Missoula’s deadline for carbon neutrality looms as climate change presses in

Missoula students march for action on climate change in this file photo. The city is working to achieve carbon neutrality, but has fallen short of its goals as the deadline looms. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Missoula put forth an ambitious plan to address climate change in 2013, setting the goal of carbon neutrality across the city by 2025.

While progress has been made toward that goal, additional resources and effort are needed if the city hopes to attain its target in the five short years that remain. It was an ambitious plan to start, but with climate change pressing, city leaders feel there’s little time to waste.

“We really debated at length over what the North Star should be. Even at that time, we recognized the 2025 date was aggressive,” said Missoula’s Mayor John Engen. “I think our plans and goals have to be aspirational and a little bit on the side of bold, otherwise we don’t make the kind of progress we can make.”

The formation of the plan ultimately came about in serendipitous fashion. A couple of years before it was formally adopted, one of the University of Montana’s environmental studies classes approached Engen with a proposal.

The class wanted to take a semester to calculate the city’s municipal energy use and carbon footprint for the first time. Engen was happy to engage the class – “we really kind of wanted to see what we were up against,” he said.

With that baseline data, a climate action task force made up of city officials and community members convened with the intention of moving from research to action.

The resulting plan outlined concrete steps the city must take to meet its goal of carbon neutrality. It also outlined several interim goals to help track and measure the progress.

The first was a 10% reduction in municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, relative to the 2008 baseline conducted by UM. The city successfully achieved that goal but fell short of its second goal of a 30% reduction by 2017. 

The results of the third interim goal – a 50% reduction by 2020 – are expected to be available in January.

“While we would love to make all of the targets, it’s not uncommon because of the difficulty of all of this to not make them,” said Chase Jones, the energy conservation coordinator for the City of Missoula.

“So, all along we’ve said ‘we’ll calculate, we’ll understand where we are due to those emission inventory updates. If we make it, we’ll celebrate. If we don’t, we’ll figure out how to make up that ground.’”

With 2025 looming in the not-too-distant future, ground certainly needs to be made up – a pressure felt among those involved in the plan.

“It feels like tomorrow and no one feels that more than me as the person responsible to coordinate the implementation of the plan,” said Jones.

Considerable success has been paved in terms of creating a culture of sustainability among city employees. A bicycle fleet has been provided for city staff to use for running errands or going to meetings at other city offices.

The city has gone as far as providing helmets, lights and panniers for use with these bikes.

A city program within the transportation division, Missoula in Motion, was also established before the implementation of the climate plan. However, its objective to promote the use of sustainable transportation methods through incentives programs and education plays into the plan’s goals.

Colin Woodrow works as the city’s neighborhoods coordinator within the Housing and Community Development Department. He said the city has been supportive of flexible work scheduling, which has manifested itself in different ways.

Managers encourage employees to use the bus and work around the bus’s schedule when that works for the employees. Incentives have been offered to promote carpooling.

As a byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic, city employees have been urged to work from home lately. The city also recently chose an energy services company to perform an energy performance contract, which will audit the city’s buildings and reveal where energy can be saved.

The energy performance contract will give much needed insight into how Missoula’s buildings can be more energy efficient. The city’s buildings account for the largest portion of its carbon footprint.

Strides have also been made pertaining to Missoula’s wastewater treatment plant, the city’s largest consumer of energy. Electrical generation equipment was installed to capture byproduct methane. The methane, in turn, is used to power the plant’s systems.

But the plan outlines notable recommendations that have not been addressed. For one, the plan calls for the purchase of all-electric or hybrid vehicles where appropriate when replacing fleet vehicles.

The city doesn’t yet have any full electric vehicles and only has a couple of hybrid vehicles.

The plan also calls for requests for approval to develop solar systems on the city’s municipal buildings, which has not panned out as well as it could so far.

Benjamin Schmidt, an air quality specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department, described some of the progress revolving around climate action as “glacial at times.”

“All this is doable. That has never really been a question for the last 20 years,” he said. “At the same time, when I say doable, I don’t mean there aren’t going to be setbacks.”

The major setback that Missoula faces for the plan’s implementation has, to a great extent, revolved around finances. As a growing community, Missoula has seen a corresponding increase in community needs.

Funds recently have been allocated to focus on addressing pressing issues such as affordable housing and mental health.

Amy Cilimburg, the executive director at Climate Smart Missoula, said the city doesn’t get much help from the state to help fund these types of projects.

“We just don’t have that in Montana the way some of the other states do,” she said. “It’s really difficult for a local government to do what they want to do when they’re sort of living in a little bit of an island in a state like Montana.”

Federal funding has largely been absent as well, particularly under the current administration.

Missoula’s city council president, Bryan von Lossberg, played a large part in the plan’s development and his involvement helped propel him into his current position.

Beforehand, he was an engineer working on spaceships for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and helped with the Mars Pathfinder Mission. During that work, the team he was involved with encountered a problem and had to alter their plan.

There was, however, no window to change the time of the launch. Lossberg feels this analogy is applicable to the implementation of the climate plan.

“I think everybody that understands what the science is telling us, realizes that we can’t just keep pushing out the date,” Lossberg said. “How we balance that recognition with the challenges of doing things that are really ambitious, that’s what makes it hard and important to do.”