Guest Columnist

Can one small city make an impact on global climate change?

Without authority to mandate energy use practices, Iowa City turns to incentives

A crowd fills the intersection of Dubuque Street and Iowa

Avenue while waiting to rally with Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg rallies in downtown Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. The student-led movement has resulted in the Iowa City school board and the City of Iowa City each passing a climate resolution. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A crowd fills the intersection of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue while waiting to rally with Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg rallies in downtown Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. The student-led movement has resulted in the Iowa City school board and the City of Iowa City each passing a climate resolution. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa City is testing the limits of local action and global impact.

Our famously progressive City Council has made addressing climate change a top priority, but city governments in Iowa don’t have broad authority to strictly regulate the chief culprits of carbon emissions.

Climate action also presents a tragedy of the common situation for localities — one small city alone can’t have a measurable impact on global carbon output, while efforts to do so could put a community at an economic disadvantage to neighbors who go on polluting relatively uninhibited.

Iowa City’s climate action plan — put in motion by a climate crisis declaration unanimously approved by the council earlier this year — is an experiment in balancing those competing factors. The plan calls for a drastic reduction in the city’s carbon footprint, aiming for a 45 percent reduction by 2030, and “net-zero” emissions by 2050.

Editorial: Iowa City is leading the state on climate action

Some climate activists will be disappointed that Iowa City’s plan does not impose heavy regulations for commuters, industrial emitters or homebuilders, like some other cities around the nation and world do. That’s largely because the state government limits the power cities have over such activities.

“We can’t regulate our way there. There’s some things we can do, but we’re going to have to rely more on education and incentives and those types of things than maybe some other communities do that you read about across the country,” City Manager Geoff Fruin said at a meeting this week.

On a list of more than 60 specific action points in the city manager’s 100-day report on the climate crisis, only about 10 are designated as regulations, while the rest are internal activities by the city or voluntary projects for businesses and individuals.

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In other words, the city can’t really force its populace into compliance. Instead, city leaders must convince the people of the value of going green.

“A cultural shift is going to have to take place where people are going to voluntarily change their everyday habits,” City Council member Rockne Cole said.

As the plan was developed, officials hoped to employ a more stringent energy code that would apply stronger efficiency standards to private property owners. However, the city attorney reported in July that the city government does not have the power to go beyond the energy code adopted by the state.

The city expects to lobby the Iowa Legislature for local control over energy codes, but that’s politically infeasible in the foreseeable future.

Instead, the city will have to rely on incentives and education to achieve its goals, such as bonuses and tax breaks for environmentally mindful developers, new transportation options and outreach to promote energy reduction by individuals.

While that all costs money — likely to be paid for initially by $1 million annually from an emergency property tax levy, which could be offset by a reduction in another tax levy — it doesn’t require a bloated new regulatory regime that would scare off new investments.

If Iowa City’s carrots-not-sticks climate change response proves successful, it will be a strong model for other cities to emulate.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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