State College

Here’s why State College borough is committing to achieving lofty sustainability goals

State College Borough Council unanimously passed a resolution this week committing to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Council will commit to these goals by building off the sustainability groundwork it has already laid, advocating for state legislation that supports the borough’s energy goals, encouraging other governments, businesses and universities to commit to similar goals, and leading by example.

“Scientific consensus has confirmed that the emission of greenhouse gas from human activity is causing global climate disruption, also called climate change,” said Councilman Jesse Barlow, who introduced the resolution.

Climate change could and does have dire ramifications for humans, he said, as rising seas and a proliferation of extreme weather events exacerbate issues like hunger, mass migration and terrorism.

In addition, November’s National Climate Assessment found billion-dollar industries in the northeast region such as transportation, tourism, agriculture and forestry could be impacted by the changing climate.

In response, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is in the process of visiting different places across the commonwealth and collecting data to compile a special report on how the state should respond to climate change. He visited Penn State in March, where he spoke with local sustainability leaders, including borough sustainability coordinator Alan Sam and Ferguson Township Supervisor Steve Miller.

“I think that this is one of the most pressing issues facing our state and country,” DePasquale said then. “As the state’s chief fiscal watchdog, I know enough to know that if we don’t address the problems at the beginning of it, the costs of dealing with it on the other side of it are drastically higher. Every day that goes by without addressing this, the challenge gets harder and harder.”

Centre County has already started to feel some of those effects.

Warming ocean temperatures contributed to record rainfall in Centre County last year, the Centre Daily Times reported last year, leading to excessive flooding last summer and fall and a host of other problems, like delayed construction projects, damaged roads, mold growth, water issues and a difficult farming season.

Weather patterns favoring wetness are forecasted in State College and Centre County for the foreseeable future, Steve Seman, Penn State assistant teaching professor of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, told the CDT in April. Rainfall in central Pennsylvania has become both more frequent and heavier, he said, due to the warming climate around the world.

“The important issues here are basically: We know climate disruption is a serious problem, and that much of what needs to be done has to be done by local governments,” Barlow said.

State College made its first commitment to sustainability in 2007, under then-Mayor Bill Welch, when it passed Resolution 944, declaring the borough as a Climate Protection Community and committing it to 22 total goals to ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions and negative environmental impact.

The Manager’s Committee on Sustainability grew out of that resolution, which started the borough working on reducing residual waste, increasing bike connectivity, making the borough’s passenger fleet vehicles more energy efficient, incorporating sustainable construction and demolition practices into borough ordinances and making all municipality-owned construction meet LEED Gold or Silver-certified standards.

Both Council President Evan Myers and Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said a commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions would have positive ramifications on water and air quality.

“We have become a divided community, and the rest of the world seems to have also. We as a council need to stand up and speak for our community and the larger community we’re part of. Change is very very hard for many people,” Lafer said. “... One of the problems that we have is that we tend to wait for top down ... we are working from the bottom up.”

Nittany Valley Environmental Coalition President Dorothy Blair, a Harris Township resident, urged council to “set a time table” for the changes and implement benchmarks for each goal in the resolution.

Chloe Selles, a Ready for 100 action organizer for the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, said that the sustainability plan should also include ways of resolving racial and economic inequities in the area.

“State College Ready for 100 Action envisions the future of State College as a healthy, thriving community powered by affordable community-based and 100% clean, renewable energy sources by 2050,” she said.

The borough will join more than 120 Ready for 100 municipalities, counties and states nationally recognized by the Sierra Club for their efforts. So far, State College is the only Ready for 100 municipality located in central Pennsylvania, but Ferguson and Harris townships have also pledged to move toward net-zero greenhouse gases by 20150.

Although he applauded State College’s decision, Pat Vernon, a College Township resident, said for it to truly be successful, the Centre Region Council of Governments would need to adopt something similar across the board. He mentioned banning plastic straws or single-use plastic bags, both of which have been talked about by area businesses, council and other Centre Region governments.

Above all, he said, housing policy plays a big part in keeping carbon emissions down, like building more student housing within the borough to limit the amount of commuters driving or busing into the borough from outer townships.

In May, Barlow said the number of rental units in State College pose a challenge to achieving the resolution’s goals.

“For the most part, landlords have no incentive to reduce energy costs, because they pass that onto the tenant,” he told the CDT. “So we need to look at ways to give them incentives to do that, because that will definitely be a big part of this issue.”

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