A very special episode spotlighting Ithaca, NY because that city raised $100M to climate-proof itself. The history behind Ithaca’s first-in-the-nation Green New Deal, and we get on board Ithaca’s Green New Deal.
Ithaca Raises $100M to Climate-Proof Itself, Spotlight on Ithaca’s First-in-the-Nation Green New Deal
Today’s show is all about Ithaca, NY—home to America’s first Green New Deal, and home to Cornell University. Did I mention my high school girlfriend went to Cornell?
And you’re bringing her up in this moment because???
Yes dear, you’re right. I’m sorry.
My point is Ithaca used to only be known as the home of Cornell University, the little backwater Ivy that could. Sitting atop the gorges of Cayuga Lake, where the concept of fall break came about after one too many students leapt to their deaths after finding Ithaca autumns too depressing to go on living.
Wow this went dark very fast.
For the record, that last bit about suicides could be all myth. It’s mostly what my high school girlfriend who went to Cornell talked about when I’d come visit.
NOW, Ithaca is a leading light in the race to combat climate change. Since 2018, the city, not content to wait on federal or state leadership, has charged ahead with its own Green New Deal, lighting a path for other cities to follow. Because they’ve done so much in such a short amount of time, Ithaca, my Ithaca merits its own special edition of The Climate Daily!
HISTORY BEHIND ITHACA’S GREEN NEW DEAL
The City of Ithaca’s Common Council passed the Ithaca Green New Deal in the summer of 2019, with broad-reaching ambitions to make Ithaca a leader in creating a climate-ready community through a just approach to sustainable development. According to the final version of the Ithaca Green New Deal Resolution, the city passed its green new deal after local sustainability professionals, activists, and a growing youth climate movement urged the City of Ithaca to show more leadership on these challenges.
Ithaca’s no slouch in the realm of environmental justice, climate change advocacy and sustainability initiatives. Since the beginning of this century, the city’s common council has been determined to show a commitment to leadership in sustainability and social equity.
In 2001, it passed a resolution to join the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. In 2005, the city endorsed the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement
In 2009, it adopted the Climate Smart Communities Pledge. In 2013 Ithaca adopted the City of Ithaca Energy Action Plan 2012-2016. And in 2015, it adopted Plan Ithaca, the City’s Comprehensive Plan, which features equity and sustainability as thread-through themes and contains the chapter Sustainable Energy, Water, & Food Systems.
So the 2019 unanimous passage of the Ithaca Green New Deal was more an evolution of Ithaca than a revolution. There’s so much to unpack…wait! Is that the music? Am I out of ti…?!
ITHACA’S GREEN NEW DEAL
I’ll take it from here. With those Common Council initiatives as backdrop, and with young Mayor Svante Myrick getting good pressure from the local Sunrise Movement, the city unanimously passed a Green New Deal resolution in back in June 2019.
The Ithaca Green New Deal sets goals for the city to be carbon neutral by 2030 with 100% of government operations using renewable electricity by 2025 and emissions from the city’s vehicle fleet reduced by 50% by 2025. Steps proposed in the resolution to achieve these goals included:
- Create a climate action plan in 2020 to provide details on how to achieve the Ithaca Green New Deal, and update the plan every five years.
- Adopt a green building policy for new buildings in 2019.
- Adopt a green building policy for existing buildings by 2021.
- Assign additional staff as needed to implement the plan.
Most significantly, Ithaca’s Common Council added the following to Mayor Myrick’s original proposed resolution:
Council amended the text to “place equity at the center of carrying out the plan by establishing accountability measures to ensure that the investment, infrastructure, job creation, health, and other social and economic benefits of the Green New Deal accrue equitably to all segments and demographic groups, ensuring that those in the demographic groups who will bear the brunt of increasing climate crises (i.e., young people, low-income people, people of color, immigrants, etc.) have a meaningful and significant voice in planning and decision-making.”
Two years later, Ithaca is making inroads; however, the biggest challenges involve scaling up. For example…wait, is that the music?! Am I out of ti…?!
ITHACA, NY RAISES $100M TO CLIMATE-PROOF ITSELF
Ithaca building owner Fred Schoeps recently completed a three-year renovation of a 150-year old downtown building by installing energy-efficient windows and insulation, plus fully electric appliances, heating and cooling systems.
But while that was an achievement on its own, Schoeps said, Ithaca can not address Ithaca’s GND and climate change one building at a time. In an interview with The Guardian “To move the needle, you’ve got to think in terms of a thousand [buildings],”
Luis Aguirre-Torres, Ithaca’s new director of sustainability, agrees. He’s leading the city’s charge to decarbonize through private equity investment. He helped Ithaca recently raise $100m by offering investors entry to a large-scale program he pitched as low risk with the potential for lots of cash flow. The goal is to create a lending program providing low- or no-interest loans and quick implementation of sustainable technology.
But first, Aguirre-Torres had to answer the key question, “How do you keep a lending program affordable?”
The city is addressing this by trying to reduce risk. It will create an economy of scale by sizing the program for 1,000 commercial and residential buildings in the first 1,000 days. That translates to more consistent work for contractors and lower material costs.
Ithaca also plans to use a $10m loan loss reserve, backed by New York state, that would act as a guarantee for lenders in case any borrower defaults. It will also secure insurance to protect against “catastrophic losses”, such as a massive default due to another pandemic, Aguirre-Torres said.
This means that money will be offered to building owners as low- or no-interest loans paid back by utility bill savings, and could even come with cash incentives. Because the loans will be backed by the city, low-income families can participate, where their otherwise poor credit history might disqualify them for private loans.
The first batch of building owners can sign up as soon as September, 2021