Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Plan: the Challenge

On June 1, 2020, Ann Arbor’s City Council is scheduled to consider (for the third time) an expansive proposal that has the capability of significant impact on many aspects of life. It is the A2Zero Plan. There is a public hearing scheduled, and numerous explanatory documents are also attached. (See the Legistar link for that list.) It is time for all of us to pay attention.

This plan was launched by a Council resolution. It had a remarkably short timeline for production of a complex plan, and was amended to allow only ten years to make Ann Arbor “carbon neutral”, that is, to generate no net CO2.  It was a bold statement of support by Council to make Ann Arbor a leader in fighting climate change.

The Sustainability staff (led by Missy Stults, Sustainability and Innovations Manager) gamely pitched in, starting with several surveys, holding large town halls, and other invitations to public comment.


Yard sign made available by the Ann Arbor Climate Partnership, based in the Ecology Center

A version  of A2Zero was presented to Council on April 20, but as reported on MLive, Council simply “received” it (this is an acknowledgement, not an approval) and asked for more information. Rather surprisingly, it reappeared on the agenda at the same time as the annual Budget resolution (May 18). The plan calls for considerable investment (about $1 Billion over 10 years) at a time when the City is facing a considerable revenue shortfall. But it was also the subject of an extensive lobbying campaign by a group based in the Ecology Center which has many nonprofit and institutional signatories. The Ann Arbor Climate Partnership is distributing campaign-style signs. The major point of the campaign appears to be adoption of the A2Zero plan. It is not clear who is paying for the expense of the signs, but donations go directly to the Ecology Center. There were many pleas on social media and doubtless Council was inundated with messages supporting the plan. Who is not for conquering global warming?

After a Council session which went on into midmorning of the next day, the item was postponed to the June 1 Council agenda. There is now also a public hearing scheduled. (This had not been made available earlier.) And there is now an updated version of the Plan (remarkably, this was not made available until hours before the Council meeting on May 18, and few people were aware of it). It can be downloaded from the A2Zero website (not the City website). It has been a real effort to obtain current and meaningful information, in spite of the many documents made available. For example, though consultants were employed in preparing this, to my knowledge those reports are not available, or at least not identified as such.

Interim Summary

In my view, this plan has many flaws, apart from the price tag and the current uncertainty about the City’s financial condition. It needs to be scrapped and reconsidered in its entirety. I will be laying out my analysis and commentary on the plan in a series of blog posts. Here are just a few summary points.

  • On examination, many of the points are not really about climate and CO2 emissions. They are really about rather wispy “sustainability” concepts. We all love sustainability. We’ve heard about it for years. I’ve even preached it. But this is supposed to be a plan targeted to a specific objective, namely reducing our carbon load on the planet.
  • Another major theme is called either “justice” or “equitability”, depending on which version you read. Again, we all love the concept of making our society more equitable, but that should not be what this is about. We are trying to reduce carbon emissions.The insertion of affordable housing (another uncontestable good) is not to the point.
  • And in relation to the first two points, much of the plan seems to be pointed at the objective of obtaining policy directives that have been a subject of debate but are not related to climate change. A prime example is the promotion of “density” via changing the zoning map to allow more intense development of formerly single-family zoned areas. This was also a theme of a Master Plan revision previously proposed and stalled in Council. (See The Master Plan and Ann Arbor Emergent.) That debate should be argued out on its own terms.
  • Where are the genuine metrics on CO2 generation? This is poorly explained and every action in this plan should be oriented to that solution. More about this later.
  • Reading the plan and the explanatory notes in detail reveals a depth of unproven assumptions and extrapolations that are startling to find in a document presumably produced by professional staff. Here is one I found at random.

In the Investment Plan, a City expenditure of $35,000 for emergency kits is balanced by a $210,000 annual savings. The note says “Estimated savings from a FEMA report showing that for every $1 invested in prevention, we save $7 in emergency management and response costs.”  Note that the $210,000 savings, which are used in the budget for the plan, actually do not exist. They are based on an assumption (that prevention and the emergency kits are the same) piled on an assumption (that this extrapolation is more than that but is an actual estimate). Is this the quality of all the budget calculations? Careful reading will be necessary.

  • Some aspects of the plan are not possible under current state law. The plan’s “vision” supposes that this will magically change. Anyone who is familiar with the history of Michigan state politics would not make a leap like this for an important fraction (> 38%) of the CO2 generation.
  • Many aspects of the plan are dependent on actions of entities outside the City or the City’s influence and reach. Some of them should be simply excluded as likely probabilities. For example, a regional transit system is postulated, apparently without the information that it has been defeated politically yet again for the near future and the resolution does not appear likely. (For extensive updates on the Detroit Metro RTA, see this.)
  • The plan seems to assume that as long as we can make sure carbon load is incurred outside our actual City borders, we don’t have to count it. Even if our policies cause carbon emissions in themselves, just keep them outside the borders. An egregious example of this is the proposed Park and Ride expansion. This proposes building a substantial acreage of parking lots outside the City and letting commuters park there and take buses in. But the emissions are not ours! And the parking lots will have a carbon effect by themselves, not included since they are outside our borders.
  • In a similar vein, we are not considering the issue of embodied carbon that buildings represent. In fact, this plan is building-friendly. But a growing recognition of the contribution that buildings (third in the worldwide contribution to carbon emissions) make to our global load has meant that many architectural professionals are now considering this to be of primary importance.
  • Simply put, this is an ineffective plan if the point really is to be a carbon-neutral city. The numbers will not add up if calculated honestly.

I hope to elucidate more of this in detail in future posts. It would be reassuring to believe that our leaders are trying to execute this intelligently and honestly. Unfortunately, it seems that the intent is simply to forge ahead regardless of any impediments. It is being characterized as an “opportunity” in the face of the pandemic and the financial barriers.  We are in essence being issued a challenge. As Missy Stults has said,

This idea of being okay with failure, or failure positive as we call it, is a total paradigm shift in most situations, but so is climate change,” Stults said. “So, we have to be comfortable with trying something and being okay coming back and saying, ‘You know, that was not as successful as we thought it was going to be.’ The ultimate objective is a safe climate, it’s a high quality of life. Basically, a bunch of things can fail for different reasons, and we have to be okay with that.”

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Explore posts in the same categories: Basis, civic finance, Sustainability

14 Comments on “Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Plan: the Challenge”

  1. Timjbd Says:

    For a cool $billion, we have to be ok that “a bunch of things can fail?”

    Mysteriously not counted is the extreme carbon load added to the sum of our carbon load by the construction of the new dense-packed condos and apartments this plan calls for. Also not counted are the homes that are left behind by residents of this new “density.” Unless they’ve been dismantled and the materials used to create the “density,” those houses will continue to be lived in and driven from, adding their carbon load to the sum of all carbon being loaded.

    Same with the electric buses. Our existing buses are to be sold off and replaced with brand new (bespoke) electric buses adding the manufacture of those buses to the sum of our carbon load, while our old diesel buses will continue busing elsewhere, producing the same carbon load they do today. No thought given to converting our existing buses?? That can be done for <50% cost of new electric buses.

    And fleet vehicles…

    Park and rides are a great idea but in these tough times how about leasing space in the vast oceans of parking that already exist on the edge of town- Briarwood, Maple Village, the Rave Theater lot, Arborland, Plymouth Road Shopping Center, and so on. No need to build fresh.

    Where’s the Yankee ingenuity?

  2. Bradley A Pritts Says:

    Vivienne — thanks for your analysis and comment on this complex issue. From what I’ve seen here we definitely have work to do. As you note, we are all in support of attacking climate change. But, the specific tactics and priorities appear to need a lot more work.

    The one comment I will add is that thankfully, we do have time to address this problem. Unlike the Midland flood or COVID, we do have many years ahead to take measured actions.

    • Thanks – yes, we have time and here in Ann Arbor we are relatively unstressed so far by climate change. But its effects will come to us. We need to address both reducing our own contribution to the load and also how we will keep our community well and functioning in the future in its face. (Resilience)

      Unfortunately the current plan will do neither. In fact, the Mayor has promised us disruption.

  3. margleary Says:

    THANK YOU Vivienne for taking this on. It always struck me as naive to think that a small city like Ann Arbor could make any noticeable improvement to the climate our citizens experience even if we spent ALL our income on that one effort, and gave up on such “frills” as fire, police, trash collection, street cleaning and repair, etc. So, I did not bother to look at it closely.

    But you did, and I now object even more to Council even spending time thinking about this. They came SO CLOSE to moving the proceeds from the County mileage into the general fund, threatening the ability of organizations like CAN and AVALON to supply food to people who have no other way to get it.

    Thanks again, keep up the good work.

    On Thu, May 21, 2020 at 9:18 PM Local in Ann Arbor wrote:

    > Vivienne Armentrout posted: “On June 1, 2020, Ann Arbor’s City Council is > scheduled to consider (for the third time) an expansive proposal that has > the capability of significant impact on many aspects of life. It is the > A2Zero Plan. There is a public hearing scheduled, and numerous e” >

    • Thanks, Margaret. Yes, I agree we have much more critical issues to consider right now, though the climate issue is critical worldwide. I’d like to see the Council focus on how to keep our community whole and well – resilience in the face of multiple overlapping crises. Re food: I’d like to give attention to Food Gatherers as well as the organizations you mention. They are doing critical work.

  4. John Woodford Says:

    Sounds like typical pork-barrel, boondoggle politics. It’s in the name of “sustainability” (everybody say “Amen!”) and it’s “green” on the outside, too (I’ve seen cow pies like that). It does smell, doesn’t it?

    • Well, I wouldn’t quite characterize it like that. I think there are many sincere people who simply don’t look under the hood on these issues. I am sad how the language has become a meme that is often misused, sometimes cynically but not always.

  5. bradleygroup Says:

    A quick look at several energy advocate websites suggests that this is a valid point. (Setting aside the question of pseudonym– and I must say I agree with your point, Vivienne – I use my real name and if someone isn’t willing to ID themselves I’m not that interested in discourse!)

    Having had a minor role at life cycle analysis in my job I can say that this involves a maddening number of assumptions and details. A simple observation, though, is that we still use a lot of natural gas and coal for electrical generation. Natural gas is cleaner both in air quality and GHG compared to coal. So if you compare a natural gas fueled electrical generation plant to using the natural gas in a home range, then based on thermodynamics alone you cannot possibly be more efficient than using the natural gas in the stove. (Losses in generating and transmitting the electrical energy are significant.)

    Advocates will argue that we are well along the way in making our electrical grid sustainable. There is some truth to this but the pace is slow (13% of US electrical plant is hydro, solar or wind). If you make the change today from gas to electric at home, you will have a greater carbon footprint today. Better to wait until the grid actually changes to sustainable basis.

    Yet another complexity, though, is that natural gas (methane) itself is a GHG, with greater greenhouse properties than CO2. Some amount of natural gas is lost to leakage at all stages from the wellhead to final use, and that has its own impact which isn’t good.

    A conservative approach is to focus on improvements that are more energy efficient, regardless of the fuel type. This promises a true net improvement without lots of assumptions. And there are still plenty of these opportunities.

  6. Thank you, Bradley. I didn’t actually attempt to address the issue of electrical vs. natural gas power in this blog post. I have reservations about it and you have voiced some of them. But it is at least a valid argument, whereas many of the “solutions” in the plan are questionable. If I have time, I will need to discuss that because it is an important part of the plan.

  7. My blog rules are that you give accurate information about who you are. Using an abusive identity and your last message indicate that you will need to express yourself elsewhere. This is not a public forum. It is my blog. You have abused your access.

  8. Angela Says:

    Hi Vivienne,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the A2zero plan.

    I agree that the A2zero plan is not perfect. However I do not agree that it should be scrapped. I think that with the suggested process in place for amendments, the plan can be adapted as we get more information. 

    Given how quickly the plan was put together and how much uncertainty we face, I think it is a pretty well thought through, detailed plan leading us in the right direction. We will definitely need to amend the plan as: state laws change, the University of Michigan informs us of their plan, new technology is developed and we learn from other communities across the globe also trying to reach carbon neutrality by 2030 (many cities in Great Britain have this goal, the whole country of Norway and Copenhagen is even aiming for 2025).

    As for density:

    It might be possible to be carbon neutral with the current density, but the quality of life would be lower. I currently live a car free lifestyle since I want to play my part in cutting emissions, but even for my young body it is often a strain going shopping by bike and carrying a week’s worth of groceries back. If the grocery store were closer I would go shopping more often (in times with no covid pandemic) which reduces the strain on my back. Especially when the weather is cold or it is raining I wish the grocery store were closer.

    As for equity:

    If we want to be carbon neutral by 2030, we need everybody’s help. And if we want everyone’s help fighting climate change we need to help those who are struggling to afford their basic needs or are facing discrimination now.

    As you mentioned in an earlier post we also need to try to be a resilient community. While there is much research being done on what climate change impacts we will face there is much uncertainty. Therefore the best way to build resilience is to build solidarity within our community. To build solidarity within our community it is essential to work towards a more equitable society.

    Throughout history we have seen that a scarcity of resources can easily lead to conflict. For climate change not to lead to conflict we need to build solidarity in our community, nationally and globally. So fighting for a more equitable society is not only morally the right thing to do but helps everyone.

  9. bradleygroup Says:

    (From Brad Pritts)

    We now see that Council has adopted the plan… sigh!

    I took a different tack in my study of this, looking at what other governments have selected as their target dates for carbon neutrality and how they are doing. At the national level, most developed countries have used 2050 as their target for neutrality…. and even so few are showing credible progress. Germany has invested a lot to convert power generation from fossil fuel to sustainable… but at a very high cost. One prominent exception to the 2050 targets is Iceland who targeted neutrality by 2040. They have an advantage in that 90%+ of their electrical power already comes from renewable hydro and geothermal sources.

    Probably the best single prescriptions involve specific programs that reduce energy usage. Ofteh this is most economical when new capital programs are launched – e.g. new buildings or major renovations. So, I would suggest that these be given a high priority, as they are good opportunities at relatively low cost. I’d further propose that we be careful to limit our programs to real reductions rather than shifting usage around!

    • Yes, one of my principal objections is that most of the reductions are achieved by buying credits elsewhere, without modifying our own usage.

      But it is emphasized that this is a plan in flux. Now if we can all just keep up with it.

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