Mayor LaToya Cantrell unveiled a climate action plan on Tuesday that would see the city achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050, although it’s not entirely clear that the steps identified in the report would, by themselves, achieve the overall emission-reduction target. 

The plan, developed by the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability, seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in five areas, including transportation, energy and economic growth. 

“Vulnerable cities like ours around the world are leading the fight against climate change, and our updated Climate Action Plan sets ambitious goals to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by the mid-century,” Cantrell said in a press release on Tuesday. 

But while the goals are admirable and their implementation would certainly help the city reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it’s not necessarily evident they would, by themselves, lead to net zero status by 2050, Alex Kolker, associate professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, told The Lens. 

“It’s a lot of thoughts in the right direction, but the math isn’t fully there and all the plans aren’t fully there,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “My overall take home is there are good ideas in this, but they haven’t finalized all of the analyses and all of the the action plan to reach this net zero goal.”

Kolker previously participated in the science advisory group for the state’s climate action plan. 

The city’s plan relied on the C40 Pathways tool to calculate emissions reductions based on the city’s GHG levels and the selection of local strategies, according to the report. Based on the city’s most recent GHG inventory, which it conducted in 2017, the city plans to reduce emissions 50% by 2035, and to reach net zero emissions by 2050, according to the plan. 

In 2017, under then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the city pledged to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030. 

The city’s 2017 GHG inventory documented 3.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the report – which was a small reduction from the city’s previous inventory, conducted in 2014. 

But the 2022 plan does not include a more recent GHG inventory, which is a significant piece of information, according to Kolker. The city, though, is “actively compiling its 2021 inventory” and plans to release a progress report on it in early 2023, according to the plan. 

The scale of the city’s most recent GHG inventory is dwarfed by the state’s. In 2018, for example, Louisiana emitted 216 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the state’s climate action plan. 

“New Orleans is a little bit more like the rest of the country in that transportation and the power sector are the biggest components, and the industrial sector is relatively small,” Kolker said. “Whereas, in Louisiana, the industrial sector is really the largest sector and that makes Louisiana different from the rest of the country.”

An analysis Kolker provided to The Lens shows that the vast majority of Louisiana’s greenhouse gas emissions originate in the state’s industrial corridor and places like Lake Charles. And although there are industrial facilities near New Orleans, the industrial footprint within the city’s limits is fairly limited, he said. 

The city, per the plan, is committed to achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035; ensuring that 75% of its own vehicle fleet is no-or-low emissions by 2035; and increasing transit ridership 20% by 2030, among other targets. Addressing the grid, transportation and buildings’ energy needs are the city’s highest priorities, according to the report. The council passed a measure earlier this year that would prohibit the city government from purchasing gas-powered vehicles, starting in 2025. 

“A carbon-free grid and use of carbon-free energy in our buildings and transportation are the most critical actions we can take to substantially reduce emissions in the time frame necessary to do our part to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis,” the report stated. 

The city has also committed itself, per the plan, to present recommendations to the New Orleans Municipal Employee Retirement System (NOMERS) board by 2023 regarding how the board can divest from its fossil fuel investments – with the hope that the board would fully divest by 2025. 

The mayor’s office shared with The Lens a report produced in April by AndCo Consulting, a Florida-based investment consulting firm, that shows NOMERS had more than $15 million of its portfolio invested in the fossil fuel industry. That figure represents 3.3% of the board’s portfolio, which clocked in at approximately $455 million.  

Two of NOMERS’ asset managers are BlackRock and Vanguard, which, according to a report from the watchdog group Reclaim Finance, together held more than $60 billion in coal expansion projects as of November 2021. 

John Lawson, press secretary for Cantrell, seemed to suggest that the mayor’s office is willing to explore various options regarding fossil fuel divestment in the meantime. 

“While we cannot commit to divestiture by 2025, we are open to any discussions and/or meetings with other retirement plans or municipal investment entities who have adopted the proposed path,” he wrote in an email to The Lens. 

Jesse Evans Jr., director of the city’s employee retirement system, told The Lens by email on Wednesday that the board “is open to a discussion about divesting.”

Cooperation, coordination

The city rolled out its 2022 climate action plan on Tuesday, the first day of a two-day Communities Local Energy Action Program (C-LEAP) conference, held at the University of New Orleans. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) named more than 20 communities as C-LEAP this spring that would receive federal support to implement clean-energy transitions. 

Representatives from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) were also present, and spoke about their role in supporting the city to navigate its role as a C-LEAP city. 

“Thank you so much for your expertise and supporting our work through the [C-LEAP] program,” Greg Nichols, the city’s deputy chief resilience officer, said, referring to the NREL employees. “It’s been invaluable so far, and we’re looking forward to continuing our work together in 2023.”

The climate action plan itself also spoke at length about the city’s cooperation with President Joe Biden’s administration – specifically as it relates to the federal government’s overall emissions-reduction goals, and the city’s commitment to aligning itself with them. 

The plan also mentions the city council dozens of times, discussing various measures the council has proposed and advanced, and the unique role the council plays as a regulator of the city’s utility provider, Entergy New Orleans. 

“The city has assorted powers over many aspects of city life in which climate action can happen,” the report says. “In some instances the Mayor has stronger powers, such as over the City budget or infrastructure, and in other cases City Council has stronger powers, such as over the energy supply and regulating Entergy New Orleans (ENO), our local utility, and in many cases they must work jointly together.”

Yet, there weren’t any councilmembers present for the press rollout on Tuesday. The council’s Climate Change and Sustainability Committee held a meeting during the same time as the workshop. 

For Jesse George, New Orleans policy director for the consumer rights watchdog organization  Alliance for Affordable Energy, that raised the question of whether, and to what extent, the mayor’s office and the City Council are cooperating to address the challenges posed by climate change. 

“These require coordinated efforts across the branches of city government, and I’m not seeing that in action,” George said. Nichols “alluded to the council’s climate goals and clean energy goals and that sort of thing, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of coordination in the efforts in the planning.”

But the action plan does reflect a coordinated effort between the branches of local government, Lawson, Cantrell’s press secretary, told The Lens by email. 

“The City shared draft copies of the Climate Action Plan with all seven Council offices in September for feedback and updated the plan based on that feedback this fall,” he said. “ORS held several meetings with key Council staff, including [Council Utilities Regulatory Office] around climate and energy related topics, including the [C-LEAP] program where the Climate Action Plan was released [on Tuesday].”

Lawson also noted that councilmembers on the Utility and Sustainability committees, along with their staff members, were invited to attend the workshop, and explained that its first day was held during the sustainability committee’s meeting in order to accommodate the schedules of the administration and NREL. 

But Andrew Tuozollo – chief of staff for Council President, and chair of the sustainability committee, Helena Moreno –  took a different view of whether the action plan represents a unified vision between the council and the mayor’s office. 

“No, this is a plan written by the Administration,” he said by email on Tuesday when asked if the plan represented a coordinated effort between the two entities. “Thankfully, Greg Nichols did solicit some advice and review of some of their ideas and we contributed some thoughts to an early draft back in October. But I haven’t seen the final product.” 

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...