By Hayley Tymeson
Climate news update

The Sustainable Madison Committee is working on an update of Madison’s existing Sustainability Plan! If you’re among those Madisonians who had no idea we even had a sustainability plan…well, I imagine you’re in good company. I applaud the City’s efforts in creating a sustainability plan all the way back in 2011, when I was still a high school senior living in Virginia and blissfully ignoring the climate crisis (I spent most of that year thinking about my photography portfolio, parties, track meets, and college applications, so I don’t have a lot of license to criticize). But the 2011 Plan has some flaws that I hope will be avoided in his update.

The world has changed since 2011. Additional scientific research has been conducted, offering mitigation strategies, evidence, and deeper understanding of what may be to come. Renewable energy has become more and more affordable, and is now actually cheaper than using fossil fuels. Advocacy has increased, as the seriousness of climate change gains acceptance. 

Despite all the positive strides we as a people and planet have made in the last ten years, we’re running out of time. The urgency of the climate crisis is becoming more and more pressing. Climate scientists are so concerned, they are leaving their labs to join protests and chain themselves to banks. As a data scientist and an introvert (aka, someone who fits in very well with the geeky science types and is mildly afraid of crowded spaces and loud noises), that’s terrifying to me.

Madison’s updated Sustainability Plan needs to channel this urgency. So, I’ll discuss my attempts to engage with the 2011 Plan, and consider ways we can make this 2022 Sustainability Plan a true and clear roadmap for the next ten years. This decade will be critical to meeting the goals required to limit tipping-point warming of our planet – in fact, it may be our last chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Our climate plan must be bold, clear, targeted, and action-oriented to keep us on track.

The Introduction

I first heard about the Madison Sustainability Plan when I started volunteering with 350 Madison (now 350 Wisconsin) in May 2020. In my first hour of onboarding, I was told to read the Madison Comprehensive Plan and the Madison 2011 Sustainability Plan to get up to speed. I dutifully skimmed the lengthy-but-fascinating Comprehensive Plan, filled with so many thoughtful ideas about what our city could look like, and how to get there. But here’s my confession: I took one look at the Sustainability Plan…and decided to skip that one. The document is a 76-page list of goals, which I like to think would intimidate anyone. As a volunteer with a full-time job, reading the Sustainability Plan was not in the cards for me.

By December 2021, I felt like a veteran climate activist, but I was stalled. I’d gotten a new job in September and had to curtail my volunteering while I got up to speed in my new role. I was ready to jump back into climate advocacy, but felt a bit paralyzed on where to start again. And then I realized – it’s been a whole decade since the 2011 Sustainability Plan! Has anyone ever reported back on how we did? Some quick googling convinced me nobody had published anything evaluating the progress made towards the 2011 Plan, so I decided to try it for myself. Finally, 18 months after getting involved with 350 Wisconsin, I would finally dive into the document that should be Madison’s definitive guiding light for sustainability.

The Process

So I began, aiming to find and evaluate whether we met or failed on each goal…and started drowning. There were so many goals. Ten sections, each with their own sub-topics. Each sub-topic with pages of goals. For example, Section 1: Natural Systems has seven sub-topics, each of which has multiple pages of goals. 

  1. Improve air quality. 
  2. Improve groundwater/drinking water quality. 
  3. Improve surface water quality. 
  4. Improve stormwater management.
  5. Increase water conservation.
  6. Prevent solid waste from entering landfill.
  7. Restore and maintain natural habitat.

I was feeling pretty daunted at this point. I started to realize that evaluating the outcomes of the entire Plan would probably be a full-time job for at least three months. But I decided to keep going and start small… I’ll just do the Air Quality section. Just to start somewhere. And so, my to-do list felt simple: Analyze Section 1: Goal 1: Improve Air Quality.

The Lessons

By the time I’d finished that single page, I learned that the City was planning an update of the Sustainability Plan! Thankfully, after slogging through a single page of the 2011 Plan, I had ideas about what changes I might like to see in an updated version.

1. To make it actionable → make it OUTCOME-DRIVEN

Starting out, I thought my task would be simple: go through the Air Quality goals one-by-one, scour the internet for data, and give a yes or no answer on whether the goal was met. But I quickly realized there were multiple types of goals listed together, and that system wasn’t going to work for all of them. So let me take some time to offer my own definitions for the three types of goals I observed in the Air Quality section:

  • Outcome-driven goals The goal centered around a quantifiable outcome, and didn’t concern itself with how that goal was achieved.
    • Example: By 2016, decrease ozone pollutants (NOx, SOx, CO and VOCs) to meet a standard of 60 ppb, which would be more protective of public health than the current standard of 75 ppb.
  • Process-driven goals The goal centered around implementing or supporting a process as a means to a given sustainability outcome. Note, the Plan typically called these “Actions” instead of goals, but I would assume the goal was to implement these “actions.” Hence, goals.
    • Example: Promote land use patterns, such as residential densities and infill development to reduce reliance on single occupancy vehicle use and increase use of alternative modes of transportation (walking, biking, transit).
  • Fuzzy goals The goal did not talk about an outcome or a process, but a vague aspirational idea
    • Example: Strive to reduce all air pollutants to protect public health and improve the quality of life in Madison and Dane County.

I believe any update to a Sustainability Plan should focus only on outcome-driven goals. Why? Frankly, because the pathways to each of those goals require policy decisions that the Sustainable Madison Committee cannot make on their own. We absolutely should care how the City of Madison achieves these goals, as citizens who care about equity, quality of life, and…well, things other than just climate change. But there are many paths we could take to meet the critical milestones we must achieve to avoid climate catastrophe. I do not want to dictate how the City reaches zero emissions, only that it must. 

2. To make it actionable → make it MEASURABLE

Above, I defined the outcome-driven goals as “quantifiable.” But even some of the outcome-driven goals on this page were hard to evaluate as “successes” or “failures.”  Not because they were vague or fuzzy in any way, but because they did not point to any data source or tracking metric that would be used to benchmark progress. Few of the goals pointed to a specific data source that individuals or staff should use to determine success or failure. In fact, some seemed to have been written without any consistent data source in mind.

Future sustainability goals should have the following features to ensure they are truly measurable.

  • A long-standing, preferably widely-used data source used to measure progress on each goal: An example would be the EPA’s Air Data program as the corresponding data source for most of the Air Quality goals.
  • Required progress reports at specified future time intervals: For example, evaluations of progress on the goals listed in the report to be reported every two years, with transparent release of each progress report to the citizens of Madison.
  • Specification of which City offices are responsible for each component of the update: Clear delineation of responsibility for progress reports and data tracking.

It would not hurt if the Sustainability Plan specified its next overall update as well. Will this new Plan be valid from 2022 – 2032, at which point the Plan will be due for updates once more? 

3. To make it actionable → make it TARGETED

So, after spending about 12 hours sifting through the internet to try and definitively and accurately determine whether each 2011 Air Quality goal had been met, I came to a conclusion: three months of full-time work would not be enough to vet this whole document. It’s just too much, especially for a volunteer with no career or educational experience in Natural Systems or Transportation or Economic Development (to list three of the ten sections). 

We are in a climate crisis. Scientists have warned us for decades that we are running out of time before we hit tipping points that will fundamentally change the nature of our planet. We do not have more decades to spare on warnings. If we spread our attention too widely, we will fail.

We need to focus on the big issue – reaching net-zero. Getting to net-zero energy use from public and private-sector buildings and transportation systems by 2050, if not 2030, is imperative. The most recent IPCC climate report very clearly states this!

The Final Take 

In sum, Madison is doing…okay on sustainability. But as a city renowned for being green, with a citizenry committed to environmental action, we can do better than “okay.” We should aim much higher.

We are nowhere near net-zero. The City is making strides in reducing municipal carbon emissions from its own properties, but we have no consistent way of measuring energy use in the private sector. Madison’s Fleet Services is doing amazing work in bringing the City’s fleet of cars, trucks, and vehicles to a sustainable system – but we need more than Fleet Services to combat emissions in transportation. Sure, we as citizens need to do our part, by acknowledging our own roles as drivers and consumers. But we also need to start demanding change for the systems we live in. We need to create a city that is measurably less car-dependent, and that tracks energy used by businesses and housing, not just by City facilities. This starts by ensuring that Madison has an actionable plan. A plan to track these critical metrics and evaluate progress, so we can continuously revise our actions in order to achieve these critically important goals.

The most recent IPCC report, published April 2022, is itself the last report the IPCC expects to publish while the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible. So, this 2022 Sustainability Plan is likely Madison’s last one before we pass that tipping point. Let’s get it right.