Of all the contributors of greenhouse gasses like those invisible carbon atoms that belch from smokestacks, cows, and the tailpipes of cars only to get trapped in the atmosphere, it is another invisible force that turns out may be the biggest climate culprit: the roads that connect and lead to a shift in settlement patterns away from cities.
Take the region between Cleveland, Akron and Lorain. Three hundred new miles of highways, on-and-off-ramps and new and wider suburban main streets were built between them since the 1990s, according to VibrantNEO, a 2014 study of proposed alternatives led by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) and 100 other groups. Fewer people actually ended up needing them – the region’s population shrunk by 5% during the same time.
Because it spends $40 million annually, NOACA is partly responsible for the sprawling highway system and exurban growth. Ohio ranks the third highest state in the country in carbon emissions when industry is factored in, and Northeast Ohio contributes the lion’s share of those state emissions. Now NOACA, the region’s transportation agency, realizes it must do something about it.
“We need a plan to get us to 2050,” said NOACA Executive Director Grace Gallucci during the agency’s Climate Summit this week. She was referring to the date on its Long Range Plan, which coincides with the deadline set by the Paris Accord whereby every nation agreed to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent. “We need to plan in a way that builds community consensus. We need to involve the whole region.”
NOACA started the process with a Board-approved Long-Range Transportation Plan last year that includes goals that would reduce carbon emissions, Gallucci said, including one to increase work or personal trips made with lower carbon “modes” of transportation by 5%. Currently lower carbon “modes” like walking and biking amount to around 2% of all trips in the region while transit accounts for 9% of all trips in Ohio.
At its Climate Summit, Gallucci marshaled the support of regional elected and philanthropic leaders who voiced concern over the past—recounting the injustice to lower income populations as resources were placed in highway and exurban growth while urban and rural communities suffered years of decline and disinvestment. At the same time, they also struck a note of hopefulness that lessons were learned.
“We’re embarking on a bold plan to build a sustainable future,” said NOACA Board President and Lake County Commissioner, John Hammercheck. “I believe we’re up for the challenge, if we work together.”
Gallucci used the opportunity to ask the region’s top philanthropic organizations, The Cleveland Foundation and The George Gund Foundation, what they are willing to contribute and what is at stake if nothing is done.
“We have a lot of work to do in Ohio,” admitted Gund Foundation President Anthony Richardson, who added, “We want to center all (of the foundation’s) work around GHG reduction and climate justice.”
Richardson said that Gund plans to continue its financial support – it spent $3.242 million in environmental and climate justice in 2021, he said – on local efforts to “decarbonize the grid, support organizations that serve communities of color, and advocate for public policy (to address) climate change.”
His counterpart at the Cleveland Foundation, Ronn Richard, recalled how Hurricane Katrina exposed the inequities in New Orleans, adding that his takeaway was that all philanthropic efforts could be wiped away in an instant by climate change.
“‘We all breathe the same air’, as JFK said. We all need clean water,” Richard said. “If we do nothing, we will have more of the same and become a less attractive place. We could be the top emitter.”
“We have to be mindful so future generations can enjoy this place,” he said, adding, “we’re seeing gas prices rise and it’s a great reminder how vulnerable we are to fossil fuel dynamics. [Acting to reduce fossil fuel use] is the moral imperative of our age.”
Richardson added that The Gund Foundation will also support any efforts to establish a “hub where we can create a regional strategy and coordinate between state and national levels” to rebuild infrastructure that is successful at clearing the air.
Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation for America and former Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, shared some ideas on how Northeast Ohio can do that. First, though, Osborn excoriated those who added more highways and roads under the guise of reducing congestion. The result has been near continuous regional sprawl and transportation becoming the only sector where emissions continue to rise — now accounting for 29% of the nation’s carbon footprint.
“Why learn when your failures are being showered with more money?” she said. “We know adding capacity doesn’t work. It doesn’t even reduce congestion. [The U.S.] expanded its freeway network by 42% while communities grew by 32% and vehicle miles traveled grew 110%. Talk about a failure.”
Her comments echo fears that the $1 trillion Infrastructure and Jobs Bill will feed more of the same highway and road building bonanza.
Osborne added that Climate Action Plans are a good way to blunt the impact of greenhouse gasses (GHG) rising from the latest influx of cash. So too are policies like the State of Colorado’s climate action plan which calls for any new road building project to show how it reaches measures for equity and not increasing GHGs.
NOACA’s timeline for producing a climate action plan is to form an advisory committee and an accounting of the exact sources of the region’s GHGs from transportation. Gallucci expects these steps will be complete by September, 2022. Throughout the entire process, there will be a stronger effort than in the past to reach low-income communities in the five-county area NOACA serves, she added.
A panel discussion of local leaders was asked by Cleveland Foundation Director of Environmental Programs, Steven Love, how the NOACA Climate Action Plan will “embed equity.” Co-founder of Black Environmental Leaders, SeMia Bray, expressed her hope that, “We do not fall into a place where people and policy are data points. If we’re ‘doing equity’ because it is a checkbox versus all humans deserve clean air to breathe and clear water to drink and soil that is not poisoned, it can make people say, ‘it is a data point.’”
Rather, Bray would like NOACA to challenge the status quo. She called for the “unprecedented bipartisan dollars coming into this region to be used for those who have been impacted. To not blow past it. Because we had an inherently disproportionately impacted (community). My hope is we are inspired to not do that again.”
The final Climate Action Plan will arrive for NOACA Board approval by June 2023 and will include a detailed analysis of who are the most vulnerable populations that will be disproportionately affected by climate change.
Answering her own question about action versus inaction on climate change, Gallucci said, “If we do nothing, we have a community that doesn’t thrive and perhaps dies. If we do something we have a future that is resilient and allows us to really put in place the long range plan, the equitable plan, that NOACA envisions.”
Marc Lefkowitz is a journalist and sustainability expert who lives in Cleveland Heights.