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Iowa City climate action coordinator talks sustainability amid pandemic

Brenda Nations says city is on target to meet emissions-cutting goals

IOWA CITY — The coronavirus pandemic has caused disruption in all facets of daily life, including environmental sustainability efforts.

To cut down on risks of spreading the virus, for instance, stores and restaurants are opting for single-use items that create more waste. At the same time, however, more people are working from home and therefore using less fuel.

Iowa City climate action coordinator Brenda Nations recently spoke with The Gazette about ways people can continue with sustainability efforts amid the pandemic. As coordinator for the city’s Climate Action Plan, she also spoke about how the pandemic might affect the city’s goals of cutting carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050.

Q: What ways can residents be sustainable while also being COVID-conscious?

A: As far as climate action, buildings and transportation are the two most impactful areas that we can work on. As far as transportation, people have been driving and riding the bus less. But people have been walking more and riding their bikes more and that is a way that is a great way, both for helping to keep healthy during this time of COVID, but also a way to help the climate. Once this all passes, that would make a huge impact on our local greenhouse gas emissions. So I’d recommend an alternative for transportation like biking and walking that makes you healthier and you feel better.

The other thing is, depending on their house or if they’re renters or homeowners, do things like switch to LED lights. We plan to have a Green AmeriCorps team to make free energy assessments starting at the end of September. The team will make sure their home is insulated and doing other energy-efficient things in their homes. Thinking of ways to get off of natural gas would be important too. So those are the big things that are pretty easy as far as lifestyle goes. I’d say another thing is studies have shown that plant-based diets are much better for the environment and have an impact on climate change. As people are home more and have maybe have more time to cook they can try a plant-based diet or meatless Mondays, or just experiment and try to eat less meat and dairy.

Q: How has the city’s sustainability programming changed since the start of the pandemic?

A: Well, we have gone to more virtual events. We have a monarch butterfly festival every fall, and that’s virtual starting Aug. 2. We’re having some virtual events and some things for kids to pick up. We’ve had to cancel some things like our family dinner this year. Even though we’d really like to support local farmers, it just wasn’t going to happen. We’ve really had to alter how we engage people because we just can’t do it in person. We were hoping our first climate festival would be in person — a big outdoor festival — down at City Hall and have it be a big event, but we’re just going to have to do it virtually the first year and then hopefully we’ll have an in-person climate fest after that.

Q: Where is the city at in its goal to hit net-zero emissions by 2050?

A: We are on target and a large part of that is due to MidAmerican Energy having a goal of going to 100 percent renewable energy for their electricity. We worked with the (University of Iowa) and they’ve been reducing the amount of coal in their power plant, so that’s been helpful, but it’s not going to be enough to get it there. We released the 100-Day Report that outlines actions to implement and we’re working with the community on because community emissions are 95 percent of emissions. It’s not just what the city owns and operates. And so, we’ll have someone work with people to be an outreach person with our Climate Ambassador program, because we need to get it out there that people know that we have a Climate Action Plan, and that we know that we need to get people involved and we need to make some of the positive changes that are that are going to affect our emissions but also provide a better way of life, too. And so we’re on target to reach our goals, but we won’t always be that way unless we keep working really hard every year to make some of these changes.

Q: How is the pandemic affecting the city’s emissions goals?

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A: I’m the person who calculates greenhouse gases and I haven’t seen 2019 data yet because they still don’t have all the data, and so I don’t know the exact ways that the pandemic is going to affect emissions. But transportation is really gone down. I know the state has said that people are driving much less so I think that’s going to decrease. ... I don’t know how things are going to work in buildings because people may be working at home so they’re using more energy at home than they are at work. I work at City Hall, and it’s being heated and cooled and lights and all that to say, I really don’t know how that’s going to be but businesses have been closed like restaurants are closed, university buildings have been closed.

Even if our emissions go down, we don’t want there to have to be a pandemic to reduce our emissions. That’s too great of a cost. But what we want to do is we want to take this time to evaluate how we can come back and make it even better. Because we certainly don’t want people to die or have their health be affected. We want people to be well and healthy and also lower greenhouse gases.

Comments: (319) 398-8370; sarah.watson@thegazette.com

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