The City of Kansas City, Missouri, has committed to swift climate action. A planning process is underway to determine what that action will look like. (File photo)

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It’s been 13 years since Kansas City, Missouri, passed its first climate protection plan. At the top of the list: drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Now the city is preparing a new plan, and emission reductions remains a focus. 

In 2008, the city set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2000 levels  by 2020. The most recent analysis, in 2017, found that the city had achieved a 21% drop.

To continue cutting its emissions and to prepare the community for the impacts of climate change, the city is exploring several strategies. A final review of the new plan, which will set the agenda on climate change for years to come, is scheduled for January.

Kansas City climate change emergency resolution causes confusion

In November, the City Council passed a resolution declaring a climate emergency. It included 12 sections laying out various citywide commitments, including directing the city manager and staff to identify and share funding sources for climate action with the council and requiring all future city projects to incorporate greenhouse gas reduction goals. 

The resolution was passed as city staffers were at work on a “climate protection and resiliency plan,” which will lay out strategies to reduce the city’s impact on  climate change and to build community resilience. 

“The climate emergency (declaration) kind of caught us by surprise,” said Andy Savastino, the city’s chief environmental officer. “One of the things we’re trying to be more clear about is that when we’re taking things to council, we’d love for them to fund it.” 

Resolutions don’t generate new laws, and passing an ordinance doesn’t guarantee funding to accomplish its goals. The environmental office had hoped to couple the climate emergency resolution with the climate protection and resiliency plan to be reviewed in January. But when Councilwoman Melissa Robinson expressed a desire to pass the resolution earlier, the office worked with her to draft it. While the resolution is good for bringing short-term attention to climate change, Savastino said, some of the sections have created confusion. 

“Part of the resolution was to identify plans, programs and provide funding in the new fiscal year for them,” he said. “Well, we’re already in the middle of our fiscal plan, planning process and budget process. And I was already asked to provide my budget recommendations back a month ago, before this resolution went into effect.” 

Building equity into the Kansas City climate change response

Chief among the priorities of Savastino’s team is ensuring underrepresented communities will be served by the new climate plan. In an August meeting of the city’s climate protection steering committee, members said Black residents indicated the need for quick action on urban heat stress, such as providing access to cooling equipment and planting more trees and community gardens.

The planning team includes two climate justice workers, who visited historically marginalized neighborhoods and communities to help gather input. They met people at community centers, homes and other locations.

“Wherever we can meet them, that’s where we’re going,” Savastino said.

While heartened by the inclusion of marginalized communities in the discussion, the city could have gone further and put more resources into helping the climate justice workers engage people, said Robin Ganahl, a member of the climate protection steering committee and Mothers Out Front KC, a local chapter of a national climate activist group.

“Mayor (Quinton) Lucas has made some new appointments to the climate steering committee, including myself, but there’s still a couple vacancies on that committee,” she said. “So we think those communities should get those remaining vacancies.”

Research from the Environmental Protection Agency released in September indicated racial and ethnic minority communities will face the brunt of climate change. Among the findings: Black Americans are 40% more likely than other groups to live in areas with the greatest increases in deaths in which extreme temperatures are a factor. 

One simple way to increase equity? Planting trees. In 2018, the city passed the Urban Forest Master Plan, which called for more plantings and better care of existing trees. Trees, the plan explained, offer carbon sequestration, air pollution control and reduced heat stress. 

While the City Council passed a resolution endorsing the forest master plan, it hasn’t freed up the funding needed to make a big difference, Savastino said. 

Prioritizing electric transportation, energy

Part of the city’s plan is to make all municipal operations climate neutral by 2030. To help reach that goal, vehicles purchased by the city will be electric when available. A September release announcing the policy estimated the municipal fleet currently produces 15% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The switch is not limited to staff vehicles. This month, RideKC announced it had begun using two electric buses. It’s part of a larger commitment to using zero-emission vehicles to provide public transportation, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority CEO Robbie Makinen said in a spring interview.

Another popular form of public transportation, the KC Streetcar, is already electric. 

In addition, Kansas City Manager Brian Platt announced plans in October to build a solar farm at Kansas City International Airport. The solar panels would be spread across 2,000 acres and generate up to 300 megawatts of power. A request for proposals will likely be issued in 2022. 

“That’s a big step in the right direction to get us cheaper, cleaner, more local energy supply, and we think to ensure that that moves forward in a way that benefits our community, the city should really look at getting involved in Evergy’s upcoming integrated resource plan,” Ganahl said.

Mixing regional, hyperlocal action to address Kansas City climate change

Climate Action KC, a nonprofit regional collaborative, released a regional climate plan this year in partnership with the Mid-America Regional Council. It encompasses 10 counties in Missouri and Kansas, and prioritizes equity in climate response, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and development of renewable energy and community resiliency.  

Not all climate action has to be a massive undertaking, however. Mary Kate McGinty, a member of Mothers Out Front KC, said things like planting native plants can be a small and effective way to help encourage community engagement. 

“Native plants are a way for people to feel engaged and feel like they’re doing something in their community,” she said. “Whereas, you know, getting into the weeds about gas leaks and utilities and all of that can seem so daunting.”

Some changes will require collaboration among multiple governments, businesses and agencies. Among them, McGinty said, is the need to increase transparency regarding methane gas leaks. She said her group wants to see the city work more closely with Spire, a natural gas company serving Missouri and several other states, and the Missouri Public Service Commission to identify and fix leaks more quickly.

 “Methane is a hazard to our health, human health, the health of our ecosystems,” McGinty said “Trees especially suffer from methane leaks.”

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.