In November 2019, the City of Northfield joined several other Minnesota communities in adopting the Northfield Climate Action Plan. Northfield’s efforts are an excellent example of a small city setting ambitious climate goals and planning for long-term resilience. Action on climate at all scales, from small to large cities, is critical to achieving state, national, and global carbon reduction targets.

The Northfield Climate Action Plan is a culmination of years of work and action led by the city’s residents on sustainability, renewable energy, and environmental stewardship. Great Plains Institute staff, in partnership with LHB, Inc. and ORANGE Environmental, worked with the city’s Climate Action Plan Advisory Board to develop the climate action plan over the past year. The plan charts a path toward mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and strengthening the community’s ability to prepare for and recover from climate events.

Plan development builds on city’s history of sustainability

Northfield is a small city that is home to approximately 20,000 residents. Located about an hour south of the Twin Cities, Northfield’s character as a college town with agricultural surroundings is summarized by its motto: “Cows, colleges, and contentment.” The Cannon River flows through Northfield’s downtown district and contributes to the environmental ethic of the community. The city has a long history of driving sustainable action across sectors—from citizens organizing to boost local renewable energy production to college students and staff leading food recovery initiatives. The city’s climate action plan lays a bold path forward that builds upon this foundation.

The development of the climate action plan was spurred by the city’s 2018 strategic plan, which included climate change impacts as a priority area. The Northfield City Council established the Climate Action Plan Advisory Board to lead the development of the plan. Early in the process, the board focused on six core areas: energy, transportation, materials and waste, land, water and wastewater, and food. These focus areas were central to the actions included in the plan to ensure that by achieving emissions reductions, the city will also realize co-benefits that improve the economic, physical, and environmental health for all residents.

Overarching goals

The city set an overarching goal to be carbon-free by 2040 and to receive 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030. The Northfield Climate Action Plan goals present an aggressive timeline to align with the necessary emissions reduction levels recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to stay below a 1.5 degree warming threshold.

Additionally, Northfield recognizes that climate change is already having demonstrable impacts on its community—with major river flooding events causing damage to infrastructure along the river and changes in precipitation patterns impacting agricultural producers. In an effort to recognize and prepare for these impacts, the plan includes strategies to enhance the community’s resilience.

Reaching community goals: A pathway to 2040

Meeting these goals of this climate action plan requires action across all levels and sectors through a variety of strategies. Through the development of the plan, the Climate Action Plan Advisory Board centered the strategies and actions within four priority areas:

  1. Expand education and engagement strategies for residents, businesses, industries, and tourists to increase and market sustainable, green projects.
  2. Incorporate emissions reductions, climate considerations, and resilience into policy and planning processes and decisions.
  3. Demonstrate climate leadership through innovation and demonstration of energy and sustainability projects.
  4. Maintain momentum and progress through continued support of the plan.

The actions within the plan are estimated to achieve a 77 percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions from a business-as-usual projection in 2040—visualized in Figure 1. An additional 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions will need to be addressed through advanced strategies such as fuel switching, combined heat and power, and other technological changes for building heating and vehicle travel.

Figure 1. Total emissions reductions resulting from climate action plan implementation

A wedge graph showing planned emissions reductions by sector for the city of Northfield, Minnesota

Northfield’s proposed actions to achieve a 77 percent reduction in total GHG emissions by 2040 will not be easy. Success will require coordination of stakeholders across the city, dedication from city staff and community members, and longstanding commitment to the overarching goals. The remaining 23 percent of emissions will be even more difficult to reduce. These emissions come from the natural gas used for space heating and industrial processes, as well as gas and diesel used in heavy-duty vehicle travel. Until large buildings can be feasibly heated by natural gas alternatives in Minnesota winters and heavy-duty vehicles can run with non-carbon intensive fuels, reducing these emissions will remain a challenge.

Advanced thermal strategies will be key to addressing heating and industrial natural gas consumption. These strategies include the deployment of technologies like combined heat and power, district heating, ground-source and air-source heat-pumps, among other possibilities. While these technologies are commercially available, we have yet to see the broad deployment of these technologies in Minnesota. 

From planning to implementation

A plan as comprehensive as Northfield’s Climate Action Plan has the potential overwhelm those tasked with implementation; with about a hundred recommended actions, it can be hard to know where to begin.

To begin building capacity and momentum toward reaching its bold carbon reduction goals, the city outlined short-term targets as the first steps to implementing the plan. These targets focus on the six core areas with actions that can be achieved in the next three years. The urgency of mitigating climate change impacts demands long-term thinking while also necessitating near-term action. These targets provide a framework for taking the first steps to achieve bold emission reduction goals.

Building momentum

The goals put forth in Northfield’s Climate Action Plan are audacious and innovative, rising to the level required to meet the challenge that climate change poses. In creating a climate action plan, Northfield joins several a growing number of local jurisdictions in setting climate and energy goals and articulating specific initiatives, policies, and programs to reach those goals.

As momentum builds to address climate change, local entities continue to demonstrate leadership through innovative strategies that reduce emissions and enhance community resilience, while also addressing broader community goals. GPI assists communities like Northfield with climate action planning and implementation of climate and energy goals. As the timeline to reduce greenhouse gas emissions becomes increasingly urgent, it is critical that governments at all levels—including local —take action to transition to a clean energy future for all.

Interested in learning more about climate planning and other services? Contact Abby Finis at [email protected] to find out more about how your community can reach its energy planning, sustainability, and climate action goals. You can also learn more about the services we provide on our Consulting and Services web page.

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