Local governments have been hit hard during an economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Aspen projected a $25 million dollar loss in revenue. As cities and counties take a hard look at their budgets, climate experts are urging them to keep the health of the planet in mind.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, a Basalt-based energy research group, released a report for governments with recommendations on how to allocate money and effort while working on economic recovery plans.
The report says they could be at a critical fork in the road. As governments across the country take a scalpel to their budgets, reassess their priorities and figure out where to send stimulus money, the institute wants decision-makers to keep the climate in mind. They say this is a good opportunity to invest in climate-friendly buildings and transportation, which could save money in the long term.
Ashley Perl, climate action manager for the City of Aspen, made a presentation based on the report to Aspen city council last week.
Perl said there aren’t any explicit new climate challenges brought on by the pandemic on a local scale, but as elected officials in all government departments are making decisions about budgets or projects, this is a chance to do it with the climate in mind.
“If you’re going to solve a human health crisis," Perl said, “Or you’re going to rebuild a building, or you’re going to expand your transit system – it may not seem like a climate program, but it needs to have a climate lens.”
She said if reducing carbon emissions is a priority, it’s much easier to build low- and zero-carbon projects now, rather than modify them down the road.
The most effective climate work, Perl said, is sometimes in the decisions the city is already making.
“It’s not about building new things or injecting a ton of capital into work,” Perl said. “It’s making sure when your water heater runs out – because it’s going to at some point and you need to replace it – that you replace it with an energy-efficient version. Or when our buses need replacing, we consider electric buses like we have been.”
Perl said those decisions can sometimes be more expensive up front, but often reduce energy usage and save money in the long run.
Perl said her department is thinking about how both COVID-19 and climate change both impact vulnerable communities disproportionately, and just like the public health sector, they’re trying to make sure that equity is at the forefront of decision making.
That’s playing out in Aspen’s home energy assessment program, Perl said. The program helps people identify ways to save energy costs by using more efficient systems in homes and businesses. Whereas efforts used to target the biggest energy users, she said they’re now trying to make sure that people who are struggling the most to pay their utility bills are at the top of list.