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Climate emergency: How communities are tackling the crisis

February 10, 2021

Communities at the city, state/provincial, and national levels are declaring climate emergencies and they are all poised to handle the crisis uniquely

Climate emergencies are being declared around the globe at every level of government. We asked leaders across our company how their communities are addressing the crisis.

City: Minneapolis, Minnesota 

The City of Minneapolis has a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% (or more) by 2050. Both based in Minneapolis, Beth Elliott (senior urban planner) and Heidi Hamilton (senior principal) addressed a few key questions when looking at the potential for their city to meet its climate goals.

What would you do to reach this goal?

HH: Achieving this goal will require collaboration among a diverse set of stakeholders including government, energy companies, public agencies, businesses, and individuals. Massive changes will be needed to our transportation and energy systems. I would build on the work that the city has done so far, continuing to expand the partners involved with working towards the goals. We need everyone in the City to realize they have a role to play, whether it is by choosing to take non-motorized transportation or transit, choosing wind as their energy source, or reducing their consumption. It will be important to continue to monitor progress and adjust as technology and public opinion evolves.

BE: According to a 2018 US EPA report, transportation is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As an urban planner who lives in Minneapolis, my number one priority is offering all residents, employees, and visitors alternative modes of transportation to the car.  As I look out my window right now, a bus is rumbling by, people are walking to the corner coffee shop, and bicyclists are traversing the streets. Not all neighborhoods in Minneapolis have these options, though. Safe and comfortable walking, biking, and transit are rights for everyone, which is why we as planners need to make these mobility options more enticing than driving.

The City of Minneapolis.

What are the biggest challenges?

HH: Securing adequate financial resources to move change fast enough will be a challenge, particularly against many competing priorities facing the City today. Addressing homelessness and reducing racial disparities are also pressing issues, and we must ensure that reducing greenhouse gases remains one of the top priorities. Additionally, it is difficult to focus on long-term goals when there are immediately pressing concerns, such as COVID-19 and the budget challenges it has brought. Climate action needs to remain a priority when it comes to budget decisions and time devoted to developing good policy.

BE:  Midwesterners love their cars. While our transit system is becoming an actual system, it still doesn’t connect the suburbs well to the cities (and vice versa) throughout the entire day. We continually rank #1 in bike friendliness but need to expand programs to get bikes and safety training into the hands of kids throughout the city. And to get people to walk more, we need to give them places to walk to and a comfortable route to get there. This all takes holistic community planning with active involvement from the residents who know their neighborhoods best.

What makes Minneapolis uniquely positioned to reach this goal?

HH: Minneapolis has a history of working together for the common good. We have a community of individuals and businesses who are generous with their time and money. We have active participation in city government and neighborhood associations and a population that cares about sustainability. All of this bodes well for our ability to achieve our goals.

BE: While there are always debates about spending money on new bike lanes or transit facilities, the positive reinforcement usually outweighs the opposing perspective. I’ve been an urban planner for 20 years and I can tell you that Minneapolis residents love their cars less than they did when I started my career. They’ve seen what new light rail transit or bike lanes into downtown can do to open up both recreational and commuting transportation options. 

Where do they start? What’s most urgent?

HH: COVID-19 threw a curve ball to transit and downtown. In our northern climate, transit is a critical piece of reducing GHG emissions from single occupancy vehicles. What will it take to help people feel safe using transit again? This is one of our most pressing issues, and something that wasn’t on our radar a year ago. The health of downtown is also an urgent issue because downtown businesses and the associated real estate and property taxes support a large portion of the city budget. COVID-19 and recent social unrest have also greatly reduced the number of people coming downtown each day, and our ability to sustain a healthy downtown is critically important. As discussed above, addressing climate change will require financial resources, and a healthy downtown is a big piece of that.

BE: They’ve already started. Minneapolis’ Climate Action Plan set progressive environmental policies and metrics, the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan is driving livable neighborhoods with diverse housing and transportation choices, and the City is updating their transportation action plan to prioritize a strong, equitable system throughout the city. The transportation infrastructure with the greatest opportunity to get people out of their cars is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The region is already dedicated to building out a full BRT system so it is imperative new routes continue to be funded with a high-level of station amenities to draw choice riders into the system.

Do you think it’s a realistic goal?

HH: It’s ambitious, but one that can be achieved with the leadership and commitment to make it happen.

BE: Goals are meant to be ambitious. What makes this goal realistic as well is that it was based in sound analysis with an achievable action plan. Dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take a variety of experts and disciplines working both together and in our own respective roles. As planners, we need to recognize our contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and educate our communities and clients about what their roles are, too.

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The State of Illinois.

State: Illinois, United States

The state of Illinois has a goal to be Carbon Neutral by 2050. Beth Knackstedt (vice president, water) looks at this issue from the water perspective to the state of Illinois.  

What is the current situation in Illinois?

BK: As a Midwest state, Illinois is relatively insulated from the extreme threats seen on the news such as hurricanes, wildfires, and sea level fluctuation. But the truth is that over the last 20 years, Illinois has seen increasingly intense storms, above-average temperatures, and shifts in the water cycle, with less snow in winter and earlier spring melt.

Increases in heavy precipitation events can impact the quality of stormwater. Intense rainfall can increase the amount of runoff into rivers and lakes, wash sediment, trash and other pollutants into water supplies, and overload our wastewater systems. For Stantec’s water clients, this is forcing them to not only look at and prepare for potential impacts to their operations, but to determine how they can contribute to minimizing impacts due to climate change.

What challenges does Illinois face?

BK: Lowering carbon emissions and recovery of resources has been a hot topic in Illinois for a long time, but the approaches taken still vary widely. My impression is that industry has figured out that water and energy efficiency is not only good for the environment but also for the bottom line. So, we have been quicker to make changes. But municipal water and wastewater utilities are slower to adapt because the economics do not always support improvements that get us closer to carbon-neutrality. For example, there have been many studies over the years reporting huge volumes of clean drinking water that is lost through leaking pipes. But in many cases, it is still cheaper to buy energy to treat more water than to undertake repairs to our vast watermain infrastructure.

What barriers are holding Illinois back?

BK: Treatment of wastewater requires a great deal of energy. Larger agencies, such as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), are making their commitments public. The MWRD, which operates seven water reclamation plants and 22 pumping stations, considers it their responsibility to be a sustainable partner in the region by recovering resources, lowering carbon emissions, and promoting resiliency. As part of their strategic business plan, they have committed to reducing energy consumption and increasing renewable energy production. With their large pool of resources and political backing, they have been able to make significant progress.

But the cost of operating wastewater plants can be a significant burden for smaller communities, especially when their infrastructure is aged or undersized for the community it serves. The State of Illinois has partnered with several agencies to provide no cost energy usage assessments and grants to help identify and fund improvements to their systems.

How do you see this moving forward?

BK: These are just a couple of simple examples of steps that are being taken, but it’s just a drop in the bucket when I think of the complexity of the issue and the contributions required by every sector in order for us to realistically meet our goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

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The Country of New Zealand.

Country: New Zealand

New Zealand’s domestic targets are net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases other than biogenic methane by 2050, and a 24% to 47% reduction below 2017 biogenic methane emissions by 2050. To learn more about New Zealand and its targets, let’s watch this video where Andrew Bird (power & dams lead for Asia Pacific) reflects on New Zealand’s potential for addressing climate change.  

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Stantec's Asia Pacific Dams & Hydropower Sector Leader Andrew Bird shares his thoughts about the energy transition opportunities for New Zealand .

  • Beth Elliott

    As the downtown planner for the City of Minneapolis, Beth has spent 15 years working on capital and facilities planning, in-fill development, historic preservation, and public participation methods.

    Contact Beth
  • Heidi Hamilton

    Heidi is a critical thinker and problem solver who likes to work on complex issues and address important challenges.

    Contact Heidi
  • Beth Knackstedt

    From water supply and flood control to navigation and shoreline protection, Beth leads international water projects.

    Contact Beth
  • Andrew Bird

    What does Andrew love most about the hydropower industry? The diversity of projects and the unique challenges he encounters.

    Contact Andrew
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