Jason Wu/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

At the "How Do We Achieve Sustainable Prosperity?" event on Sept. 29, panelists discussed strategies for equitably decarbonizing the City of Ithaca and reaching net-zero emissions by 2030.

October 3, 2022

Net-Zero Cities: A Blueprint for Equitable Decarbonization

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Local leaders are coming together to discuss what it will take for the City of Ithaca to decarbonize equitably and reduce the city’s net emissions to zero in a three-part series titled: “Net-Zero Cities: A Blueprint for Equitable Decarbonization.” The first event of the series, “How Do We Achieve Sustainable Prosperity?” was held at the Soil Factory on Thursday, Sept. 29.

In partnership with the Future of Small Cities Institute, this series was brought together by Climate Now, a platform that communicates the science behind climate change, the technologies that could prevent a climate emergency and the political, social and economic frameworks necessary to achieve net-zero emissions on a global scale. 

Panelists began by diving into Ithaca’s goals and tactics to reform society and energy, producing a blueprint for communities across the United States. Formulating the decarbonization of a smaller city like Ithaca provides economic and social opportunities for the entire community, from experts in the sciences to engineering and social work.  

In November 2021, Ithaca adopted a resolution to electrify and decarbonize the city’s buildings by the end of the decade. The Ithaca Green New Deal resolution, adopted by a unanimous vote in 2019, was a component of the city’s effort to assist in Ithaca’s transition to carbon neutrality by 2030. 

Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres, director of sustainability for the City of Ithaca, leads the implementation of the Ithaca Green New Deal, including the city’s net-zero 2030 and climate justice strategies. Aguirre-Torres placed a large emphasis on involving the community and providing opportunities for those in the region. 

“If we can bring justice at the same time that we can fight climate change, if we can actually make somebody’s life better, we absolutely have to do that,” Aguirre-Torres said.

James Lawler, the founder of Climate Now, provided a framework of the opportunities that will be coming to Ithaca and the climate-centric discussions that major cities will participate in over the next five to ten years. Lawler is focusing on ensuring that Ithacans are not overly burdened by the energy transition but instead are strengthened throughout the community. 

Placing significance on workforce development, this program will work to create careers that support the 6,000 buildings in the Ithaca region to adopt carbon neutral methods by 2030 and that extend into future projects in additional cities. When developing a workforce training program, this project aims to engage workers and design a sustainable curriculum that will benefit the greater community. 

With a holistic cohort, Dr. Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele, Green Energy Workforce Training Center coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, emphasizes the collaborative efforts that will occur between those who are employed, unemployed, holding degrees, those without degrees and those who are looking to get more involved with the carbon neutral effort. Airewele is working to ensure that nobody will be marginalized within this project. 

Dr. Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele speaks during Climate Now’s “How Do We Achieve Sustainable Prosperity?” event, The Soil Factory, Sept. 30. (Jason Wu/Sun Assistant Photography Editor)

In the efforts for equitable decarbonization, Airewele provides workforce training for marginalized Ithaca and Tompkins County residents. 

“We need to give people within this region the skills [and] the knowledge to be involved in the work, but also to understand why they are doing this,” Airewele said. 

Neha Khanna Ph.D. ’98, a panelist and an expert in agriculture, environmental economics and policy, said Ithaca’s net-zero journey is the biggest step in the process towards climate justice.

“If we can take [this step] and model our individual daily lives with a tiny change that inculcates the cultural change, it’s the start of something much bigger,” Khanna said.

While other cities in the United States are looking at 2050 as a goal to meet carbon neutrality, Ithaca is working hard for 2030.

“The magic of Ithaca is that we are able to see the world for what it could be and for what it is,” Aguirre-Torres said.

Eric Reilly ’25 contributed reporting.