Cincinnati 2030: Innovative solutions to climate change

Tremaine Phillips stands before a packed room at the 2019 Midwest Sustainability Summit, held on June 14 at Xavier University’s Schiff Conference Center. He’s moderating a breakout session about Cincinnati’s recently appointed 2030 District, and discussing the efforts the city will make to reduce energy use, water consumption, and transportation issues related to commercial buildings by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

“I tried to figure out a way to tell the story on why sustainability and why the issue of climate change is so important to me that wasn’t as cliché as talking about my daughter, but for all of us who have children — or close family friends who have children — and understand that love and connection with them, it’s kind of hard to separate yourself from that reality,” says Phillips, the director of Cincinnati’s 2030 District.

“The reality is that in the 20 months time that I’ve been able to spend and bond with my daughter, we’ve had hurricane Harvey, we’ve had hurricane Florence, which went through my family’s hometown,” he continues. “We’ve had the worst wildfire season in California’s history, we’ve had hurricane Michael that came through the Florida region.”

“It’s not national anymore, it’s local. The landslide issues … in this community, and the increased rainfall events that we’re having. I think it’s a 40 percent increase in heavy rainfall or heavy precipitation events here in the Cincinnati community over the last 50 years.”

Phillips, who initially wanted to be a meteorologist before getting into climate change, is passionate about the project and proud of the collaboration that went into making Cincinnati one of 22 2030 Districts in the country.

And he should be. It wasn’t an easy process.

According to Phillips, the efforts started with the formation of the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, which sought solutions to combat severe flooding, extreme heat, increased storm events, flash flooding, landslides, sewer-backups, and changes in precipitation, as well as creating efficient and more sustainable practices for the city.

Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability held more than 30 meetings and received around 13,000 recommendations for how the city can move forward with urban sustainability issues, enhance environmental quality of life, and create an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2050.

During this time, Phillips chaired the Built Environment Group, which focused on the environmental and carbon impacts of commercial and residential buildings and roads. The key proposal — the idea that a 2030 District should be formed — came from this group.

“Really, one of the primary reasons for that,” he says, “is because nationally, buildings account for 39 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, but here in Cincinnati, our built environment accounts for 60 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions.”

“As we begin to think about how we are going to reach these ambitious goals by 2030 and beyond, we have to begin to target our built environment, and, in particular, our large commercial buildings in this region,” he continues.

The 2030 District naturally aligned with the needs of the community.

The Process

The National 2030 District Network is based in Washington, D.C., and it certifies any network that a city wants to form after going through a vigorous process. It took places like Cleveland and Detroit a few years to get the necessary regional buy in, building owner support, and analysis, which all happens with the help of volunteers.

“We were able to get through that entire process from pending to established district in about 12–14 months,” Phillips says, thanks to a group of, at times, up to 60 individuals.

“I’ve worked on a lot of projects like this in different communities, but this was the most invested, committed, broad-reaching volunteer group I’ve ever been a part of,” he says.

Tremaine Phillips leading a breakout session at the summit.
Support came from all corners of the community: people from both the city and county; three area universities (Xavier, UC, and NKU); small and large engineering and architecture firms; representatives from Fortune 500 companies like Kroger, Fifth Third Bank, and Procter & Gamble; as well as nonprofits like Green Umbrella and the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance.

Phillips was working for a startup energy efficiency and data analytics company in Columbus at the time, driving back and forth several days a week, volunteering pretty heavily in the creation of the district.

Green Umbrella committed to add the district as one of its staffed initiatives, and applied for — and won — funding through the Duke Class Benefit Fund. That funding allowed the organization to hire Phillips as the director for the program. On December 20, 2018, Cincinnati officially became a 2030 District. 

“We’re just past the six-month mark, and we’ve now emerged as one of the largest and most active 2030 Districts in the country,” he says.

Members include property owners, developers, commercial tenants, and property managers in the city’s urban core — 23 total that are a part of the district — who have committed more than 200 properties to the effort. They represent more than 20 million square feet of real estate and commercial space.

“To put that in perspective,” Phillips explains, “that’s equivalent to around seven-and-a-half Empire State Buildings or around 11 Paul Brown Stadiums.”

Members follow the national 2030 District’s three goals, or pillars: A 50 percent reduction of energy usage, water consumption, and transportation-related emissions by 2030.

In order to help companies accomplish these ambitious goals, the Cincinnati district is creating a “Field Guide to 50 percent,” which identifies solutions to these problems.

“We’re [also] piloting a fourth pillar around occupant and building health, looking at not only the technical aspects of a healthy environment within a building. So, how can members increase indoor air quality and water quality,” he says, “[along with] mental health programs, opiate addiction and awareness programs, different efforts to increase cognitive ability productivity, and lessen sick days for employees and occupants of these buildings.”

“It’s unique to any other district in the country,” Phillips explains.

Accomplishing the Goals

Anyone can switch out light bulbs and carpool, but in order to create a massive reduction of usage, companies will need to look beyond the basics.

Bold examples include energy storage, “microgrid” development — having buildings with their own energy generation sources that are local — and net zero and net positive construction, or buildings that can produce more energy than they use.

In the transportation realm, there’s the idea that companies will offer incentives to carpool, take public transit, or ride a bike or scooter to work.

With water, commercial buildings not only need to reduce the amount they use (like installing low-flow toilets) but also work with Cincinnati’s water surplus that often ends up as sewage overflow in lower-income neighborhoods or in the Ohio River. Businesses will need to capture and contain water onsite and figure out creative ways to reuse it.

Back at the summit, Phillips unveils the Cincinnati 2030 District plan to a rapt audience. He encourages everyone to participate in working groups that will help design programs to incorporate all four pillars, which will also help with reporting progress to the national organization.

“What really separates 2030 efforts from other urban sustainability initiatives out there — and there are a lot of cooperating and competing initiatives in this area — is that the 2030 model really harps in on tracking those reductions to 2030,” he says.

This summer, there will be a training on the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, where the EPA and other organizations will teach both members and building owners how to baseline and track their energy and water use. There will also be a building retro commissioning program, which will help maintain and finely tune heating and cooling systems, particularly for older buildings. The district will help subsidize that work for a number of properties within the districts.

“So it’s identifying those solutions, connecting our membership with vetted partners and service providers, finding ways, either [through] existing incentives or developing rebating and incentive programs through the 2030 District to help bring down the cost of implementing those solutions,” says Phillips.

A “Lunch and Learn” series — also known as the 50 percent solution series — will start on July 11. They’re designed to bring in national experts and service providers to speak with the district and educate people on how to implement those solutions.

“I can truly say that the impacts of abrupt climate change are being felt across this planet today,” says Phillips. “It’s something that can be frightening, but it also can be empowering because it clears a lot of other options of what I want to do with my life off the table.”

“We have incredible assets here in our community,” he continues. “We have people who are really moving forward here aggressively. We should use that momentum while we have it in order to advance these goals quickly because, frankly, we don’t have much time left.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.