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  1. Opinion

Column: A plan for a sustainable St. Petersburg

As high tide approached, streets began to flood last October in the Shore Acres neighborhood of St. Petersburg because of Hurricane Michael, even though the hurricane hit the Panhandle, hundreds of miles from the Tampa Bay area. [Times photo (2018) by Dirk Shadd]
Published Apr. 8

Tampa Bay Times reporter Elizabeth Djinis ended her story on the long-range threat of climate change to our shorelines by asking, "Does sea level rise seem like a distant future or an oncoming reality?"

I'll get around to answering that question in a moment.

Local sea levels in Tampa Bay rose 7½ inches from 1950 to today, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA reports that sea level locally is rising by 0.11 inches (2.8 mm) every year, a pace that may not seem frightening to some but still portends to the cancer-like appetite of climate change: It eats away at global and local environmental stability, sometimes little by little ("sunny day" flooding in Miami, for example) and sometimes big chunks at a time (several U.S. communities are slipping into the sea). In the Tampa Bay area, places with repeated flooding — or repetitive loss areas — that are exacerbated by climate change-induced sea level rise include St. Petersburg neighborhoods Shore Acres and Riviera Bay.

But if a silver lining could be found on the dark clouds looming on the horizon, it's that St. Petersburg and hundreds of other cities across the country and all over the world have joined the fight against climate change. Cities are the largest consumers of the world's energy and account for more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emission. Buildings and transportation in urban areas are the major culprits of CO2 emissions, a leading cause of global warming.

Climate change may be a global problem, but solutions are being driven at the local level.

The city of St. Petersburg recognized its responsibility to take action a few years ago and has drafted a comprehensive strategy for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to clean energy, while simultaneously addressing its vulnerabilities to the changing climate conditions that are already emerging. In my role as a senior planner with the planning, environmental and engineering firm VHB, I worked with the city to complete its first greenhouse gas emission inventory, and to develop a clean energy road map and actions for equitable sustainability and resilience in the St. Petersburg Integrated Sustainability Action Plan. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the plan April 18.

Under the plan, the city's key targets are:

• 20 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2020;

• 100 percent reliance on clean energy by 2035;

• 80 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2050.

Meeting these goals will impact almost every aspect of our everyday life, from the energy we use to the buildings we work and shop in to how we get from Point A to Point B. Cities large and small across the world have committed themselves to making similar audacious transformations, all with the common goal of slowing the rise of temperatures and sea levels.

Being bracketed by water, St. Petersburg has no time to lose in its efforts to help combat the global challenge that is climate change. Bloomberg Philanthropies agreed as much when it recently named St. Petersburg a winner of its American Cities Climate Challenge. The award comes with $2.5 million in expertise and resources to help accelerate the city's quest to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction and clean energy targets.

I've studied the recorded data taken from Tampa Bay and worked with various community stakeholders on the sustainability action plan, and it is obvious that sea level rise and other effects of climate change are a current reality, and communities that address the problem head-on will also have positive impacts to its environmental, economic and social environments.

Ben Siwinski lives in Petersburg and is managing director of VHB's Tampa and Sarasota offices.

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