Sunday, October 05, 2008

Houston taking on global warming
Mayor plans to reduce greenhouse gases by 2010

Oct. 2, 2008, 9:55PM

Houston, of all places, suddenly has a sweeping plan to fight global warming.  America's energy capital is seeking to slash emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that contribute to climate change under the plan, which city officials released with little fanfare days before Hurricane Ike.

The goal is to reduce this smoggy, sprawling city's impact on the climate by buying renewable power and hybrid cars, replacing lightbulbs and rehabbing buildings to make them more energy-efficient, among other strategies.

The effort comes amid increasing frustration with the federal response to global warming. Mayors from Meridian, Miss., to Seattle have adopted their own initiatives to deal with so-called greenhouse gases, heeding calls from experts who believe that if steps aren't taken soon to reduce these pollutants, or at least slow their growth, the planet's climate could change radically.

Mayor Bill White's plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 11 percent below 2005 levels by 2010. City officials described the target as conservative, because it's based on existing programs, and they expect to introduce more, including additional solar panels on rooftops and expanded mass transit.

With the strategies already in play, the plan doesn't need the approval of City Council. What's new is the analysis of the city's emissions.  "While we have undertaken all of these initiatives, we've taken them for many different reasons," such as energy efficiency and cost savings, said Elena Marks, the mayor's director of environmental and health policy. "We hadn't captured what the emissions reductions would be."

The plan places Houston high on any list of green strivers, experts said. Austin's energy goals may be more ambitious, and Arlington has a broader inventory of emissions, but neither has a detailed plan for reducing pollutants that hover in the atmosphere.

Local environmentalists endorsed Houston's efforts and described the plan as a bold first step that could be a model for other cities.  "If you were the mayor of Houston, would you raise the flag for global warming?" said Nan Hildreth of the Houston Climate Protection Alliance, an advocacy group. "But he has."

Wind energy is key

The plan deals in areas that White directly controls, such as the city's energy use and power purchases.  It also shows how much of the reduction in greenhouse gases will come from which steps. For example, by swapping out every traffic-light bulb for a light-emitting diode, the city would cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 12,011 tons, or 69 percent, from 2005 levels.

The largest reductions would come from Houston's shift to wind energy, which is cleaner and currently cheaper than that from natural-gas plants. One-third of the city's power purchases for its municipal facilities already come from wind-driven sources under a contract that allows for incremental increases over time.

"I believe the city of Houston has done more concrete things in the last several years to reduce its emissions than many, many other cities," White said. "The proof in the pudding is how much less power is consumed by the city and where we get that power."

The plan also estimates reductions in nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which form lung-scarring ozone, or smog, when they react in sunlight. Houston's car-dependent lifestyle, large concentration of industry and weather make the eight-county region one of the smoggiest in the nation.

Under the plan, the city would slash emissions of nitrogen oxides to 16 percent below 2005 levels, while emissions of volatile organic compounds would remain the same, despite a growing population base.

Saves costs in future

The plan's price tag remains unclear, but city officials said some of the strategies should save money over time. Houston, for example, purchased energy-saving devices for nearly 200 vending machines with the expectation of recovering the cost within 18 months, said Karl Pepple, the city's director of environmental programming.  City officials are confident they will meet their targets, even as other municipalities have found real progress hard to come by.

In recent years, hundreds of mayors have pledged that their cities would strive to meet the targets of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that aims to curb global warming. The agreements calls for cities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Chicago recently set an even bolder goal by promising to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Without any action, city officials said, Chicago's climate eventually would feature more than 30 days a year of 100-degree weather and stretches of severe drought.

The Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance last year surveyed 10 high-profile "Kyoto cities," including Austin and San Francisco, and determined it was unlikely that more than one of the cities would achieve their goals.

Despite their ambitions, several cities are now grappling with how to calculate emissions of greenhouse gases in the base year of 1990. Without an actual starting point, they are unsure of their next steps.

A conservative approach

In contrast, Houston's approach is more conservative with its 2005 benchmark. Marks said the city was unable to construct an emissions inventory from 1990 because some data are unavailable.

"We could come up with something (for 1990), but it would a pretty wild assumption," she said. "This is more beneficial, because we can say it's accurate."

Neil Carman, an Austin-based air quality specialist for the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter, said a 1990 benchmark would lead to greater reductions. "Yet I think it's great that the city of Houston is making such a major stab at getting a comprehensive plan in place, even if 2005 is the baseline," he said.

Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, also applauded the plan, saying it's important that the city "set a bar to jump over."
"That's the kind of mindset that more institutions and companies in the region should have," he said.

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