On the 50th Earth Day, Houston Sets Ambitious Goal of Carbon Neutrality by 2050

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Houston published its strategy to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The Houston Climate Plan is the result of a year’s worth of collaboration between business, academia, non-profits, students, and communities. As the report makes clear, carbon neutrality entails nothing less than the total restructuring of the city.

Houston, which is known as the “energy capital of the world,” seeks to redefine that title by becoming carbon neutral by 2050 (pp. 10). Carbon neutrality refers to any process wherein the net effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide is zero. The Plan aims to achieve this by reducing and offsetting its carbon emissions. Carbon neutrality by 2050 would amount to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The goal is not an arbitrary one. It has been agreed to by most nations in the world through the Paris Agreement. In 2015, signatories to the Agreement agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, with the aim of limiting it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. These numbers are important, as humans have already raised the Earth’s temperature by 1 degrees Celsius.

That may not sound worrying, but new research suggests substantial differences between one degrees, two degrees, and further degrees of warming. For example, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), coral reefs are expected to decline by 70-90 percent with a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. That figure increases to 99 percent with a warming of 2 degrees Celsius. Another example relates to species loss and extinction, which are projected to be lower at 1.5 degrees Celsius than at 2 degrees Celsius. Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as opposed to 2 degrees Celsius, would also reduce several hundred million people from being impacted by climate-related events and poverty by mid-century. As a fourth example, David Wallace-Wells, in his new book called The Uninhabitable Earth, reports that at 4 degrees Celsius “six climate-driven natural disasters could strike simultaneously” (pp. 14).

Reducing the likelihood of climate risks is one of the main incentives behind the Houston Climate Action Plan. The Plan is equally motivated by the impacts climate change is already having. In its introduction, the Plan displays a map showing the 14 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that struck the United States in 2019. While Houston recognizes the vital importance of resilience, or the capacity to adapt to shocks like 500-year floods, they believe mitigation remains the best means for averting climate catastrophe. Thus, the Plan focuses on both reducing and offsetting the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Amongst C40 cities, a coalition of cities committed to climate action, Houston has one of the highest rates of per capita GHG emissions. Globally, Houston ranks fourth. Nationally, the city ranks second. Houston’s two largest sources of emissions come from the energy sector and the transportation sector. Energy produces about 49 percent of the city’s emissions, while transportation produces about 47 percent of emissions. The city’s greatest emissions intensive sectors are the focus of the Plan.

The Plan concentrates on four different focus areas. It looks at transportation, energy, buildings, and materials. Each focus area has corresponding goals and targets. So, for example, goals listed under energy involve growing investments in renewable energy, making Houston a leader in carbon capture technology, and improving the city’s natural ability to capture and store carbon. One of the targets of this focus area is generating 5 million MWh from local solar projects annually by 2050.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes will come as a result from the Plan’s focus on transportation emissions. With 4 million additional residents expected to live in Houston by 2040, the city aims to avoid the emissions, traffic, and pollution that growth would otherwise generate. One of the Plan’s goals for transportation is reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita, which just means reducing the length of travel done by a single person. Houston’s commuters drive alone for the most part, while less than 5 percent use public transit. The average time spent driving is around half an hour. Houston aims to decrease VMT through transit-oriented development (TOD). TOD is a type of urban development that maximizes the amount of activities a person can do within walking distance of public transit.

Moving forward, the Plan faces three key hurdles. The first relates to its implementation. The Plan covers what the city plans to do, not what the region or even the county plans to do. Thus, for anyone outside of the municipal government, this Plan is not obligatory. As the city states, the “City of Houston is leading by example.” It is up to the rest of us - colleges, businesses, and non-profits - to adopt the goals of the Plan, as well.

The second relates to Plan’s status amidst a global pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to derail the kind of development the Plan calls for. Denser, more walkable, communities - as in the case of transit-oriented development - may get denounced by advocates of urban sprawl and personal transport. As William Fulton, the director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, writes in the Kinder Institute’s “Urban Edge” blog, the virus “has brought the urban naysayers out of the woodwork, claiming cities are the root of pretty much every problem we have - including infectious disease - and that the answer is sprawl and cars”.

The last key hurdle relates to the ongoing protests over racial injustice across the world. The Black Lives Matter movement will likely expand its calls and target cities like Houston on equity. It has already called on Houston to defund its police department. The Plan explicitly talks about equity - the word is mentioned 25 times. Indeed, the Plan defines equity as a “commitment to ensure an individual’s ZIP code, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical abilities or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, linguistic ability, or immigrant status should not limit their choices, opportunity, and freedom” (pp. 87). Houston says equity is embedded into the framework. All actions, it says, “were prioritized based on possible emissions reductions and potential to improve community equity and resilience, reduce pollution and waste, and boost the local economy” (pp. 10).
Lara Cottingham, the Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Houston, emphasizes in the Plan’s introduction that the Plan is a “living” document (pp. 5). Which is to say, the Houston Climate Action Plan was designed to be as diverse and as inclusive as Houston itself. If this is true, it will have to proceed by integrating the most pressing concerns of Houstonians, such as COVID-19 and racial injustice.