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Tompkins greenhouse goals fall short?

Climate Change photo illustration. (GETTY IMAGES / Stock Photo)

Lawmakers are set to adopt a plan that helps guide the way toward an 80 percent reduction in Tompkins County greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but local experts say that goal is insufficient.

Tompkins County's Energy Roadmap is a good start, but it's not ambitious enough, said Bob Howarth, a Cornell University ecology and environmental biology professor.

"I think the citizens of the county will probably move faster than (the Energy Roadmap) suggests — I would hope so, because we need to," he said. "I believe it's entirely possible for Tompkins County to be carbon-free by 2035, and I think we should set that as our target."

Howarth was the lead author of a 2011 study that was the first to explore natural gas leaks and their impacts on climate change. He also attended the United Nations' COP21 process in December as part of Cornell's delegation.

At COP21, nations from around the world agreed that it's critical to prevent the Earth's temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial baselines.

Meeting the COP21 goal will likely require a worldwide, 100 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Howarth said. The United States is the richest country in the world, and as "a matter of equity" for disproportionately large carbon emissions in the past, Americans should be carbon-free by 2035, he added.

County lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the road map during a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Gov. Tompkins Building, 121 E. Court St. in Ithaca.

The road map offers scenarios for the county, City of Ithaca and Town of Ithaca to meet their goal of reducing community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent before 2050.

Tompkins County needs to rise and meet COP21 goals by cutting greenhouse gas emissions 100 percent by 2035, Fossil Free Tompkins member Irene Weiser said.

"The good news, and it's what we learn in the road map is that we're able to do it here," she added.

The road map puts energy assessments into context with current energy use and projections of future use, identifies scenarios to meet the county's greenhouse gas emissions goals, and includes estimates for the potential energy from biomass, solar photovoltaic, micro hydropower, wind and deep geothermal.

Tompkins does aspire to surpass its 80 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction goal, but there's no policy seeking carbon neutrality now, Tompkins County Commissioner of Planning Ed Marx added.

"We certainly are cognizant of the increasing severity of what's happening in climate change and what the latest science is," Marx said.

The county plans to update its energy strategy plan next year. "We will look at a number of factors, including how quickly we should be trying to move toward our goal, which may be as important as the goal itself," he said.

Howarth said leadership for carbon neutrality will need to come from local municipalities. He pointed to the plan he co-wrote that sought to make New York state fossil-fuel-free by 2030 using existing technology as an alternative.

"If New York state is going to do it, Tompkins County should really be in a leadership position to show how it's done," he said.

Tompkins Energy Roadmap recommendations

Reduce demand:

  • Reduce energy use by 35 percent in existing buildings through retrofits and upgrades.

  • Construct new buildings that are extremely energy-efficient.

  • Hold vehicle miles traveled at around the 2008 level, despite increases in population.

Transition to renewable energy:

  • Reduce natural gas use by at least 50 percent.

  • Reduce demand for grid electricity by at least 24 percent from centralized power plants or energy sources.

  • Develop at least 50 percent of the identified solar energy production potential.

  • Develop at least 20 percent of identified wind energy production potential.

  • Develop at least 20 percent of identified micro-hydro potential.

  • Develop up to 50 percent of identified biomass energy production potential.

  • Transition at least 50 percent of light-duty vehicles from gasoline to electric.​

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