Bethlehem — a city once-best-known for an industry that blanketed it with pollution — hopes to complete its industrial rebirth by becoming a leader at fighting climate change.
Bethlehem officials on Monday unveiled the city’s climate action plan, a 279-page blueprint to help the city achieve a more equitable, resilient, healthy, prosperous and inclusive community that tackles climate change head on.
The plan lays out concrete actions for Bethlehem as a community — think net-zero emissions by 2040 and buying all renewable electricity for city operations — and offers a roadmap for addressing climate change’s local effects.
The plan comes after a year of collaborative planning spearheaded by consultant WSP, a global engineering and design firm with offices in the city, and Nurture Nature Center.
Councilman J. William Reynolds and Mayor Bob Donchez unveiled the plan Monday afternoon. Reynolds first pitched the idea of a city climate action plan back in 2017. It can be found here on the city website.
“The citizens that are going to be the most affected by climate change, and that are going to face the most severe impacts are also our most vulnerable citizens,” Reynolds, who is running for mayor, said Monday. “So it’s not just something that we should do or we can do, but it’s something that we need to do, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we are building a Bethlehem that is going to work for everybody.”
The plan will be implemented in phases with the first launching immediately. Over the next year, the city will work to build public support, promote equity and justice, and lay a framework to prepare for climate change.
“None of these things are going to be easy,” Reynolds said. “And the first step is really going to be about education, and bringing people into the effort.”
An essential element of the plan is establishing a city Office of Sustainability and hiring a director, an initiative targeted for the next budget. This new public office would be responsible for monitoring and public reporting on the implementation.
The plan also creates a climate and environmental justice council and working group of stakeholders to lead first phase implementation. The first phase includes updating various key datasets that will be crucial in future phases.
It also focuses on supporting local gardens and urban farms, prioritizes green space in underserved areas and improves bike mobility and safety.
The plan calls for Bethlehem reducing community-wide green house gas emissions by 33% by 2025, 60% by 2030 and fully net-zero in 2040.
The city government already reduced its municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 38% from 2005 to 2017. Now, the city is committed to a 67% reduction by 2025 and net-zero by 2030.
Climate change is expected to drive up the Lehigh Valley’s annual temperature and its average yearly precipitation resulting in higher infrastructure maintenance costs, increased electricity prices with less reliability and increased flooding risks.
The report found that the city’s communities of color, low-income residents and those with existing health conditions will disproportionately feel the ill effects of climate change, like more air pollution and higher medical costs.
Currently, Bethlehem has about 12 days a year of temperatures 90 degrees or warmer. That will rise to 36 to 39 days a year in the near term and to 50 to 83 days by the end of the century, the report found.
Over the last century, the Lehigh Valley’s annual temperature has increased by 3.8 degrees and its average yearly precipitation rose 5.9 inches.
Without action, Bethlehem could see its average annual temperature increase by more than 9 degrees by 2100, resulting in average annual temperatures similar to present-day Richmond, Virginia, according to climate models that factor increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.
Climate change and sustainability present all of humanity with an unprecedented challenge that is already playing out in communities around the globe, Reynolds said. Citizens, often society’s most vulnerable ones, ultimately will be those most affected by climate change and its on Bethlehem leaders to take steps to combat it.
“As we move forward, climate action policy is going to be a combination of federal and state policy but also local policy because there’s some things that are better done at the community level,” Reynolds said.
The city invested $75,000 in the plan. The process included hundreds of residents and more than 50 Lehigh Valley institutions.
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Sara K. Satullo may be reached at [email protected].