In 2005, more than 80 members of the United Nations ratified the Kyoto Agreement. It was an extension of a climate treaty created in the last decade, calling nations and states across the globe to commit to acknowledging and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to curb the effects of climate change.
Shortly after, Columbia’s then-mayor, Bob Coble, signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. This agreement took effect in 2006 and created Columbia’s Climate Protection Action Program, or CPAC.
The program has made a lot of headway since its founding. More than 95 percent of stoplights in the city are LED, the program (which is volunteer-based) hired a sustainability staffer, and the city conducted an energy audit to provide recommendations on how to further reduce CO2 emissions.
When President Donald Trump pulled America out of the Paris Climate Agreement (an extension and revision of the Kyoto Agreement) in 2017, international environmental non-profit The Sierra Club was already moving to make individual states, cities and mayors stay in the agreement through their Ready for 100 initiative.
“The program is a viable solution to the United States pulling out of the Paris Agreement,” said Penny Cothran, Ready for 100’s community organizer here in Columbia. Ready for 100 sets deadlines for participating cities to rely solely on clean and renewable energy, something the Capital City was already moving towards with CPAC.
Mayor Benjamin signed the pledge a little over a year ago, the first mayor in the state to do so.
“The pledge walks hand in hand with our goal to reduce the City of Columbia’s emission levels,” the city’s sustainability facilitator Mary Pat Baldauf said.
One way the city is going green is through Solarize SC, which has installed enough solar panels to bring over 8.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity over the next 25 years. According to Mayor Benjamin, it’s the equivalent of reducing 13 million car miles of greenhouse gas emissions.
But, according to Cothran, the city could be doing more than replacing lightbulbs and hot water heaters, which is why she is using the power of the Sierra Club and other local non-profits and action groups to enact change on all levels: in communities, at city council meetings and at the state legislature.
“Power is not something that flows down from some man sitting behind a desk issuing edicts. Power is bestowed upon you,” Cothran said. “And if we are unhappy we should have the power to change something.”
Cothran said she’s seen the effort the city has put in with CPAC, but that all they’ve really accomplished is picking “the low-hanging fruit” from the energy audit. They need to tackle bigger projects.
“These are not insignificant things that the city of Columbia has done, but they haven’t done the things that cities comparable to ours have done,” Cothran added.
Baldauf said that large, sweeping changes are happening, like the waste water treatment plant being built on Beltline, which will rely on 100 percent solar power, but the city is working within limits.
“Financing is always an issue, especially in a city with a limited tax base,” Baldauf said. “The lingering impact of the flood of 2015 has been a challenge, but is also allowing for sustainable redevelopment.”
Sustainable redevelopment goes behind changing lightbulbs and installing solar panels. It involves creating more jobs in the clean energy sector, making it economically smarter to move away from fossil fuels into renewable energies, like wind and solar.
Restructuring an industry like energy in a city like Columbia takes time, but they’ve given themselves plenty of time to do it – the city’s Ready for 100 deadline isn’t until 2036, its 250th birthday – but Cothran, and The Sierra Club, would like to see more from the Capital City:
“There’s a little bit more in their immediate control that I’d like to see them do.”