With the creation of a new sustainability officer position in next year’s budget, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson wants the city to lead in combating climate change.

“We can go further, faster, more efficiently if we staff it with a fully-dedicated staff person focused on implementing our energy plan, and engaging our utilities, and our neighborhood groups, and our business community on decreasing greenhouse gases, saving energy and building climate resilience,” Larson said.

The position would build on and work with an energy plan commission created earlier this year tasked with keeping the city on its goal of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide it generates by 80% by 2050.

Much of that will come from improving Duluth Energy System’s steam plant in Canal Park, a city-owned utility that provides downtown Duluth buildings with steam, which accounted for 75% of Duluth’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, the last time the city underwent a comprehensive energy analysis.

Once using only coal to supply steam, the plant has supplemented its fuel source with natural gas and is upgrading its underground steam pipes to a more efficient closed-loop hot water system in conjunction with the multi-year Superior Street reconstruction project spanning much of downtown Duluth.

Meanwhile, hauling freshwater from the city’s Lakewood water treatment center up the hill for usage remains the city’s largest use of energy.

Improving the efficiency of both utilities are projects for whoever is hired as a sustainability officer, Larson said.

The position will likely be posted after the annual budget goes in front of the City Council again Monday.

Lisa Fitzpatrick, founder of the Duluth Climate Mobilization Group, said she’s looking forward to working with the sustainability officer, but said the city’s goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 80% by 2050 isn’t aggressive enough.

“I think that’s too little, too slow,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that she’d like to see the Duluth City Council pass a resolution declaring a climate emergency “to more effectively transform our city and our way of life.”

But Larson is confident the city can reach its goal sooner than 2050, noting that during her first year as mayor, the city had already decreased its carbon generation by 15% in moving the steam plant away from coal and toward natural gas.

While natural gas is still a fossil fuel, it produces less carbon than coal, but it releases methane, which can also contribute to climate change.

Larson acknowledged natural gas’ drawbacks, and said the city is looking at burning a type of renewable fuel oil, or biofuel, that could phase out the remaining coal still used at the plant in the winter and eventually even replace the plant’s use of natural gas.

“We have to use what we have for scale at this point,” Larson said of natural gas. “And something like a renewable fuel oil, we are really excited about, we think it’s incredibly promising. We think there are research and job creation potential in bringing an industry online here, and that just takes a while.”

Exploring that possibility is one of the reasons for creating the new sustainability officer position, Larson said.

Of the conversion to natural gas, Fitzparick said, “I don't think it's the solution, I think it's a step towards a better solution.”

Tone Lanzillo, a member of the Loaves and Fishes community in Duluth and a climate activist, agreed.

“It’s a good step,” Lanzillo said. “But there are more steps the city could take to be more energy efficient and have a greater impact upon the carbon footprint.”

Fitzpatrick and Lanzillo said the city’s intention to hire a sustainability officer is encouraging, but both hope whoever takes the new position works to reduce the carbon footprint of community members and private businesses.

“Although the city government will be making a great effort with the carbon footprint of city government buildings, that's only a certain percentage of the total carbon footprint for the city,” said Lanzillo.

To that point, Larson said, “those are the areas that we haven't really considered yet” because the city is focused first on improving the city’s resources like the steam plant and overall energy efficiency.

“When they see that we're getting it done, and we're leading, and we demonstrate that it is possible to achieve a lot on a local level, because we're doing it, then we can go out into the community and work with neighborhoods and work with the private sector and be a more robust partner with them,” Larson said.