Podcast Episode 1.90

Net-zero cities: Making decarbonization work for everyone

w/ Reif Larsen, Luis Aguirre-Torrres, Rebecca Evans, Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele, Cullen Kasunic, Neha Khanna

Reducing average global temperatures. Preserving biodiversity. Decreasing the risk of droughts, floods and hurricanes. Reducing air pollution. Reducing utility bills. Creating new jobs and opportunities. Building community engagement. Fostering environmental equity and justice.

There doesn’t need to be just one reason to decarbonize a city. And when the specific needs, concerns and goals of communities are accounted for in decarbonization plans, the chances of local buy-in and of an equitable energy transition increase dramatically. Hear why, in the second part of Climate Now’s three-part deep-look into Ithaca, New York’s plans to decarbonize every building in their city. Panelists from a multi-venue live event series, held in Autumn 2022, discuss how Ithaca has approached prioritizing social justice in its plans, and why this is such an integral part of their decarbonization strategy.


Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele
Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, Cornell Cooperative Extension


Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele

Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, Cornell Cooperative Extension

Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele serves as the Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension where he is responsible for leading the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiative to transform the organization into a more equitable, inclusive and diverse workplace. He is a certified Roots of Success instructor, providing workforce training for marginalized and frontline communities in Tompkins County.

Cullen Kasunic
CFO, BlocPower


Cullen Kasunic

CFO, BlocPower

Cullen is the CFO at BlocPower, a climate tech company rapidly greening American cities. The company has completed energy projects in 1,200+ buildings and is backed by the world’s top investors, including Goldman Sachs and Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund. In 2022, Fast Company named BlocPower the #4 Most Innovative Company in the World.

Luis Aguirre-Torres
Senior Advisor, Rewiring America


Luis Aguirre-Torres

Senior Advisor, Rewiring America

Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres is a Senior Adviser at Rewiring America. Prior to joining Rewiring America, he was the director of sustainability for the City of Ithaca, where he led the design and implementation of the implementation of the city’s Green New Deal, and its goal of reaching net-zero  emissions by 2030.

Neha Khanna
Professor of Economics, Binghamton University


Neha Khanna

Professor of Economics, Binghamton University

Neha Khanna is Professor of Economics at Binghamton University, focusing on environmental pollutant exposure in the US and the air quality impacts of rapid economic change. She serves as President of the Northeast Agricultural and Resource Economics Association and is also on the Board of Directors for the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Rebecca Evans
Acting Director of Sustainability, City of Ithaca


Rebecca Evans

Acting Director of Sustainability, City of Ithaca

Rebecca Evans is the Acting Director of Sustainability for the City of Ithaca, NY. Her academic and research background is in Environmental Policy Ethics, where she examines the impacts public policies have on different populations.

Reif Larsen
Founder, Future of Small Cities Institute


Reif Larsen

Founder, Future of Small Cities Institute

Reif Larsen is an American author, known for The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. In 2020, he founded The Future of Small Cities Institute whose mission is to cultivate resilient communities by offering just and sustainable solutions for small and mid-sized metro areas.

Hosted By:

James Lawler
Climate Now Host


James Lawler

Climate Now Host
James Lawler is the founder of Climate Now. James started Climate Now as a way to learn about climate change and our energy system. Climate Now’s mission is to distill and communicate the science of our changing climate, the technologies that could help us avoid a climate crisis, and the economic and policy pathways to achieve net zero emissions globally. James is also the founder of Osmosis Films, a creative studio.


– Reif Larsen, Founder of The Future of Small Cities Institute, kicks off the episode by laying out why the task at hand is a tall order. “Decarbonization is an incredibly complicated task because it’s a political one…It’s about social justice…technology…workforce…community development. It’s all these things wrapped up into one and it’s very urgent work.”

– Luis Aguirre-Torres, the former Sustainability Director for Ithaca, then explains that when looking at retrofitting houses and the city’s stock of old buildings, he and his colleagues had the both “brilliant” and “absolutely stupid” idea of tackling the entire city to get the “benefit of scale.”

– Rebecca Evans, the current Sustainability Director, explains the approach that was taken to make sure vulnerable communities were not overlooked. 65% of the city’s Green New Deal budget goes to “service climate justice communities,” as defined by the city (to be more inclusive than state and federal definitions), she says. 

– We then hear from Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele, the Green Energy Workforce Training Center Coordinator in Ithaca, who talks with us about training people who often come from marginalized communities to gain skills and grow careers in the green economy. 

– Another panelist, Dr. Neha Khanna of Binghamton University and Cornell University, says that seeking climate justice means focusing on tangible ways of improving people’s lives in the present. She says she asks herself, “how do I take what I think is my policy goal and make it appealing to somebody who really doesn’t have the time of day to think about this issue because this person is worried about balancing her budget?”

– Finally, we hear from Cullen Kasunic, the COO at BlocPower, the climate technology company leading the building decarbonization work in Ithaca (though this is the one recording taken from our panel in Troy, NY). He says that to make the sell, to convince people to retrofit homes, the focus should not just be about climate benefits, but things like health and comfort that people can be immediately motivated by. 


James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the practical on the ground solutions that we’ll need to address the global climate crisis and achieve a NetZero future. I’m James Lawler, and if you like this episode, please leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts.

Share this episode with your friends, or tell us what you think at contact@climatenow.com. We really love to hear from our listeners. This episode was made possible by a number of organizations that supported Climate Now’s Net Zero City series of conversations in the fall of 2022. 

Those organizations were BlocPower, which is a Brooklyn-based climate technology company, greening American cities. Any interested home and building owners should fill out a few brief questions about their property at upgrade.blocpower.io to see if they’re eligible and to schedule a call with a representative. If you’re a municipal or utility leader, you can reach out to BlocPower through their website, blocpower.io/partner-with-BlocPower. [00:01:00]

This episode also received support from the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. Their 10-month certificate program on financing and deploying clean energy trains working professionals to accelerate the deployment of clean energy worldwide. Through this program, participants can connect with Yale expertise, grow their professional networks, and deepen their impact toward a clean economy.

Finally, the episode was supported by the Connecticut Green Bank, mobilizing money for clean energy and creating jobs in Connecticut while reducing the energy cost burden for Connecticut families, businesses, and nonprofits. Check out Connecticut Green Bank. They’re doing a ton of interesting things in the state of Connecticut.

Today’s episode is the second in a three-part deep dive into how cities can achieve net-zero emissions. The conversations we’ll share today come from a series of events that Climate Now held in 2022 in partnership with the Future of Small Cities Institute. 

In the first episode, “How to Decarbonize a City”, we introduced you to Ithaca, New York, a town of 30,000 people in the Finger Lakes region of the [00:02:00] state that adopted the Ithaca Green New Deal: an ambitious plan to address climate change, economic inequity, and racial injustice in the city. In that episode, we briefly outlined the goals and strategies for how the city would decarbonize its 6,000 buildings to reduce about 40% of its total CO2 footprint.

Today, we will focus on the part of that conversation that answered how a city brings along all of its residents on its decarbonization journey. 

Reif Larsen: The act of decarbonization is an incredibly complicated task because it’s a political one. Decarbonization is about social justice. It’s about technology, it’s about workforce, it’s about going door to door. It’s about neighborhood and community development. It’s all these things wrapped up into one and it’s very urgent work. 

James Lawler: That was Reif Larsen, founder and director of the Future of Small Cities Institute. That really sums up what we’ll be discussing later on the podcast. 

But first, our news segment, This Week in Climate News.

And this week in Climate News, I’m joined by Julio Friedman, Chief Carbon Wrangler at Carbon Direct.

Julio, would you like to get us started with the John Kerry story [00:03:00] about China?

Julio Friedman: Yes. I was really glad to see this story getting some airtime. The United States and China must collaborate together on climate if we are going to have a global solution as the number one and number two, emitters as the number one and two economies, they simply have to work together.

The tensions between the US and China recently have spilled over into climate cooperation. Historically, that has not been a problem. It is today. John Kerry drawing attention to that is welcome and it’s not exactly clear how we solve this, but paying attention, having dialogue, track one, track, two dialogues, finding places where we may have common ground and interests. 

For example, maybe hydrogen carbon capture, uh, forestry offsets. These are places where we can start working and make progress while we manage the rest of the relationship. 

James Lawler: So next thing, the human development index is a measure of sort of human prosperity, and that has, [00:04:00] for the first time, declined, in part because of COVID-19, but also because of greenhouse gas emissions, the human development index is a UN metric and it has steadily increased until 2019 and it’s declined for the last two years in a row.

That is a story from Bloomberg this week. 

Julio Friedman: Yes, and it- it’s interesting because the decline became evident before COVID, actually. It dropped for the first time in 2019. Dropped again in 2020. Looks like it dropped in 2021. So there is some larger macroeconomic signal. Some of that is Russia, Ukraine. Some of that is COVID but, per the Bloomberg story and per the analysis that’s been done, some of that is clearly a consequence of climate change.

James Lawler: What’s next on the list from the past week? 

Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres: I think one of the big stories this week is around carbon removal and the carbon crediting markets, and specifically a story that came out in The [00:05:00] Guardian about Verra. Verra is, overwhelmingly, the largest actor in the carbon, voluntary carbon markets. They are 75% of the credits that are traded.

About a month ago, the Guardian did an exposé on a bunch of bad projects. Based on that, they announced that they will revamp their methodology and will remove rainforest avoided credits as part of that crediting system. I think this is actually a welcome step forward. Nobody gets into the credit business for carbon trading to be a bad actor.

Everybody’s trying to help the climate, but we are learning as we go. And Verra here is saying “we will improve what we do” and hopefully it will yield a set of methodologies that really do track the carbon and provide that clarity and quality that the market seeks.

James Lawler: The last story we wanna touch on today is a story in Politico titled “The Oil Industry Sees a Vibe Shift on Climate Tech”.

Did you happen to see that one, Julio? 

Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres: I [00:06:00] not only saw that story, I lived that story. I was in Houston for CERAWeek, which is the big industry conference every year. Importantly, this year, the conference grew 50%. There was 50% more attendees, and almost all of that was in the agora. It was all on the new climate tech side.

Last year they had two pavilions, which were carbon and hydrogen. This year they added a third pavilion in the agora, which was the climate pavilion. As reported by Politico, there was more talk about hydrogen and carbon capture and CO2 removal credits and advanced technology than there was about conventional oil and gas.

Yes, you could certainly find people talking about shale. You could find people talking about LNG. But all around the world, not least of which, coming from Sultan Al Jaber, the head of COP28, he was talking climate. So was Vicki Holleb. So was Secretary Granholm. Climate was what that conference was about and increasingly is about.

Again, I consider this to be a maturation of [00:07:00] this sensibility. Not everybody in the oil and gas sector is as proactive as some, but people are- are asking better questions now than they were last year at the same conference. People are getting more sophisticated about the realities of bringing clean products into the markets.

People are being more sophisticated about their own scope 1 emissions and how to reduce them and their scope 3 emissions of the customers. So all of that was welcome. Let’s also be clear, this was an oil and gas conference last year, had record profits in part because of the Russia, Ukraine circumstances.

There was some executives talking about their stock buybacks instead of talking about the climate programs, like it was a mixed bag. But no one, and I do mean no one, at CERAWeek thought that climate was unimportant to their business. 

James Lawler: Interesting point that this article raises: Darren Wood, CEO and Chairman of ExxonMobil spent most of his address talking about the company’s newest business line, which strips CO2 from industrial sites.

So we’re [00:08:00] talking about point-source capture technology. The company’s also developing a large hydrogen plant to produce fuel that many hope will help cut pollution from sectors that are hard to ring carbon dioxide from. So that’s just one indication that increasingly, you know, the oil companies will be looking to some of these carbon management technologies and, and processes and, you know, alternative fuels to diversify.

Certainly it’s what shareholders are looking for and, and the public is asking for. 

Now, for the second episode in our three-part series about what it takes for a city to achieve net zero emissions. We’re looking through the lens of Ithaca, New York, which was one of the first in the United States to set out to decarbonize 100% of its buildings as part of a broader strategy to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

From the beginning, civic leaders and activists agreed that any Green New Deal initiative had to benefit all residents equally. It’s no secret that the burden from climate change falls disproportionately on lower income communities and people of color. A recent EPA report noted that, under a two [00:09:00] degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, black residents United States are 40% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature related deaths and 34% more likely to see increases in childhood asthma diagnoses. Hispanics and Latinos, a high proportion of whom work in weather-exposed industries such as construction and agriculture are 43% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to extreme temperatures.

In today’s episode, we’ll hear from city officials and others in the community. First, we’ll hear from Dr. Luis Siguiri Torres, Ithaca’s former sustainability director, who joined us for all three panel discussions last year. At the first event at The Soil Factory in Ithaca, Luis set the stage by explaining the magnitude of the challenge to decarbonize 6,200 buildings- about 80% of which were built before 1940.

Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres: So you have a very old building stock, you have a brutal winter, you have a lot of rentals, you have, uh, 23% of the community, like low income individuals with like really two standard deviations from median. And then you start seeing that the magnitude of the problem, it’s huge. [00:10:00] And there are so many layers that you need to peel when you start thinking about these, the cost of of retrofitting and electrifying a single house.

You need to get first, like 16 different contractors and then you need to pay a ton of money to do this. But then we were thinking, we have to do this at scale. And then we had this crazy idea, what if we do the whole city? What if we actually try to take on every single building in the city? You take away everything that pollutes and you put something that is clean and then suddenly, the whole building, which is a machine, that starts working.

And so we were like, yeah, that’s what we have to do. The machine that is the city we need to take away everything that that produce emissions, everything that runs on fossil fuels, and we need to replace them with something else. But if we do it at scale, we actually get the benefit of scale. We get bulk production power, we get the ability to reduce the cost of the overall thing.

So suddenly we had this, honestly, brilliant idea and very difficult to implement idea, an absolutely stupid idea of going for the entire city. 

James Lawler: So the city of Ithaca has a plan to decarbonize more than 6,000 structures by bundling them together as one project, which [00:11:00] leverages buying power when it comes to things like procuring heat pumps for electrification and contracting the weatherization work.

The theory was also that creating this unique asset class would attract investors and others who could help finance the project so that it becomes more affordable for everyone. 

Rebecca Evans, who now serves as the Acting Director of Sustainability for the City of Ithaca, also spoke at our first panel event. She told us that Ithaca carefully applied a lens of social justice to develop its policies under the Green New Deal, but what does that mean? 

Rebecca Evans: We first had to actually define what climate justice communities were here in Ithaca. So the state has a definition of disadvantaged communities, the feds are coming out with a definition of disadvantaged communities.

But when we actually tried to apply that criteria here in Ithaca, we found that there are a lot of people that should be fitting into this definition that are not covered and therefore would not receive the benefits of any of these programs. So we had to contextualize that criteria to our population here which, [00:12:00] as Luis mentioned, is a lot of renters.

If you look at the, the state definition, it’s based on census tract. So you have a ton of people that are falling through the cracks that are in a hundred-year-old building, dilapidated building. Nobody wants to live there and barely scraping by, but surrounded by, you know, these beautiful homes in Fall Creek.

And so we passed a local definition and then we got to work to figure out what do we do with this definition? A definition is great, but if we’re not actually going to do anything with it, then what’s the point? So we started working on a framework for Justice 50, which the Green New Deal Resolution really broadly said we’re going to address historic inequities and it had, like, zero teeth to it. 

It was, like, a “oh yeah, we forgot about this and we wanna look pretty good. So we’ll tack it on the end”. So that was one of our charges and Justice 50 was the answer. So talk to a lot of different people, a lot of experts, people at the federal government, people at The Luskin Center who wrote a report that guided the federal government, talked to [00:13:00] the state, talked to our communities to see what do you wanna see from the Green New Deal, and also what makes your life hard here in Ithaca?

And took that and decided, okay, you know, based on all of these conversations, monitoring air pollution from buildings is not the answer. Actual financial investment in these communities that can push them forward and provide opportunity, which is really what the Green New Deal is, is providing opportunity.

So we decided on 65% of the entire Green New Deal budget, which would mean any outside investment in the Green New Deal needs to service climate injustice communities based on our definition, and then we are going for 50% of the city’s capital project budget. 

James Lawler: That opportunity isn’t just about renovating buildings, but rebuilding careers and growing green jobs locally.

Dr. Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele is the Coordinator at the Green Energy Workforce Training Center at The Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ithaca, he said at our [00:14:00] first panel that up to 3,000 new jobs are needed to reap key economic benefits from the Green New Deal. Local workforce development programs are a key component to that vision, according to Dr. Airewele.

Dr. Aigbokhan Aloja Airewele: We want to bring people in 18 and above. You know, people who can work, receive skills. They are people who are different levels of skill acquirement. People have acquired different skills in their lives, but to make sure they can explore, within this green economy, a sustainable career, the thing is to bring in a cohort of individuals from different backgrounds, different experiences, and being employed, never employed, struggling hard to employ. Anybody who, apart from just wanting to get the job, but feels that climate change is a challenge that all of us have to energetically embrace and work towards. 

We want to give people the knowledge to be invested in the work they do. They get the skills and actually, in that process, you don’t have to worry too much about soft [00:15:00] skills.

Because once people have a sense that the work they’re doing is dignified, they begin to bring out aspects of transformation. Every time people say to me, I want a worker who will show up, who is responsible and who is good with other coworkers, I say, you are looking for a transformed individual, right? I say, then you’ve come to the right place.

This climate change work that we’re doing is a redemptive work. This is a challenge telling us it is apocalyptic, right? So, anyone who is involved in any part to reduce this threat is a champion. 

James Lawler: Another one of our panelists was Dr. Neha Khanna, Professor of Economics at Binghamton University, who serves as president of the Northeast Agricultural and Resources Economics Association, among other organizations.

She focuses on environmental pollutant exposure in the United States and the air quality impacts of rapid economic change. Dr. Khanna reminded us that the reasons people decide to swap out their gas furnace or [00:16:00] switch to a career in the green economy may have little to do with championing the environment.

Back to our live panel, and please excuse the audio quality here.

Dr. Neha Khanna: I understand that, in Ithaca, electrification makes a lot of sense because a very large fraction of our electricity is actually coming from non-fossil sources. Great, so we all go and we all electrify our vehicles. We electrify our homes. That is part of decarbonization.

If I was living somewhere else in the United States, Wyoming, let me take Wyoming for an example state. I’ve never been, but I happen to some- know something about. It’s a coal-based state. If I went electrical in Wyoming, this is not gonna make any sense at all as of this moment.

On the other hand, Wyoming also has a lot of wind power. It just so happens where there is coal, there is no wind power. In Wyoming where there is wind power, there is no coal. So immediately, this makes a justice problem because, if you’re going to switch to electrification as a source of decarbonization, you’re gonna [00:17:00] have to move the source of electrification from coal to wind or something non-fossil based. And that’s going to lead to a transition in local communities and understanding what that local texture of that transition is, is going to be really, really important.

The, the second thing I wanted to make, I think very clear when I’m thinking about environmental policy, my average “client”, so to speak, is not you and me, not the person who actually takes time out of their day to come and think about environmental issues or climate issues. My average person is my mother and my mother-in-law. Bless them both. 

Neither of them care anything about the environment and they’re, they’re my perfect audience. If I can move them, if I can move their needle, I’ve won. And so my constant is “how do I take what I think is my policy goal and make it appealing to somebody who really doesn’t have the time of day to think about this issue?” because this person is worried about balancing her budget. 

She’s worried about taking her kid to [00:18:00] school, right? So from that broad spectrum, I need to bring it down to something very private and very personal. I think a big part of the environmental, of the Climate Justice Movement has to focus on the private benefits to individuals. To many individuals, it’s not about the long-term benefits. 

To many individuals, it’s about to me, immediately to the fact that I have to survive the next few years of my life or make sure that my kid gets to school on time. And in that context, how do I make this relevant or Aloja was saying, we have this great green New Deal. Well, what’s in it for me?

Well, it could be, for me, a great job. It could be, for me, a sense of engagement in my community. Or it could be that I, my indoor air quality got improved. I don’t really care about the climate, but I love the heat pump because I know that the propane heater or the, the natural gas fire burner in my basement is actually, the off gasses from that are not good for me.

I’m aware of that, and the heat pump is actually taking that away. That’s what I care about. I think [00:19:00] we really have to understand what is it that motivates the individual in that particular context and try and make it real for them. 

James Lawler: Cullen Kasunic at BlocPower, a climate technology company leading the building decarbonization project for Ithaca, explained that there are other ways to reframe the relevance of electrifying the city’s built environment besides environmental or economic concerns.

Cullen Kasunic: Savings is a reason, but it really comes down to when people make a choice, it comes down to their feeling and their emotion at the end of the day, right?

And comfort is a strong motivator to understand that you have a house that may be drafty, maybe you had your children complain to you that they’re cold in your house sometimes or while they’re sleeping. And when you can solve that problem and have a system that can adjust the heat room to room, when you can solve that problem and you can seal up the cracks around the windows, then suddenly people start to say, “okay, I spend a lot of money on a lot of things. This is something that I really care about.” It moves the conversation from a pure economics to a “do I want this? And [00:20:00] what’s the value of this kind of thing?” And health is a similar situation, right?

A lot of you folks may know now, it’s been publicized pretty well in the last year how much fossil fuel, uh, natural gas ovens do in terms of causing asthma, right? The, the asthma rates in homes with natural gas ovens and any type of natural gas heating system that partially vents into the home, the incidence of asthma is much higher. 

And so being able to handle something like that again, to your children, my child has asthma, or my neighbor’s children may benefit from this if I’m not sending emissions up into the neighborhood. That’s something that people start to care about.

James Lawler: We started this segment of the podcast with Luis. We thought it made sense that he also helped us wrap it up about why the city has embraced their ambitious decarbonization. 

Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres: At the end of the day, we’re doing this because we wanna improve people’s lives and, and we need to start there.

And if we can bring justice at the same time that we can fight climate change and we can actually make somebody’s life better, we absolutely have to do that. This goal is just [00:21:00] to create a better world. And I think the magic of Ithaca, really, is that we are able to see the world for what it could be, right? And for what it is. 

And, and the, the, the next thing that we need to do is turn that not into inspiration or hope, it is opportunity that we’re talking about. And if we manage to turn the work, the very difficult work that we’re doing together into opportunity for people, that is progress already. 

So what advice I give to people like focus, like, focus on, on who lives in your city, who they are, what they need, and what it means to have opportunity.

James Lawler: Our final podcast, based on last year’s three part event series on net zero cities, will dive into how we can get it done- both practically and financially. On that note, we’re excited to announce that we’ll continue to hold more of these conversations on the road in the coming year. Climate Now, with its partners and sponsors, is launching more Net Zero City events in 2023. Each Net Zero City will provide a platform to foster relationships between [00:22:00] homeowners and vendors, community groups, project developers, investors, and policy makers to focus on the issues that matter most for each city to achieve a NetZero future.

Want to have a Net Zero City event in your city? Well, you can reach out to us through our website, climatenow.com. That’s it for this episode of the podcast. For more episodes, videos, or to sign up for our newsletter, visit climatenow.com. We hope you can join us for our next conversation.

Climate now is made possible in part by our science partners like The Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation’s climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.


Share podcast: