Alaska’s climate frontier: Anchorage to cut carbon emissions by 80%

Why We Wrote This

Can a local community really make a dent in a global problem like climate change? Anchorage, Alaska, is willing to bet it can because ‘you shouldn’t wait for someone else to show up if you know what it is you need to do.’ This story is part of an occasional Monitor series on ‘Climate Realities.’

Ann Hermes/Staff
Ethan Berkowitz, mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, rides his bike during Anchorage Bike to Work Day on May 17. The mayor has big plans for his sprawling municipality to rethink transportation and other policies as it grapples with a warming planet that is being felt more acutely here than in any other U.S. state.

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Residents of Anchorage know better than most Americans what’s at stake in the face of climate change. The effects of a warming world are being felt in Alaska more acutely than in any other U.S. state. So the city isn’t waiting around for federal or even state support to take action.

On May 21, the Anchorage Assembly adopted a plan that aims to cut carbon emissions by 80% over the next three decades. “If cities don’t act, who will?” asks Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. 

More than half of Alaska’s population of 736,000 lives in Anchorage and adjacent districts, so the choices they make matter. That sets up a test in Alaska for the potential for cities to lead the way on a global crisis that knows no territorial borders while managing the thorny politics of economic and social adaptation.

“They’re not going to wait for the state to solve the municipality’s problems,” says Fran Ulmer, who chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “They’re willing to get out there.”

Bacon is sizzling on an open grill as Ethan Berkowitz props his road bike on a post. Shucking off his helmet, he slips into a throng of young bicyclists and food-stand volunteers gathered in a field beside a wooded bike trail.

“Hey, mayor,” goes up the cry. Another selfie. Another gulp of coffee.

Then it’s back on his bike and onward to downtown.

As mayor of Alaska’s largest city, Mr. Berkowitz is the face of its annual Bike to Work Day. Today he’s riding with several staffers and two cops, and unlike last year the spring rain has held off; thousands of bikers were expected to respond to the siren calls of a vigorous commute and free bacon.

Anchorage is not exactly a bicyclists’ paradise. The city trails are great but the roads are owned by gas-guzzling pickups, and winter rides can be frigid at best. But the mayor has big plans for his sprawling municipality to rethink transportation and other policies as it grapples with a warming planet that is being felt more acutely here than in any other U.S. state.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Thousands of bikers were expected to turn out on May 17 for Anchorage Bike to Work Day in Alaska. The Anchorage Climate Action Plan involves an effort to reduce the number of cars on the road through carpooling, public transit, and biking.

Anchorage needs to go green – and the sooner the better, he says.

“If cities don’t act, who will?” asks Mr. Berkowitz. “Fundamentally, cities are more nimble than states or countries. Cities have the ability to move quickly and change direction.”

Indeed, dozens of U.S. cities, along with many states, tribes, and businesses, have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions following the Trump administration’s repudiation of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate action. Proponents say local governments can both offset federal inaction and serve as test beds for climate mitigation and adaptation policies.

Under Mr. Berkowitz, a Democratic former state legislator, Anchorage has drawn up a climate action plan that aims to cut carbon emissions by 80% over the next three decades, which the Anchorage Assembly voted 8-2 to adopt on May 21. It’s an approach that was echoed last year by a statewide climate task force. Its findings were presented last September to then-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who had urged Alaskans to face up to climate change. Two months later Mr. Walker lost reelection to Mike Dunleavy, a Republican state senator, who promptly disbanded the task force and buried its recommendations.

As a result, Anchorage is now going it alone. “It’s always easier to do things with a partner than to do things by yourself. But you shouldn’t wait for someone else to show up if you know what it is you need to do,” says Mr. Berkowitz.

More than half of Alaska’s population of 736,000 lives in Anchorage and adjacent districts, so the choices they make matter. That sets up a test in Alaska for the potential for cities to lead the way on a global crisis that knows no territorial borders while managing the thorny politics of economic and social adaptation.

“They’re not going to wait for the state to solve the municipality’s problems. They’re willing to get out there,” says Fran Ulmer, who chairs the United States Arctic Research Commission.

Ann Hermes/Staff
On May 21, the Anchorage Assembly voted to adopt the Anchorage Climate Action Plan. The plan aims to cut carbon emissions by 80% over the next three decades.

Efficiency as a conservative value?

To cut emissions, Mr. Berkowitz needs more renewable energy and more efficient use of that energy by residents and businesses. Gas-fired power stations produce 86% of Anchorage’s electricity, and three new plants have opened in the past five years. The action plan outlines measures to consolidate utilities and feed solar power into the grid, while promoting electric and hybrid vehicles and less urban sprawl in a municipality as big as Delaware.

Other items on the must-do list: reducing solid waste and capturing methane emissions, building resilience for climate-related emergencies, and improving forest management and wildfire prevention.

A broader approach is also part of the mix: Anchorage last year won a $1 million award from Bloomberg Philanthropies to open a downtown cultural center where artists, engineers, and other residents can collaborate on climate change solutions and prototype their projects.

The municipality has already saved money by switching to LED street lighting and its police department recently ordered a fleet of electric vehicles, says Mr. Berkowitz. But making a dent in emissions – and hitting an interim target of a 40% reduction by 2030 – requires investments in buildings, which generate nearly half of the city’s emissions, in part due to its harsh winters.

One challenge for Anchorage is to find innovative ways to finance energy efficiency, which is a barrier for homeowners and businesses even when the future payoff is clear, says Chris Rose, executive director of Renewable Energy Alaska Project, a nonprofit. More of the city’s dilapidated housing stock needs to be retrofitted so that less heating is wasted, while new buildings should be designed to higher efficiency standards.

“You can have all the best technology in the world and policies that promote it, but if you don’t have the financing it’s difficult to move forward,” he says.

Mr. Berkowitz says he’s keen to find ways to finance energy efficiency, noting that about 1 in 5 households in Anchorage participated in a statewide program that helped cut energy bills but was phased out in 2016. Such policies dovetail with his political message that efficiency is a conservative value, as is the generation of power from renewable resources.

“I fundamentally believe that you have to be able to take care of yourself, and when you produce energy locally that helps you to be self-sufficient,” he says.

Mr. Rose served on Mr. Walker’s disbanded task force, the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team. In 2007, he served on a similar panel, the Mitigation Advisory Panel under then-Gov. Sarah Palin, which spent two years to produce its report. Ms. Palin committed Alaska to 50% renewable-power output by 2025, an ambitious goal at the time. (Five U.S. states or territories have since pledged to get to 100% clean electricity.)

A year later, Ms. Palin became the running mate of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and her stance on humanity’s role in climate change swung hard to the skeptical camp. In 2009, she resigned as Alaska’s governor. Her successor, Sean Parnell, a former oil executive, then shelved the climate panel’s recommendations.

So when Mr. Rose was invited to advise Mr. Walker, he steeled himself for setbacks. “You have to approach it with a sanguine attitude,” he says.

Ms. Ulmer, a former lieutenant governor, also served on both panels, which included oil-industry and utility executives as well as environmentalists, academics, and politicians. She notes that the second group incorporated some of the research and policy ideas of the first, only to see its report scrubbed from the state’s website after Governor Dunleavy took power in February.

“It’s really discouraging because we’re running out of time,” she says.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Vang, an Anchorage resident, checks on a patch of baby bok choy in the Bragaw Community Garden on May 17 in Anchorage, Alaska. The Anchorage Climate Action Plan involves an effort to support community gardens in the city.

The triumph of the drill

This pendulum swing – from action to inaction – reflects long-standing tensions over what value to put on conservation in Alaska, a state that contains one-sixth of the U.S. land mass but less than 1% of its population.

In the 1970s, after the discovery of the nation’s largest oil field, the political battle was over the safeguarding of resources and the economics of extraction, or as John McPhee wrote, “of stasis versus economic productivity, of wilderness versus the drill and the bulldozer.”

Today, the threat of climate change has redrawn those battle lines; the fight to block offshore drilling in federal waters is as much about the carbon output as the risk to fragile ecosystems.

But the triumph of the drill is hard to ignore: Some 85% of Alaska’s annual revenues come from the oil industry. Every year each Alaskan gets a royalty check in the mail. Such largesse tends to stay the hand of politicians who might curb the ability of oil-and-gas companies to extract the fossil fuels that are heating the planet, including Alaska’s shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

“It’s really difficult at a political level for the state to really step up and admit that we have a huge carbon footprint and talk constructively about ways to change that because we’re so wedded to the oil and gas industry,” says Nancy Fresco, a researcher on climate change at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Mr. Dunleavy campaigned hard on a pledge to distribute more of Alaska’s oil savings fund to residents, while cutting back state government. When asked about climate change, Mr. Dunleavy said he favored technologies to reduce emissions but was more focused on economic growth. “Alaska is not really a smokestack state. Our contribution to climate change is probably minimal,” he said in a televised debate.

In absolute terms, this is accurate. But Alaska’s per capita emissions rank third highest of all U.S. states, partly as a result of oil extraction in the Arctic that emits methane and gas. Transportation is another factor, as many communities are accessible only by river or air. “There are a lot of people who are not even on a road system,” says Ms. Fresco.

And that sizzling bacon on the Anchorage bike trail? Of the $2 billion in food sold annually in Alaska, about 95% arrives by sea or air, adding to the state’s carbon footprint.

Most of Alaska’s imports move through Anchorage’s municipal port. Climate change is adding to the strain on the port’s aging infrastructure, says Jim Jager, the port’s director of external affairs. As glaciers melt and carry more silt along rivers into the bay, dockside pilings are corroding faster.

On a recent afternoon, as F-22 fighter jets swooped to land at an adjacent U.S. military base, Mr. Jager pointed out customized metal jackets on corroded pilings. Some pilings had already toppled over. As part of a port modernization program, future pilings will be raised by 8 feet to prepare for rising sea levels over the next 50 years.

Not all the change is bad: Reduced winter sea ice means an earlier breakup that allows dredging ships to extend their summer activities by about four weeks, according to Mr. Jager. “We are the most dredged port in North America,” he says.

Should Anchorage’s port ever become inaccessible, the effects would quickly ripple outward. The state could run out of fresh food within a week or so, and fuel shortages would follow.

Ann Hermes/Staff
A jet flies over the Port of Alaska, on the shore of Cook Inlet on May 15 in Anchorage, Alaska. The port, which supplies food and fuel to much of the state, will be unusable if not repaired in the next 10 years.

A pioneer for clean energy?

Alaska may be an oil state, but its residents pay the highest prices for refined petroleum. This in turn raises the cost of food and durable goods and is another reason renewable energy has broad appeal, says Mr. Berkowitz.

As for the knock against climate mitigation policies as job killers, this doesn’t compute for clean energy projects, he says. “You can't outsource the installation of solar panels. You can't outsource geothermal heat pumps. These are things you have to do locally,” he says.

How far Anchorage can advance such policies in the absence of state or federal support is debatable. The municipality’s action plan is nonbinding; Mr. Berkowitz has a small staff and a slew of other priorities as mayor of a midsize city. His current term ends in 2021.

Still, Mr. Rose sees hope in Anchorage becoming a pioneer for clean energy in a cold climate, one that could attract outside investment and plug the city into the global market for solutions.

“If the city leads by example, it shows people outside the city that things can be done without having adverse impacts on the economy,” he says.

Should the state government change tack, it may yet revive some of the policies in its mothballed climate report, such as clean-energy financing and stricter building codes, says Ms. Ulmer. “These are not difficult politically, if people had any interest in moving in that direction.”

For now, Mr. Berkowitz is betting as much on a reframing of climate policy as a social and economic opportunity, one that can be equitable, as he is on a top-down reworking of a city powered, like so many, by fossil fuels.

“So much of politics and so much of change is about physics. You have to create momentum. Otherwise you have inertia. We want to have change,” he says.

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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