of carbon emissions and climate change have historically been viewed as issues that won’t affect humans at all, or at least, won’t affect humans in the near future, said Dr. Aparna Bole from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE).
But Bole emphasized that the effects of climate change impact human life now and create public health issues in Cleveland and elsewhere.
“Prior to joining OCCHE, I practiced for many years as a pediatrician here in Cleveland,” she said. “That's how I know that while climate change is a global health issue, we see the effects here locally on the health of our people right here in Cleveland and in northeast Ohio.”
Bole highlighted specific effects of climate change. Extreme heat conditions brought on by rising temperatures can lead to weather-related mortality and harmful effects for seniors, infants and even athletes practicing or competing outdoors, Bole said.
Increased moisture and warmer temperatures can cause frequent, heavy rain events, leading to flooding and harmful storm water runoff impacting water quality in Lake Erie, she added, while smog and pollution can worsen air quality, which contribute to child asthma rates.
“For our children, these... air pollutants are not only toxic to the developing lungs, both causing and exacerbating asthma, they are also toxic to the developing brain,” she said. “They can impact exposure to these air pollutants, can impact attention, behavior, learning and even sleep in children. Exposure to these air pollutants can also cause prematurity and low birth weight.”
For these reasons, Bole said it is essential to address emission levels, and other climate concerns in Cleveland.
“This work is timely as we're in a critical moment for bold climate action to prevent global warming from passing a tipping point beyond which ecological, economic and health consequences could be exponentially more catastrophic,” she said. “Not only is climate change the most pressing global health threat of our time, climate action is the greatest public health opportunity and imperative of this moment.”
During his speech at the summit, Mayor Justin Bibb highlighted the city’s efforts to reduce some of the city’s environmental and health issues like exposure to lead paint and pipes and the city’s shrinking tree canopy and how these issues uniquely impact Cleveland’s residents of color.
“When I ran for mayor, nearly two years ago, I realized very clearly what this topic means to our great city,” Bibb said. For me as mayor, this is all about how do we uplift Black and brown communities so that they can truly achieve the economic opportunity that they deserve.”
The city reinstated Cleveland’s Urban Forestry Commission in January to work toward increasing tree canopy and installed an electric vehicle charging station in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood in November to improve access to EV infrastructure for marginalized communities.
Cleveland was recognized at the summit for its emission reduction efforts. Power a Clean Future Ohio, a state-wide clean energy coalition, presented Mayor Bibb with two awards for Cleveland’s commitments to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 and to rely entirely on clean energy by 2050.
Bibb announced that Cleveland joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Better Climate Challenge Wednesday, which commits the city to decreasing emissions from by 50% over a ten-year period.
Though he is proud of the city’s efforts to improve climate justice for Cleveland’s communities of color, Bibb said more work to be done.
“As we look at 2023 and the years ahead, I believe, on climate justice and resiliency, we can show America, and we can show the world, what a legacy American city can do to make sure that we can eradicate the issues of climate injustice in our respective city and in our nation,” he said.
During a discussion on the progress that's been made on sustainability, Sarah O'Keeffe, Director and Climate Justice for the City of Cleveland, highlighted the city’s Climate Action Plan, last updated in 2018, which contributed to the city’s current emission reduction efforts. But by approaching the 2023 Climate Action Plan with a focus on decarbonization, O’Keeffe said the city will be able to reduce emissions more quickly
“We want to have quantitative carbon-reduction targets that can help us refine our existing targets for our [Climate Action Plan] and related plans, we want to prioritize the timing of those projects the city is considering or already involved and we want to attract federal and other investments,” she said. “We want to improve community health and equity, both now and in the future, and we want to make that measured progress because Cleveland cannot wait.”
Gordon McCord from Sustainable Development Solutions Network Gordon identified specific steps cities and states can take to decarbonize, first by reducing the use of fossil fuels and reducing energy use.
“We want to live a very comfortable and highly productive life. That's part of what, as policy experts, as economists, we want -- we want people to be happy,” McCord said. “Using energy is a part of that. We just need to figure out how to be efficient in our energy use.”
The last step, McCord said finding ways to reduce carbon use of fossil fuels across the many industries that rely on them heavily, like aviation, shipping and agriculture industries
We’re wrapping up the Summit! 🌎 Amazing announcements throughout the day:— Sustainable Cleveland (@sustainableCLE) April 13, 2023
▪️@CityofCleveland has joined the @EPA Better Climate Challenge and committed to 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. pic.twitter.com/sEfuy8PG93
The lack of coordination between federal, state and local governments can lead to slow moving action around decarbonization and climate resiliency efforts, McCord said. For this reason, a regional decarbonization effort could bring a greater benefit to Cleveland and the surrounding areas.
“There’s no unified system vision that helps guide climate action plans at a system level, so the cities and the towns are all working on their own doing what they think they need to be, which from an engineering and a systems sense, makes no sense at all,” he said. “So, these pathways can help with that coordination.”
The summit concluded with a panel discussion featuring students from John Marshall High School who talked about ways to engage youth in the climate action planning process.
“The best way to get youth engaged is to actually move forward with sustainability action plans is to try to connect the importance of these plans to something that may be personal and important to youth, such as public parks that are in the area of recreation centers and lakes in the area,” Angelys Caballero said. “We need to give youth reasons to want to be engaged in helping the environment.”
Oma Dahal, said she comes from a low-income background, and highlighted unique barriers low-income residents may face that prevent them from engaging with climate-resilient practices.
“My parents, they’re not able to think of environmental problems because they have other problems like rent, like the future… like how to live comfortably,” she said. “We do not have the resources or the privilege to even focus on environmental issues.”
With that in mind, Lorenick Rodriguez said climate education initiatives should target low-income schools directly to ensure they have access to climate knowledge and resources.
“We should really put [Cleveland Metropolitan School District] on a route to educate specifically lower income schools,” she said, “instead of putting events and other stuff that do not really equal to sustainability education.”