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Council Considers Joining 'Cool City' Challenge

Next step before fundraising would be to sign letter of intent.

Council Considers Joining 'Cool City' Challenge

The Palo Alto City Council is considering signing a letter of intent to join the Cool City Challenge after listening to a study session proposal  presented by the Empowerment Institute Monday evening at the City Council meeting.

The Cool City Challenge proposal is an initiative to lower the city’s carbon footprint through the use of eco-teams building awareness in neighborhoods throughout Palo Alto. The ‘Low Carbon Diet Program,’ which is the core initiative of the Challenge, has used eco-teams in other cities such as Davis, Portland, and San Rafael and has already seen success in lowering carbon footprints.

The next step for the project would be for the city to draft a letter of intent after solidifying and understanding the expectations of the initiative. After the letter is drafted and sent, the program would enter a period of fundraising at no direct cost to the city.

The Challenge will only occur if the Empowerment Institute is able to raise the funds to support the initiative, according to a report to the council by City Manager James Keene.

The goal of the program is to help assist Palo Alto by surpassing the established 15% community wide CO2 reduction goals already in place by the city to 25%.

According to David Gershon, founder of the Empowerment Institute, the project will look for funding from cap and trade revenue in 2013 as well as various companies that have expressed interest in the scalability of the program.

Initial pushback from the council included reservations about the human and staffing costs of the initiative and the reality of asking Palo Altans to adopt a program that would require citizens to give their own time to the project.

“I know free always sounds good, but what expectations of resource needs does the program expect of the city,” city council member Sid Espinosa said.

Keene expressed cautious optimism about the program, but acknowledged that it would be a challenge to get the project off the ground.

“We’re talking a three year program that requires engagement with many different households," Keene said. “It’s inconceivable just to make a big ask, and to knit together the social fabric will require leadership by the city. We cannot just outsource the work.”

Other established environmental groups such as Acterra expressed concern that the project would take too much effort and money compared to other low cost solutions that are already being implemented in Palo Alto.

In a letter to the City Council Michael Closson, executive director of Acterra said that while Acterra is willing to work with the Cool City Challenge, its “reliance upon the method of neighborhood ‘Eco Teams’ and its hope of creating 2,000 such groups is wildly unrealistic” and that Acterra “recommends another approach that is more tailored to the Palo Alto community” to achieve a lower carbon footprint.

“We have to expand other programs,” Closson said at the study session. “There are many other programs that we can take that are less expensive. There are a lot of simple things that can make a big difference.”

“Our potential to step on toes is significant,” Gershon admitted. “Very few of these groups are able to get core behavior to change. We have the potential to add value to the programs that Acterra is able to do. Our job is to sit down with each potential partner so they can see the value in our project.”

At the end of the study session, the council agreed to consider joining the Cool City Challenge after further examination.

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