MONTPELIER — The City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution declaring a climate emergency.
It followed a request by climate activist Kelly McCracken on behalf of Main Street Middle School’s Green Team and students in Montpelier High School’s Earth Group.
The resolution followed meetings students had with Mayor Anne Watson and with the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee to discuss concerns and ideas to draft a climate emergency declaration.
The declaration acknowledged Montpelier’s goals to be net-zero in fossil fuel use in municipal buildings by 2030 and the rest of the city by 2050. It also acknowledged steps taken to reach that target, such as approving $5,000 in the city’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget for the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee to address energy use.
But the declaration also noted that the city lacked both a timeline and a plan to meet net-zero goals, and requested that a plan include every department and all city staff. It calls for annual reports of progress made to reach climate change goals.
McCracken said the purpose of the climate emergency declaration was two-fold: to support the city’s efforts to set and meet net-zero goals as a model for other communities to follow, but also to “hold its feet to the fire.”
“The city has adopted these goals and now the plan and the timeline to reach them must be created with both speed and thoughtfulness,” McCracken said. “The whole city must mobilize to meet those goals.”
Main Street Middle School seventh-grader Lena Donofrio also addressed the council.
“Montpelier should declare climate emergency because the communities most vulnerable to climate change are those with the fewest resources available,” Donofrio said. “We are a community that has the means and resources to hold itself accountable for its emissions, and yet the amount of carbon Vermont has been emitting has been consistently going up.”
Dan Jones, executive director of the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition, said he supported the city declaring a climate emergency, but said it did not address climate crisis in meaningful ways in terms of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“The (International Panel on Climate Change) report tells us all that if we don’t massively shift our consumption (of energy) and behavior by 2030, it’s game over,” Jones said.
He went on to list a number of examples of climate change-related events in Montpelier, such as unexpected freeze-and-thaw cycles in January that have been responsible, and damage to city infrastructure and waterways caused by more frequent extreme weather events.
Another resident, Lynn Wild, said she had been working with the Montpelier Tree Board to replace 10 dying maple trees on St. Paul Street with 23 new tree plantings, to address climate change. But she also stressed the need to plant native species that would support existing biodiversity.
Councilor Lauren Hierl applauded the efforts of children and adults to address climate change sooner rather than later and urged the council to speed up efforts to do so.
Other councilors said they generally supported a climate declaration emergency but made amendments to the resolution to more closely tailor efforts by the city to address climate change.
Councilor Dan Richardson asked if the council should appoint a sub-committee to address issues of climate change that were beyond the scope of the Energy Advisory Committee. He said proposals needed to be in line with other city policies.
Watson noted that the city had budgeted $5,000 for the Energy Advisory Committee but conceded that the city would still need to come up with the “nuts and bolts” of how to address larger issues related to offsetting carbon emissions.
“It wouldn’t be binding unless we made it binding,” Watson said, adding that a revision of the city master plan could explore ways the city might develop strategies to address the causes of climate change.
Councilor Dona Bate said she would support a climate emergency declaration and efforts by the city to address the effects of climate change.
But she said that some of the wording in it went beyond what the city could reasonable achieve itself, such as asking the city to “restore a safe climate.”
Watson said transportation and heating were responsible for most of Vermont’s carbon emissions, but said tree plantings, soil carbon sequestration and a mandated reduction of food waste in landfills beginning in July, were all ways to reduce carbon emissions. Pyrolysis – thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere – was a more complex strategy to undertake, Watson said.
Councilor Conor Casey said he was struck by Jones’ comments about the impacts of climate change in Montpelier and said he supported proposals such as a micro-transit public bus system to reduce carbon emissions. The climate declaration was a way to start a conversation with elected officials, he added.
Watson proposed, and the council agreed to strike the call for Montpelier to “restore a safe climate” from the resolution, but added language that acknowledged that the city had suffered impacts of freeze-thaw cycles and more frequent major storms and snow events.
City Manager Bill Fraser urged caution on committing the Energy Advisory Committee to do too much too soon. Only when the 2020-21 budget passes in March could the committee begin the work of hiring a consultant to look at ways to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.
The council agreed to give the committee until the end of the year to hire a consultant and report back to the council, and unanimously approved the amended resolution on declaring a climate emergency.