Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Plan: Estimating the Improbable

The logo for the A2Zero campaign

The A2Zero Plan looks to reduce emissions drastically in the next 10 years. But what are the probabilities that this will succeed? A review of some of the contingencies.

The A2Zero Plan, which is scheduled to come before the Ann Arbor City Council on June 1, is a rambling complex of objectives and strategies that ostensibly was devised to meet the requirements of a Council resolution (November 4, 2019) that called (alternately and confusingly) for a “climate neutrality plan” and a “carbon neutrality plan”. In reading it, evidently what Council was trying to achieve was to map out a strategy to reach “net zero”.   This appears to be the operative phrase:

Whereas, Creating a climate neutrality plan is necessary to identify, plan for, budget, and work towards implementing the actions required to achieve community-wide carbon neutrality.

No other principles or directives are found in the resolution. The staff is being directed to figure out (a “draft plan” is actually mentioned) how Ann Arbor can reach “carbon neutrality”, i.e., net zero carbon produced, by 2030. That is all. No mention of sustainability, equity, or anything else. Just “get us to carbon neutrality”.

The Goal: Taking Our Net Emissions to Zero

Although it is not exactly stated, evidently the purpose is to achieve a net zero carbon dioxide balance (or better, CO2 equivalents [CO2-eq]), though that term is used only once in passing in the resolution. The term can be used in different ways, but I’m pretty sure that the net operating energy is the definition here. “Net Zero” installations typically produce much of their own energy onsite using non-emitting technology, and this balances their carbon cost otherwise. A famous example in Ann Arbor is Matt Grocoff’s Netzero House. Presumably a net zero Ann Arbor would reduce emissions and also bend energy generation toward non-emitting technology such as solar energy generation. The Introduction to the Plan says (p.12):

Simply defined, carbon neutrality is reducing the emissions our community puts into the air down to zero, through actions that minimize output and/or by purchasing greenhouse gas emissions offsets.

Precision is important here because the aim is to counter a climate emergency, which Council has declared. The name of the game in climate is GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions. But there are many GHG and they have different climatic effects. Therefore a standard has been devised which states all GHG emissions in terms of the effect of CO2. (Explanation of the term and its uses here.) Happily, the Plan does state results in terms of CO2-eq. Note that the units shown in the lead figure are metric tons of CO2-eq. The number does not appear to reach zero by 2030 except for the electricity contributions.

Lead graphic in A2Zero plan showing carbon load reduction

The Main Points

  • Why are we concerned about the output in CO2-eq? Because we have all heard the dire predictions. I reviewed some of them in this post, Climate Change in Ann Arbor: Investing in the Future, where I linked to and quoted the IPCC report of 2018. And then there was this, Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes. Along with many others, I have been anguished (for years, actually) about the vision of the future of the Earth and its children – all because we produce too many Greenhouse Gases. Ann Arbor committees and Councils have expressed a hope that we could mitigate this output for years. Success has been elusive. Apparently Council decided it was time to get down to business.
  • Since this is our objective (reduction of GHG), it makes sense that any plan to address it would have a strict accounting of CO2 emissions and how we expect to address them. It is a matter of arithmetic. Count the emissions. Figure out how to subtract the needed amount. The A2Zero plan does have a number of proposed approaches. But unfortunately most of the proposals have low probability of succeeding.
  • The approaches to carbon neutrality used by other institutions fall into several categories, especially low-carbon energy and heat generation, energy efficiency, and green building approaches. The University of Michigan has a task force addressing this goal (see most recent report). Note that the final report from this group, President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) is due this fall. So far the recommendations are aimed at reducing emission levels.
  • Another method to become “carbon neutral” is to use offsets, meaning that we send money elsewhere to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in the globe.The spirit of the Council’s directive is, I believe, aimed at reducing emission levels in the City of Ann Arbor. As an environmentally conscious community, we would like to believe that we are doing our best to reduce our own contribution to the CO2-eq burden of the planet. This Plan instead makes liberal use of offsets and other means of essentially shipping our obligation to reduce carbon pollution to other locations, while continuing to add to the emissions with our own activities.
  • The Plan also has many, many proposals aimed at different policy objectives that have little or nothing to do with carbon sparing. While “equity” is a high value and something we should address as a community, it is not related except remotely to addressing CO2 emissions.
  • Just to add to the problems, the actual math in the Plan is defective.  I have no idea how the original database (I assume there was a spreadsheet at some point) looks, but there are so many typos and inconsistencies in this document that it is impossible to analyze. I have sent some detail to the City Council and the Administrator, but here is just one sample: one proposal (Offsets) has two different numbers in the document vs. the summary table. One is 13.2% of the GHG needed and one is 45%. That is not a rounding error. It was my intent (and I built a table) to compare the strategies based on their contribution, but it is impossible with the mangled condition of the report. Numbers do not add up.

State Law, Ann Arbor Regulations, and the Art of the Possible

As noted by the Ann Arbor News, several items are dependent on changes in state law. This
(1) Assumes that state law can be successfully amended to make certain actions impossible under current law possible. They include community solar, building code changes, and community choice aggregation. This seems to be oblivious to the actual steps and political barriers between anything Ann Arbor requests and our majority Republican legislature. Have the drafters of the plan determined which committees will take up a measure, and have they determined that there is a lawmaker who is willing to carry the issue forward?

(2) Assumes that these changes can happen almost instantaneously. Several show timelines that assume state law can change in 2020. Enforcement is to begin in 2021. An example is a proposal to change State building codes to require that all new buildings be built to net zero energy standards. This would likely mean full electrification, among other changes. It would be a substantial change in the way building is done across the State of Michigan.

About dates: Ann Arbor and many others have a fiscal year that begins in July of the preceding year. Thus, though we are currently in the calendar year 2020, our Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget was just approved and in July 2020 we will be transported to the future, or at least to 2021 for the purposes of our civic operations.

Some units (like Washtenaw County) have a calendar year budget. So while the City of Ann Arbor is living in 2021, the County will be comfortingly at home in 2020, until January 2021.  Meanwhile, any agency that lives mostly on Federal funds (like AAATA) uses the Federal fiscal year (beginning in October). So for purposes of Federal grants, we are in 2020 until October.

Effects of Building Code changes

One question that arises from these differences in how dates are used: when the plan says “2020” or 2021″, what does it mean? Will a number for 2021 be as of July 2020, January 2021, July 2021 (midpoint of the calendar year), or December 2021? If we expect to start measuring the outcomes and there will be regular reports, presumably a particular date will be used from year to year. The timeline for “Building Code changes” is a straight-line reduction of emissions, starting in 2021. But that over-simplifies any such course of changes, since even the rate of building new structures is likely to vary. The basis for this estimate is not shown.

Presumed effects of a regional transit system in the Ann Arbor area by 2022.

Other proposals indicate very poor information about the actual status of an issue. There is a blithe assumption that a Regional Transit system will be in place and functioning in 2022. It appears that there was not even a cursory Google search because this story has been all over the place for the last couple of years. We have every detail you could wish in this post, Governance and Transit and Taxes, Oh, My.  If you scroll down to updates 21-25 you will see that the supporters of the RTA tried two separate attempts at revising State law to make a RTA without Macomb County work. The RTA will not be on the ballot this year and possibly never. A lot of reworking in back rooms is probably going on, though maybe not during the pandemic.

Supposing that the RTA does get on the ballot in, say, 2022, it would then have to get the approval of the voters. (There was a prior failure.) The likelihood that anything at all from the RTA will be reducing the carbon load in the next two years is vanishingly small. (Note: the RTA is a functioning authority and has done many good things in the Detroit area. They also collaborated with the AAATA for a Ann Arbor-Detroit bus, sadly discontinued for the pandemic.)

Let’s Rethink

Council asked the Administrator and thus the Office of Sustainability and Innovation for a draft plan. This is indisputably a draft. Like all drafts, it needs a lot of markups. The many errors of estimation and addition do not belong in a finished plan. (The Plan does not show the work used to arrive at these estimations. I assume that there was some. It is impossible to analyze or evaluate without showing how the numbers were derived.) It also needs some project management expertise so that each strategy can be tracked and evaluated over time. I haven’t even begun to address the budgetary implications (the amounts requested would consume nearly our entire City budget over 10 years and are simply infeasible).

I earnestly hope that Council will not be asked to adopt it as a Plan, but will ask the staff to continue fine-tuning the strategies and present them as they are mature and completely calculated with the best information possible. Clearly more work, and more time to do it, are needed.

Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, Sustainability

3 Comments on “Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Plan: Estimating the Improbable”

  1. poodlechild Says:

    Thank you, Vivienne, for another wonderful article. Sharing far and wide. -Peace, Kitty

    From: Local in Ann Arbor Reply-To: Local in Ann Arbor Date: Tuesday, May 26, 2020 at 9:04 PM To: “Kitty B. Kahn” Subject: [New post] Ann Arbor A2Zero Plan: Estimating the Improbable

    Vivienne Armentrout posted: ” The A2Zero Plan looks to reduce emissions drastically in the next 10 years. But what are the probabilities that this will succeed? A review of some of the contingencies. The A2Zero Plan, which is scheduled to come before the Ann Arbor City Council “

  2. Patricia L Alvis Says:

    This, I’m uncomfortable to admit, is the kind of attention we all need to pay in order to know what challenges we face and what is being done about it, especially by the people we have elected for the job. Thanks for doing my homework. I’m sending this on to a friend in Ward One who will make use of it. She was saying the other day that she had a call from a canvasser asking her to vote for one of the council candidates. My friend asked two questions to which the response was “I don’t know.” She suggested that the caller have the answers before her next call.


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