Judith Ko & Song Yee Ho
As Nebraska’s biggest city and a regional hub for commerce, meat processing and transportation, Omaha is responsible for significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Existing literature suggests that Omaha’s largest emission sources are likely: energy generation, urban sprawl driven by racial inequality, and pastoral agriculture. Bearing Omaha’s unique socio-economic and political circumstances in mind, we then propose contextualised solutions and implementation timelines. Lastly, to assess our solutions’ feasibility, we examine the logistical, financial, and social resources required. Underlying our proposal is a whole-of-society approach that engages all stakeholders—especially marginalised communities, civil society, academia, and state and federal governments. It is only through this participatory approach that a socially-equitable and effective net-zero transition can be realised.
KEY SOURCES OF EMISSIONS:
To craft customised solutions that maximise emission reductions, major sources must first be identified. A clear understanding of Omaha’s context also inspires strategies that build on existing measures, promoting rapid implementation.
(1) Omaha’s Coal-Centred Energy Industry
Electricity generation is amongst Omaha’s biggest emitters—in 2018, it contributed to 52% of emissions in the Omaha Public Power District’s (OPPD) service area.  While OPPD has scaled up renewables like wind to 23% in 2018, carbon-intensive coal still constitutes 48% of its energy mix , and will only be fully phased out in 2045.  Climate analysts have pointed out that while current policies can make Omaha’s energy sector net-zero by 2050, this can feasibly be attained earlier with moderate adjustments.  We argue that attaining net-zero in the energy industry by 2040 is critical to achieving overall net-zero by 2050, because it compensates for sectors that are hard to fully decarbonise (e.g. agriculture). Thus, a more ambitious decarbonisation plan can and should be adopted. This also has environmental justice implications, as OPPD’s pollutive coal plant is situated in black-majority North Omaha, worsening residents’ respiratory health.
(2) Urban Sprawl Driven by Underlying Racial Inequality
Another major emission source is Omaha’s environmentally-destructive urban sprawl. Due to historical redlining and segregationist policies,  the marginalised African-American and Hispanic communities today cluster in underdeveloped North and South Omaha respectively.  Wealthier whites have, since the 1900s, relocated in waves to the western suburbs to escape Omaha’s racial diversity.  This “white flight” persists today, with the recent stringent Covid-19 restrictions in schools triggering yet another exodus.  The resulting suburbanisation removes Omaha’s surrounding greenery with the construction of roads, houses, and utilities. This “double-whammy” not only destroys previously-untouched natural areas, thereby removing carbon sinks, it even converts them to carbon sources. Car dependency for commuting to the city centre also worsens. The city’s expansion will increase average commuting time by 10 minutes per trip by 2040, exacerbating emissions.  This is accentuated by the unpopularity of Omaha’s public transport—only 3% of Omahans use for commutes.  Furthermore, “white flight” exacerbates spatial inequality by reducing available tax revenue for schools in the core, locking marginalised communities further into multigenerational poverty and a “birth-to-prison pipeline”. Therefore, a socially-just net-zero transition must mitigate urban sprawl.
(3) Methane Emissions from Pastoral Agriculture
Omaha’s thriving cattle industry is another contributor. In 2016, Omaha’s state, Nebraska produced 36.01MMtCO2e of emissions from agriculture, of which 55% came from cattle ranching.  Most emissions are methane, produced by ruminants’ manure and eructation.  Worryingly, the 20-year Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane is 80 times that of carbon dioxide.  Thus, minimising this GHG is crucial, especially because discourse about net-zero often overlooks methane in favour of carbon dioxide. However, the solution is not as simple as slashing cattle consumption. Omaha’s and Nebraksa’s cattle lobby has exceptional economic and cultural influence. Presently, Nebraska’s $10-billion beef industry employs 26,000 people, many of whom operate in Omaha.  In a state where cattle outnumber people by 3:1, most citizens have ties to the industry.  Beef is also part of Omaha’s branding as one of USA’s “Best Cities for Meat Lovers”.  Therefore, mandating cutbacks to the industry not only threatens livelihoods, but will trigger public backlash to protect this source of cultural pride. A more feasible approach treats ranchers not as adversaries but as partners in implementing emissions-slashing agricultural practices.
Having identified key contributors and their associated socio-economic or political complications, we will strategically target them with a three-pronged approach, fleshed out with possible timelines and desired outcomes, on top of crucial supporting measures.
(1) Decarbonising Omaha’s Energy Supply
A central strategy is to shift from coal to renewables. The geographical advantages are promising: solar and wind energy are particularly feasible across Omaha’s state of Nebraska, which has the country’s third and twelfth highest wind and solar potential respectively.  Furthermore, administrative opportunity also arises from Nebraska’s distinction as the only state to have all energy needs provided by publicly-controlled utilities rather than private companies. Public ownership makes decarbonising energy especially feasible, since the profit-making motive characteristic of private firms is absent. Already, recent elections have installed environmentally-conscious directors who committed OPPD to net-zero by 2050.  OPPD’s complete oversight of the grid also gives it greater latitude to enact large-scale initiatives. Empowered by these unique opportunities, OPPD should immediately commission feasibility studies for renewable energy projects, as permit processes tend to be long-drawn. They should commence construction once approved, phasing out coal by 2035, and reaching net-zero energy by 2040. Since solar energy is presently under-utilised, producing just 5.0MW of energy (a fraction of wind’s 971.7MW),  it should be prioritised. Notably, this transition must account for the high national inflation (8.3% in 2022), exacerbated by supply chain disruptions stemming from COVID-19 lockdowns and geopolitical contestation in the Russian-Ukraine war.   Omahans therefore already face higher costs of living, impacting low-income minority households most significantly. As such, any significant increases in energy cost (>5%) should be offset with progressive rebates for poorer households. This ensures that their financial situation is not jeopardised so that our net-zero transition is socially-equitable. To protect coal plant workers from structural unemployment, OPPD should partner community colleges to reskill them for deployment in renewable energy. For distributed solar systems, low- to middle-income households may find the high upfront costs of personal panels prohibitive. They may also require assistance in navigating bureaucratic red tape or technical processes. Therefore, OPPD should significantly expand its innovative Community Solar Projects. These projects allow households to buy shares and receive energy affordably, and have proven themselves feasible, as seen from OPPD’s pilot in Ford Calhoun—whose shares have already been completely sold out. Apart from regulating costs, city officials should partner installation firms and green advocacy groups to create a social infrastructure favourable to solar adoption. For instance, they could send trained personnel to guide homeowners and raise awareness of market incentives like recently-expanded 30% federal tax credits that subsidise clean energy purchases.  We anticipate concerns about the intermittency of renewables—which tend to overproduce energy in the day and underproduce at night just when energy demand increases. To mitigate this, we recommend expanding the geographic diversity of energy sources by tapping into the Southwest Power Pool, which combines electricity supply across Midwestern states. We also suggest investing in modern energy storage technologies (the cost of which is falling rapidly),  and replacing Omaha’s conventional grid with a Smart Grid. This is made feasible by OPPD’s centralised grid control, meaning these changes will face fewer administrative obstacles. Smart metres and IoT sensors can relay weather data to OPPD to anticipate supply disruptions and smoothen variability. Tools like Artificial Intelligence can also tap on Big Data to predict future energy demand, and responsively increase prices to lower peak load demand. This moderation of peak load ensures that fossil fuel peaking plants need not be activated to meet shortfall demand. Given that OPPD has already completed a Smart Grid pilot test, a full rollout can be executed expeditiously starting 2023, for completion by 2028.
(2) Urban Revitalisation
A Biophilic City We propose bio-centric urban revitalisation and reimaging to mitigate Omaha’s socially-inequitable and environmentally-unsustainable urban sprawl. To that end, we recommend vital enhancements to Omaha’s current $306-million renewal plans.  Firstly, Omaha can be rebranded as a “biophilic city” by comprehensively integrating greenery, beyond the handful of ground-level parks that the current plan stipulates. We envision incorporating nature across the cityscape through vertical vegetation, edible landscapes, and communal gardens satiating the psychological instinct to be close to nature. The canopy shade also promotes liveability by mitigating the Urban Heat Island Effect, and provides visual relief from the harsh concrete landscape.  Moreover, skyrise vegetation enhances buildings’ carbon sequestration capacity, pushing them a step closer to net-zero. In fact, buildings can create more green cover than they remove—an example being Singapore’s Oasia Downtown Hotel, which provides 1100% of the green cover removed through vertical gardens.  We aim to increase skyrise greenery by 100 hectares by 2040, and another 100 hectares by 2050. Financially, we will incentivise this by subsidising installation costs to retrofit existing buildings, with immediate effect. New developments must have energy efficient architecture that capitalises on natural lighting and heating, and replace at least two-thirds of ground-level green cover they remove through skyrise greenery by 2024. This two year’s notice gives businesses time to plan adjustments to this regulation. We believe Omaha should not simply adopt traditional revitalisation techniques, but seize this opportunity to rebrand itself as a greener city, bringing new residents, tourists and economic activity back to Omaha. Secondly, public transportation should be expanded to ameliorate carbon-emitting car dependency. The current Omaha Bus Rapid Transit and proposed Streetcar routes run exclusively from east to west.  Besides electrifying all bus services by 2040, a move that neighbouring Lincoln has already embarked on,  these buses should also service the neglected minority neighbourhoods in North and South Omaha. Subsidised concession cards can be distributed to low-income households to ensure social inclusivity. While our proposal stimulates green revitalisation, we must avoid gentrification that raises rents and displaces poorer communities. Policymakers must engage marginalised communities and grassroots leaders throughout the planning process, from inception to completion. This ensures that their interests are represented, and spaces central to community life are preserved.  Community Land Trusts, which are non-profit landowning organisations which can resist market pressures to raise rents, should be established to protect vulnerable households. We find this preferable to rent ceilings, which, as empirical evidence indicates, increases affordability in the short-run but fuels supply shrinkage and gentrification in the long-run.  Additional rebate programmes for low-income households should be given to assist them in electrifying their appliances and make energy-efficient retrofits.
(3) Reducing Agricultural Methane Emissions
We will address pastoral agriculture’s two biggest methane producers: manure and enteric fermentation. Firstly, there is an unrealised economic opportunity in monetising manure while reducing emissions via capturing methane as biogas. This is achieved through OPPD purchasing manure from ranchers, and capturing this carbon-neutral biogas for energy. Biogas is especially helpful in decarbonising Heavy Goods Vehicles, which are difficult to electrify.  The economic success of similar projects on human waste in Omaha and Lincoln bodes well for the feasibility of this recommendation: Lincoln’s biogas plant is projected to pay for itself within three years.  After completing necessary negotiations with ranchers, we aim to start production by 2030. Admittedly, this strategy is less viable for ranchers in remote locations far from established pipelines. In such cases, we suggest working with agribusinesses to deploy nature-based vermifiltration systems that use earthworms to consume manure and produce fertiliser, which mitigates methane release.  We will incentivise agricultural practices like modifying cattle diet with feed additives, which lower emissions from enteric fermentation. Farmers stand to benefit because it enhances output, given that methane emissions cause a gross energy loss of about 10%.  Since feed additives are more expensive than traditional varieties, government subsidies can aid in making the costs comparable. As these agricultural practices may be unfamiliar to farmers, the city can partner with the Nebraska Cattlemen Association to provide technical assistance. Market forces can also be a powerful tool. We suggest a “green” label scheme for food packaging to certify climate-friendly cattle-rearing practices so eco-conscious consumers can reward ranchers by “voting with their dollar”. This increased demand will motivate farmers to adopt these changes. We aim to reduce methane emissions by 60% by 2050.
(4) Other Supporting Measures
Apart from the aforementioned policies that directly address key sources of Omaha’s emissions, we recognise that two critical complementary measures are indispensable in our strategy’s long-term success. Firstly, Omaha-specific climate research—of which there is currently a clear shortage—must be enhanced. Most eminently, this net-zero proposal requires accountability from watchdogs, academia and civil society, but accountability is impossible if information about Omaha’s carbon sources and sinks is unavailable. At present, only Nebraska’s  and OPPD’s  emissions are available, the latter not precisely representing Omaha’s emissions because it serves areas beyond the city. There is also little information about carbon sinks. Hence, the city can partner universities (e.g. Creighton University, MIT), to create a public Carbon Budget, and expand scholarship on Omaha-specific climate policies, using research grants to incentivise this. Moreover, to make this Carbon Budget meaningful, it must incorporate a complete Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which considers emissions from production to consumption to final disposal. Otherwise, emissions that are driven by but not occuring within the city might be overlooked. For instance, although most pastoral agriculture occurs outside Omaha’s boundaries, it is pushed by the city’s beef demand. If LCA is not incorporated, the city may appear to be closer to net-zero than it actually is. Secondly, community engagement and persuasion is critical because of Omaha’s political context. Although opinion polls demonstrate that most Omahans support green initiatives , the city resides in a deeply Republican state with climate-sceptical sentiments amongst sections of the electorate. For instance, OPPD’s move to explicitly acknowledge the scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change saw a sizable minority expressing dissent.  As one resident claimed: renewables “consume more fossil fuels in the construction and maintenance than electric power itself”. Others raised concerns about possibly higher costs to consumers.  A net-zero transition must garner public buy-in to succeed, especially in Omaha where the public elects OPPD’s directors. Therefore, we recommend that city officials directly engage the community through school talks, door-to-door canvassing, and dialogues with key opinion leaders in religious institutions, community organisations and social media. The messaging can be tailored to conservative sensibilities and highlight tangible benefits, like clean energy’s role in boosting energy security, securing economic growth, or ensuring America’s competitiveness in its geopolitical rivalry with China. They should work with green advocacy groups to simplify technical jargon. It is only through a whole-of-society mobilisation that our strategy would be publicly supported.
Requisite decarbonisation hardware includes: transmission pipelines, methane-processing equipment, renewable energy infrastructure, electrical lines, Smart sensors, and AI technologies—amongst many others. Funds are also required for grants to incentivise localised climate research, and to establish a public relations committee to oversee campaigns. Additionally, our solution requires significant manpower, technical personnel, and managerial expertise. Undergirding these resources is the need for sufficient financial backing; this will come from local, state and federal levels. Local public funding will be derived partially from a revenue-neutral carbon tax to supplement current municipal and property taxes and OPPD’s sizable profits. It will start from a modest $5/tonne in 2025 and increase by increments of $5 every 5 years till $20/tonne. This tax must be modest to maintain public buy-in because of the strong influence of the more conservative Republican Party. Progressive tax rebates will be distributed to low-income households to protect them, while remaining proceeds will fund the initiative. To attenuate any decrease in economic competitiveness, we suggest collaborating with neighbouring cities like Lincoln and Nebraska City to adopt a common tax so that businesses are more likely to stay. On a state level, we will tap into the Nebraska Environmental Trust, which historically already made substantial grants to OPPD for battery storage development.  Federal-level options are more abundant because they are controlled by the more climate-conscious Democratic Party. In particular, the Build Back Better Plan provides $186 million to Nebraska to improve public transport options, along with funding for climate-friendly agricultural practices.  The Inflation Reduction Act makes further provisions for net-zero buildings, with $9 billion in home energy rebates especially for low-income consumers.  However, borrowing costs for public funding is rising because the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to curb inflation.  Thus, we suggest supplementing public funds with private sources. This includes soliciting donations from Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, along with local and national charities like Omaha Economic Development Corporation and National Low Income Housing Coalition to promote revitalisation without gentrification. While Nebraska law mandates that energy supply be 100% public and thereby prohibiting private financing, public-private partnerships can still be forged in the area of revitalising Omaha’s core, injecting private investments into new business ventures. Besides financial funding, the highly-participatory nature of our strategy necessitates tapping on the existing influence of civil society organisations, such as Green Omaha Coalition, to mobilise resources and public support, organise public consultations, disseminate aid to low-income families and collect data for research.
CONCLUSION: LEVERAGING CONTEXT AND EXISTING SYNERGIES:
As a whole, our suggested initiatives are synergistic, reinforcing each other’s success. For example, biogas from manure supports decarbonisation, not only as a carbon-neutral fuel, but as a relatively reliable energy source to balance out solar intermittency. Meanwhile, phasing out coal reduces pollution, improving liveability and contributing to urban revitalisation. A carbon tax to fund our initiatives nudges businesses to reduce emissions, enhancing the take-up rate of biophilic buildings. Indeed, each proposed measure should not be viewed in isolation, but as a holistic and whole-of-society response underscored by principles of social equity and environmental sustainability. Our proposal is carefully tailored to Omaha’s political, cultural, and economic peculiarities, enhancing its feasibility and adoption likelihood. Having identified key emissions sources, constraints, and opportunities, we offer ambitious and targeted net-zero solutions backed by viable funding and logistical resources so that they can be realistically implemented. We hope this comprehensive net-zero plan serves as a launchpad for future research and policies, for a greener and more equitable future.