Net-Zero Cities: A plan for equitable decarbonization


Local leaders come together to discuss what it will take for the City of Ithaca to fairly decarbonize and reduce the city’s net-zero emissions in a three-part series titled: “Net-Zero Cities: A Blueprint for Equitable Decarbonization”. The first event in the series, “How can we achieve sustainable prosperity?” took place at the Soil Factory on Thursday September 29th.

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 needed to achieve net – zero emissions globally.

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

In November 2021, Ithaca passed a resolution to electrify and decarbonize city buildings by the end of the decade. The Ithaca Green New Deal resolution, passed unanimously in 2019, was part of the city’s efforts to help Ithaca 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 emphasized community involvement and providing opportunities for locals.

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

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

With a focus on workforce development, this program will strive to create careers that will help the Ithaca region’s 6,000 buildings become carbon neutral by 2030 and will extend to future projects in other cities. When developing a workforce training program, this project aims to engage workers and design a sustainable curriculum that will benefit the entire community.

With a holistic cohort, Dr. Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele, coordinator of the Green Energy Workforce Training Center at Cornell Cooperative Extension, emphasizes the collaborative efforts that will occur between those who are employed, unemployed, college graduates, those without a degree and those looking to get more involved in the carbon neutral effort. Airewele is working to ensure that no one will be marginalized in this project.

Dr. Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele speaks on ‘How Can We Achieve Sustainable Prosperity?’ by Climate Now. event, The Soil Factory, September 30. (Jason Wu/Sun Assistant Editor Photography)

As part of equitable decarbonization efforts, Airewele provides workforce training to marginalized residents of Ithaca and Tompkins County.

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

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

“If we can take [this step] and modeling our individual daily lives with a small change that instills cultural change is the start of something much bigger,” Khanna said.

While other cities in the United States look to 2050 as a goal to achieve carbon neutrality, Ithaca is working hard for 2030.

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

Eric Reilly ’25 contributed reporting.


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