Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Burlington: Losing Ground on Climate Action

The Burlington Planning Commission met this week to look over a new Climate Action Plan calling for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. But emissions actually increased 7 percent locally from 2007 to 2010. 
     The Vermont city has been working on climate issues for more than a decade. According to consultants the top three strategies are more energy efficient homes and commercial buildings, and less driving.

Burlington’s Climate Action Plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Reaching that goal means a 1.5 percent annual drop for the next eight years. The goal was set in 2008 after the city conducted a local inventory.
     Nevertheless, the 2012 update of the plan, which incorporates the results of a new inventory conducted by consultants in 2011, reveals that emissions actually increased 7 percent overall from 2007 to 2010. Emissions traceable to city government activity rose 15 percent, while the community’s emissions went up 6 percent.
     “Our transportation emissions did not decease, they didn’t hold steady, they actually went up 22 percent,” noted Burlington Planning Commission member Lee Buffinton on Tuesday at a public hearing on the plan. “You really have to dig through to even find that.”
     The Commission called the hearing to review the new findings and strategies, which are slated to become part of a revised Energy Chapter in the Municipal Development Plan. Future city projects and programs affecting transportation and development will have to conform to the standards in the plan. That includes zoning, subdivision regulation, impact fees and capital improvements.
     In 1998 Burlington’s City Council formed a Climate Protection Task Force and passed a resolution to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels. An 18-month process led to the city’s first Climate Action Plan, adopted in May 2000. A 2007 inventory showed that Burlington generated 397,272.4 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). The goals were a 20 percent reduction by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, which would require an annual 2 percent decrease.
     In 2009 Burlington used American Recovery Act funds to hire Spring Hill Solutions, a clean energy consulting firm, to prioritize more than 200 “mitigation actions” generated by eight working groups during a extensive community process. The resulting plan is expected to become a framework for measuring and reducing greenhouse emissions and other climate change impacts.
     According to Spring Hill, three approaches offer Burlington the largest “carbon bang for each investment buck;” in other word, the greatest potential for both carbon reductions and cost savings. They are the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which provides property owners with help making energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements; reducing the number of miles driven by local residents by combining trips, telecommuting, carpooling and using alternatives to the automobile; and requiring any new commercial construction to follow performance guidelines that reduce energy use by at least 20 percent.
     “Collectively, these three strategies comprise nearly half of the estimated carbon reductions and will save the City, citizens and other stakeholders more than $14 million each year,” the Plan states. Implementing all 17 of the strategies identified would produce a 12 percent reduction in emissions from the 2007 level.
     The inventory of city government indicates that while emissions from electricity decreased, those from natural gas rose by 25 percent. Increased fuel use by the city’s vehicle fleet also affected the total. For city workers, “the average commute distance rose to nearly 13 miles (one way) in 2010 and 75% of employees drove alone to work,” the document notes.
     Among the bright spots is Burlington’s municipal electric department, which has a tradition of seeking “clean power mixes and providing energy efficiency programs.” This has resulted in lower emissions from the BED grid. New England’s grid “provides cleaner electricity than the National Grid, but not as clean as the Burlington Electric Department Grid,” the plan says.
     Progress is also evident at the Burlington International Airport. Consumption of both electricity and natural gas has decreased, although emissions went up by 3 percent. In the last three years the airport has pushed energy efficiency by replacing lighting, air conditioning and heating equipment, and upgrading to digital controls.
     Emissions from electricity and natural gas also dropped in the community. But transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas. “With emissions increasing by almost a quarter since 2007, much work needs to be done in this sector, including changing habits and enacting policies,” the plan concludes.
City of Burlington - Community Emissions by Source
     Of total community emissions 51 percent came from transportation in 2010, “indicating that a reduction in annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by Burlington residents could have the biggest impact on helping the city meet its emissions reduction target.”
     Planning Commissioners also expressed concern about the absence of any reference to climate justice or equity issues in the plan. The omission, initially noticed by Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram, led Commission Chair Peter Potts to suggest that the public hearing remain “open” until the planners meet on May 8.  In the meantime, he asked Planning and Zoning staff member Sandrine Thibault to research equity and other lingering questions for a subsequent discussion.
     “I really commend the city of Burlington for doing this,” said Nathaly Agosto Filion, who attended the hearing. Fillion, who works for the Montpelier-based Institute for Sustainable Communities, pointed to a recent study indicating that, in tracking the amount of emissions reductions, “the most important thing is the buildup of community engagement.”
     The Burlington plan focuses on economic and emission impacts of various strategies, but does not go into other potential benefits such as increased water quality, improved soil retention, improved health and safety, or new educational opportunities.  
     Once the plan is approved changes in government policy will be facilitated by the Burlington Sustainability Action Team, formed by Mayor Kiss in 2008. Among other tasks the team is expected to make sure this plan and other municipal rules are consistent.
     Beyond the three top priorities high impact strategies include putting solar PV panels on school building roofs; retiring five percent of government’s vehicle fleet and replacing a quarter of the city’s vehicles with hybrids; increasing the urban tree canopy by planting 588 trees a year; and a digester system for solid waste that generates electricity and heat, reduces emissions and creates a bi-product that can be sold as bulk compost.
     Copies of the 2012 Climate Action Plan are available online or from the City of Burlington's Department of Planning and Zoning. 

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