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Kansas City's new climate protection plan paves the way for carbon neutrality, supporters say

Michael Jenkins, a Cookingham-Noll Management fellow for the city pulls weeds at the Mamie Hughes Bridge Sunday.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Michael Jenkins, a Cookingham-Noll Management fellow for the city pulls weeds at the Mamie Hughes Bridge in May 2022. The Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan would encourage the planting of more tree cover.

The plan is a roadmap for future environmental policy and aims for the city to be carbon neutral by 2040. Despite opposition from utility companies Spire and Evergy, the plan passed with few changes.

Kansas City took a major step to reach carbon neutrality Thursday with the passage of the Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan. The plan was formed over two years by a city-appointed steering committee with public input and will serve as a roadmap for the city’s future climate policies. At the center of the wide-ranging plan is equity and a recognition that climate change disproportionately affects the lives of the city’s poorest communities.

“This is a great day for Kansas City, Missouri, and the region,” Kevin Grooms, chair of the Sierra Club Missouri Chapter, said. “The plan commits Kansas City to being a leader in reducing harmful fossil fuel use while dismantling an unjust status quo that has caused the most vulnerable residents in our community to bear the brunt of these harmful burdens.”

The plan passed 11-1, with Councilmember Heather Hall being the only "no" vote. It targets six different areas — mobility, waste and materials, energy supply, natural systems, homes and buildings, and food — in an effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2040.

Robin Ganahl, chair of the steering committee, said they're already working on ways to implement the plan in next year’s budget.

“We have so much work that we want to get started on and now we have the green light to do that,” Ganahl said. “Now that the plan has passed, we already have a short list of priorities that we want to get moving on right away.”

The short-term actions defined in the plan include decommissioning Evergy’s Hawthorn coal power plant in Northeast Kansas City, expanding the network of trees and natural areas, increasing transit and biking networks, and transitioning to renewable energy.

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will provide federal funding to implement some climate goals. Ganahl said the steering committee will be working with the state to ensure the city gets some of that funding.

Opposition from utility companies

The climate plan passed through committee 5-1 Wednesday after hearing testimony from around 60 people. Comment was split between representatives from utility company Spire and business owners who want to continue the use of natural gas, and advocates whose goal is to wean the city from fossil fuels.

Representatives from Spire and Evergy voiced concerns about job loss that could come with ending the use of gas. The plan gives guidance on green job training and suggests ways to transition workers that may lose their job with less reliance on gas.

Fourth District Councilmember Eric Bunch said approving the plan now gives the city time to create a smooth transition from jobs in fossil fuels to clean energy.

“The longer we wait, the more abrupt that change is going to be,” Bunch said. “At some point, fossil fuels are going away — I think that there is no question about that. We have to be prepared for that. The longer we kick that can down the road, the more painful that transition is gonna be for everyone and the worse our climate situation is going to be.”

Ultimately the committee, at the request of Councilmember Melissa Robinson, voted to approve an amended plan that changed phrasing in the Homes and Buildings section to say “clean energy” instead of “clean electricity.”

That change was approved by the climate protection steering committee in a compromise with Evergy and Spire.

Bunch said in the committee meeting that he had concerns that the phrase “clean energy” would make the resolution claim to be environmentally-friendly while still allowing for fossil fuels to be used.

Still, Bunch told KCUR he voted to pass the plan even with amendments because “that is what we have right now.”

“We didn't remove the references to weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels,” Bunch said. “That was what was important to me. I was concerned about using language that would potentially greenwash.”

But the clean energy amendment doesn’t clear the way for natural gas. The plan still recommends weaning the city off of fossil fuels, which includes natural gas. Stephen Mills, the vice president and general manager for Spire Missouri West, told the Kansas City Star that the amendments were an improvement but did not go far enough.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy, which the steering committee uses to define the term, does not include natural gas in its definition of clean energy. Under Missouri law, no city can ban certain types of energy. But Ganahl said the plan, even with the changes, does not encourage reliance on natural gas and gives recommendations to end its usage.

“We do not consider natural gas to be clean energy,” she said. “So anywhere we say clean energy in the plan that does not include natural gas.”

On Thursday, First District Councilmember Kevin O’Neill made a final attempt to remove pressure on the city to phase out natural gas, by motioning to strike the mention of natural gas from the homes and buildings section.

That motion failed on a tie vote.

While the plan overwhelmingly passed at council, it is not binding. Bunch said getting the right committees and people in place to pass binding policy based on the plan’s recommendations is crucial.

“What matters is the implementation in the end, what you do to implement the plan is far more important than the words that go into it. It is a roadmap and any plan is open for interpretation. I see it as a strategic plan for the city to become a leader in climate resilience and in climate change.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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