Nick Fetty | December 7, 2015
As the COP 21 climate conference enters its second week, three representatives from the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and regional Environmental Research (CGRER) are on the ground in Paris to cover the event. CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor and graduate assistants Nick Fetty and KC McGinnis got together Monday afternoon for a question and answer session with Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie.
*Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity*
SCHNOOR: Today at COP 21, there was a meeting of the BlueGreen Alliance. Michael Brune – executive director of the Sierra Club – said cities are able to make dramatic progress compared to those at the national level, what’s he talking about and is that true?
COWNIE: What he’s talking about is the ability of cities to make decisions immediately. We don’t need to have an act of congress or an appropriation that might come 12 to 16 months down the road. If there are things that need to be done we can do them today. The federal government, short of a national emergency, is very slow to respond and react. We’re working in preparedness and mitigation techniques. We recognize from past experiences some of the vulnerabilities we have even in Iowa to extreme weather events such as flooding and extreme downpours which result in water issues: flooding, water quality issues, erosion. It talks about the future of the state of Iowa. It talks about the future of the city of Des Moines. So we’re able to jump in there and start working with it and we can immediately start working with some of our local players. So as mayor of the city of Des Moines, I can enlist some of my local businesses, schools, other governmental agencies, counties. We can partner together also talking to people in their own residences, their own homes, on what they can do to make some progress lowering their utility bills but more importantly, at least in the discussion here about carbon, by lessening their utility bills they can save 30, 40, 50 percent on their bill, it’s 30, 40, 50 percent less carbon they’re putting through their furnace.
SCHNOOR: For the city of Des Moines, what specific things can you cite in the area of sustainability and lowering your carbon footprint?
COWNIE: Well first of all, we’re one of the cities that signed on the Compact of Mayors agreement. There’s 120 cities that responded to the plea by the president of the United States to get local government to respond. What does that mean? It means that we’ve signed up and we’ve committed. Additionally, we’re going to do an inventory of our greenhouse gas emissions. The city of Des Moines has already done that. And then what you do is make a plan to mitigate and target for reductions. In Des Moines we’ve added hybrids and electric vehicles in our fleets. We’ve redone, re-purposed, re-energized buildings with new furnaces, new heating plans, new cooling plans, new windows, new doors, new insulation. Some of which we’ve really taken to the extreme level. Our old library, as you know you and I did a meeting there, that building is over 100 years old. It’s on the national historic registry. Now the World Food Prize is there. It’s a LEED platinum building and a historic structure. We’re doing all kinds of things with the public sector doing what we can do. Leading by example. And also using our powers at the city level to encourage our businesses to do the right thing. So when Wellmark made their new building, we offered some tax increment dollars to get them to rethink how they were going to build their new building and they came to an agreement with us and built the world’s largest – at the time of their opening – single-owner, single-occupant LEED platinum building in the world. Those are the kinds of things we like to see because it speaks to not only energy but it speaks to the health of buildings. It speaks to the food they serve. How people get to and from work using public transportation. So many aspects of it touch on carbon use.
SCHNOOR: Is an action agenda for a city like Des Moines somewhat easier to implement than say for a whole country?
COWNIE: That’s right. At the local level, one of the inspiring things we can do is I know mayors from around the country, I know them around Iowa. We share good ideas. I try to call it legitimate larceny. If somebody has a really good idea on how we can make improvements and achieve further reductions, I’ll steal their good idea and I hope they’ll steal mine.
SCHNOOR: There’s some wariness here at COP 21 that we’re going to fall short. There’s an emissions gap between what’s needed to control the environment to less than two degree warming, we seem to be short. And they’re talking about a more ambitious agenda. Could some of that ambition come from the Compact of Mayors and people like yourself?
COWNIE: Yes. I think that some of the talk I’ve heard is that if they have the cities and the cities commit, and the cities actually do the work and meet their goals, that could account for about 25 percent of that gap that you’re talking about achieving that two degree goal. But I think that one of the things that we all worry about is that there’s so much carbon in the atmosphere that there’s sort of a pent up increase that’s going to happen over the next 50 to 100 years, that we can’t do anything about today so we’ve got to lower the emissions. Figure out how to capture carbon. How to do so many different things and aggressively raise our ambitions to achieve many higher levels. I think local government is one of the places it can really move forward and we can spread that 25 percent hopefully to 50. We know that 70 percent of the energy that’s used happens in cities and the expansion and GDP and future is mostly going to be in cities so let’s rethink how the city ought to operate and let’s hope Des Moines is on the right track so we can get to a net zero city at some point or another.
Stay tuned to Iowa Environmental Focus throughout the rest of the week for continued coverage of the event. Follow CGRER and its reporters on Twitter: @CGRER, @JerryatCOP21, @nick_fetty, and @McGinnisKC.