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Louisville’s Sustainability Office of one has plans for expansion

The pillars of Metro Hall in Louisville are in front of the two-story facade up against a bright blue sky.
Roxanne Scott
Metro Hall in downtown Louisville houses the one-person Office of Sustainability.

Louisville’s Office of Sustainability has a tall order: Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions communitywide by 2040.

The magnitude of the paradigm shift stands in contrast to the number of people charged with making the science-based target a reality. Louisville’s Office of Sustainability is currently an office of one, led by Executive Director Sumedha Rao.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg announced in his first state of the city address he would elevate the city’s sustainability department into his own office. Rao said the mayor’s decision will help integrate sustainability across departments.

“Sustainability is not an issue that you can look at in a silo. It is something that is most effective when integrated with all areas of metro government,” Rao said.

Former Mayor Greg Fischer first created the stand alone Office of Sustainability in 2012. He then folded that office into the Office of Advanced Planning amid budget cuts in 2019. In that time, the city developed its first sustainability plan, conducted a greenhouse gas inventory and prepared a climate adaptation plan.

Many of the challenges those plans discovered still exist today. Rao outlined those challenges in an update to the Metro Council Parks and Sustainability Department on Thursday:

  • Less than 1% of the city’s energy comes from renewable sources.
  • Louisville has less than 10% greenspace.
  • More than 95% of commuters use private vehicles. 
  • A 2014 study found that Louisville is the most rapidly warming urban heat island of any city in the U.S. -- a burden disproportionately borne by residents of color because of historical redlining practices. 

Amid these challenges, the city has seen some sustainability successes in the last couple years. Rao successfully ran the country’s third largest campaign to help residents put solar panels on their homes.

Her colleague, Energy Manager Zach Tyler, who is now with the Office of Facilities and Fleet management, has successfully saved the city more than $1.5 million on its energy bills in the last two years. The Metro Council has since authorized Tyler to use $700,000 of those savings to fund future energy efficiencies in government buildings.

Meanwhile, Louisville’s climate is changing. The Office of Sustainability says the average number of days per year above 90 degrees has increased by 12 since 1960. The city’s three largest rain events have all happened in the last decade.

As the planet continues to warm, Louisville can expect to see more extreme heat, and an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather including droughts and floods.

The city has passed two different climate resolutions, and Mayor Fischer signed an executive order on his way out of office all with the same goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Net zero means that any remaining emissions would be offset through some other means such as tree-planting or carbon capture and sequestration.

Two Metro Council members noted the discrepancy between what needs to be done and the number of people working in the city’s sustainability office of one.

Rao said she has funds to hire one additional staff member this year, and plans to expand the team to four to five members in the next fiscal year. She said that’s likely the minimum necessary to keep the city’s current programs going.

Rao said her primary goal in the newly elevated office will be strengthening partnerships.

“It’s very clear this is not something we can achieve in silos. One of the things we have always struggled with is even just keeping track of all of the organizations that are doing great work in the city,” she said. “So finding a way to build those partnerships is going to be one of my biggest priorities.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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