Our Climate, Our Responsibility, Our Opportunity

Andy Johnson, Director

The recent Global Warming of 1.5°C report, released by the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on October 8, was a wake-up call to some. To many others, it was one more installment in 30+ years of science documenting the dangers of human-induced climate change, and the opportunity we still have (maybe) to protect a liveable world for our kids and grandkids.

We’ll summarize key take-away’s from the report, touch on tremendous work happening locally for well over a decade, and highlight opportunities for us all to do so much more as a community. The references from this article and others – including many focused closer to home such as the Iowa Climate Statements, can be found on the climate resources page on our website.

The IPCC report itself stems from the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, where 195 nations agreed to the goal of “holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” The current report – referencing over 6,000 scientific studies – outlines the benefits of keeping warming to 1.5° versus 2°C.

We should note that global society has already caused roughly 1°C of warming, and barring major course correction, we are on track for at least 3°C (5.4°C) warming this century. There is much to be done.

So what are some differences between a 1.5°C and 2°C warmer world? At 2°C, more than 99% of the world’s coral reefs – and their amazing diversity of life – will be extinct. At 1.5°C, it may be possible to preserve 10-30% while we struggle to hold steady and begin to reverse the warming. At 2°C, the Arctic will likely be entirely free of summer ice with some regularity, while at 1.5°C, that would happen rarely, maybe once a century. At 2°C, weather-related impacts such as drought, flooding, and storm intensities will be much greater than at 1.5°C, impacts that are already being felt worldwide, and here at home.

Perhaps the greatest difference, however, is that a vast body of science is increasingly warning us that as we approach and exceed 2°C of warming, the dangers of crossing tipping points and triggering climate “feedback loops” grows rapidly. An ice-free arctic, for example, will absorb much more solar energy into earth’s system during summers than one with reflective ice cap still intact, further accelerating the warming. Crossing tipping points risks runaway, irreversible climate chaos, and wisdom suggests we apply the brakes as hard as possible.

Are we applying those brakes? The IPCC report explains that technically it is still possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C, by reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by about mid-century. Nationally and globally, we are not moving fast enough, but we should still pause to recognize and take stock of the invaluable work that has been and continues to be done locally. From households, farms and businesses, to institutions like local governments and colleges, efforts to prevent climate change through locally-owned energy efficiency and renewable energy have been gathering momentum for over a decade.

Luther College is an example of what is possible when “green meets green”: stewardship values and economic opportunity are actively merged with a goal of carbon neutrality. Earlier this century, the college set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50% from their peak by 2015, and then achieving 100% carbon neutrality by 2030. Amazingly, they met their 2015 goal, almost entirely with cost-effective, on-site energy efficiency (the largest share) and renewable energy (wind and solar). Their progress continues, and they should be more widely recognized. They are an inspiration to us all.

Decorah Bank and Trust (principal business sponsor of the Energy District) is another example of an institution actively pursuing stewardship that is good for the bottom line. Through energy star level building construction and efficiency improvements, multiple solar arrays (including most recently a parking lot canopy with electric vehicle charging), and a significant annual purchase of locally-produced Oneota Tag carbon offsets from the Energy District, they are well on their way towards carbon neutrality.

These are examples of major institutional leadership, and much is also being done by NICC, our local city and county governments, school districts, medical centers, and others. This progress is also widespread in Decorah and Winneshiek County. Through the energy planning, market transformation, and direct install work, the Energy District has directly assisted hundreds of farms and businesses and well over a thousand households in “owning” the clean energy transition through energy efficiency, solar projects, and other efforts.

This work is rapidly adding up, and creating a flywheel of momentum driving continued change. We have documented at least $12 million invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy in Winneshiek County (not counting Luther College). These achievements have cumulatively reduced greenhouse gas emissions over 100,000 tons, and, according to conservative figures on job creation from local investment – created over 100 good, local jobs dispersed throughout the economy.

Where do we go from here? All of this work is just the beginning, to be sure, but it is a STRONG beginning. Businesses, farms, households, and institutions throughout the community and county are increasingly aware of the opportunities and taking action to save green and be climate stewards. Roadmaps such as those created by the Midcontinent Power Sector Collaborative, the Solutions Project, and Drawdown continue to show the viability of accelerating the clean energy transition and avoiding the worst of climate change.

Here at the Energy District, we are continuing to provide critical energy planning services as widely as possible, drive solar market transformation, and support our impactful team of Green Iowa AmeriCorps members. We are also increasingly engaging in market transformation towards electric vehicles, and the tremendous opportunity for farm energy savings and agricultural climate stewardship. In fact, we’ve already worked directly with over 60 farm operations and created a unique and powerful tool for evaluating farm energy opportunities at the county level in Iowa.

Climate Change may well be the defining issue of our time. Energy Districts are focused on locally-owned clean energy solutions. Energy efficiency, locally-owned renewables, electrification of transportation, and agricultural energy and emissions are all examples of critical tools that achieve both climate stewardship and local economic opportunity and wealth creation. While we generally focus our resources on implementing solutions, our responsibility to our kids, grandkids, and planet is central to everything we do.

There’s no doubt in our minds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is an uphill struggle, but we’re all-in. Our vision is 100% local, clean energy and climate neutrality similar to those of Luther and DBT: now would be a good time for all our local institutions to collaborate on a community and county-wide roadmap toward an agreed-upon clean energy and climate stewardship future. Because when it comes down to it, the local level – our institutions, leaders, businesses, citizens – truly do represent a Geography of Change.


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