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Conservation: Baby steps on the road to sustainability

by Amy Kingsley

Think back to this month last year. The drought that would inspire water restrictions in cities and towns across the state had just begun, and the Winston-Salem City Council considered supporting Mayor Allen Joines’ pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I was convinced after several meetings at the US Mayors’ Conference that global warming was real,” Joines said. “I was also convinced that the federal government wasn’t willing to take any action, so it was going to be left to the cities.”

Almost a year has passed and the state is emerging from its drought. But Winston-Salem is just beginning to tackle its commitment to the US Mayors’ Conference Climate Protection Agreement.

On April 15, Assistant City Manager Martha Wheelock submitted a progress report on Winston-Salem’s green initiatives and sustainability program to the city council’s general government committee. What the report said is that there hasn’t been much progress and Winston-Salem is just beginning to gauge the scope of the work ahead.

According to the report, the city joined the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) in fall 2007 as the first step in fulfilling its commitment to the agreement. Every city that signs the agreement must conduct an audit of its emissions before it sets goals for greenhouse gas reductions. ICLEI provides technical assistance and consultation to member cities.

The following December, city department heads conducted a video teleconference with ICLEI to familiarize themselves with the organization’s goals and methods. The council then submitted a proposal to conduct the emissions inventory for $30,000. But there was a problem – a backlog prevented the council from undertaking an inventory in Winston-Salem for at least six to eight months.

“We’re not late,” Wheelock said. “But we would have liked to be further along than we are right now.”

A run on demand for ICLEI’s services left Winston-Salem high and dry. So the city decided to forge ahead on its own, convening an interdepartmental task force to gather the same data ICLEI would have.

“It’s not [ICLEI’s] fault,” Wheelock said. “It was a situation where everyone jumped on the bandwagon at the same time. And, candidly, the East Coast got on a little later than the West Coast, where they had been working on this stuff for a while.”

Joines spearheaded the campaign to bring the mayors’ agreement to Winston-Salem, and several other members of the city council supported it. The progress since then has been a little slower than they’d hoped.

“With the audit particularly,” said City Councilman Dan Besse, “with things like that you always want to start as soon as possible.”

But the city shoulders a lot of different responsibilities, and an issue as remote as global climate change doesn’t provoke the same amount of popular support as those like neighborhoods and roads.

The city has made progress, although some of the advances have happened because of other programs that complement the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, Besse said.

One of those programs – the vehicle emissions policy – is already starting to pay financial and environmental dividends.

The city now requires departments making vehicle purchases of $100,000 or more to draw up a report evaluating their preferred vehicle’s fuel efficiency and average emissions. Several proposals have been sent back for reconsideration after the council determined the department had not fully considered the vehicle’s environmental impact.

The police department submitted one of those requests. They wanted to buy Crown Victorias, the same cars used as pursuit vehicles, for administrative staff.

“We determined that police administrators don’t need a pursuit vehicle,” Besse said. “Surely there was a more efficient vehicle that met staff needs.”

The department returned with a new proposal for a small mid-size car that burned less fuel than pursuit vehicles.

Four years ago, the city hired an energy director, Lindsey Smith, who is one of those charged with setting a baseline emissions figure.

“We’re really in the initial stage,” Smith said. “We are in the process of gathering information. There’s a lot out there that we’ve just started accumulating.”

In the interim, the city is implementing easy, short-term changes encouraged by the agreement, like replacing older traffic lights with LEDs, or light emitting diodes, and ramping up its recycling program.

“For the longer term, we need to continue on a process of redesigning our transportation systems and land-use plans,” Besse said.

That means encouraging mixed-use and walkable development and installing sidewalks and bicycle lanes in older neighborhoods.

The city has been moving forward in a number of ways, including incorporating more sustainable design into city buildings and encouraging the transit department to buy hybrid buses.

The interdepartmental task force, headed by Randy Rogers, the director of the property maintenance department, plans to complete its audit by June and return the information to council. Any appropriations for the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could then be included in next year’s budget. Rogers, who supervises the construction and upkeep of city buildings, said one of the biggest challenges has been wrapping his head around the enormity of the issue.

“ICLEI had a meeting in North Carolina,” Rogers said, “and I went in pretty green in a different kind of way.”

The city of Winston-Salem owns 400 buildings and has more than 500 Duke Energy accounts. Rogers is charged with wrangling all that data and plugging it into a computer program provided by ICLEI and assembling the results for council. The study includes information about energy use, vehicle miles traveled and methane production at local landfills.

“I think they gave it to me because buildings are the biggest users of energy,” Rogers said. “Depending on the data you look at it’s anywhere in the neighborhood of forty to sixty percent.”

The US Mayors’ Agreement asks cities to start with reducing their own emissions, but the eventual goal of the program is to include businesses and citizens. To that end, the city is planning a week of climate change awareness activities for the fall that will include local schools and human services agencies.

“We understand that there are more than eight hundred mayors who have signed the agreement to reduce carbon emissions seven percent below 1990 levels,” Joines said. “Seattle has already achieved eight percent, so clearly it can be done.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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