Pollution drops in Alameda

Pollution drops in Alameda

Michele Ellson

Alamedans polluted less in 2010 than they did five years earlier, the results of a new study show.

Emissions of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants dropped 8 percent over that time, the 2010 Community-Wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory estimates, putting Alameda on track to meet the city’s reduction target of 25 percent by 2020. But some are questioning whether the numbers will hold as the nation emerges from a recession that likely reduced the car trips that are responsible for much of the pollution, and they say that much more needs to be done.

“We’re feeling good,” Sherri Hong, Alameda Municipal Power’s assistant general manager for customer resources, said of the numbers. “If we project this out, we would have had to reduce (emissions by) 8 or 8.5 percent every five years, and we’re about right on target with that.”

Emissions related to home electricity use dropped 30 percent over the five-year period, the new estimates show, while commercial electricity use generated 27 percent fewer emissions – even as electricity use increased on both fronts. Hong attributed the declines to the electric company’s increasing use of “green” power sources, which include geothermal, wind and landfill gas capture.

The amount of waste Alameda’s residents and business owners sent to landfills dropped by a quarter, reducing waste-related emissions by 17 percent, the study shows, a reduction credited to programs that include a citywide “zero waste” initiative that seeks to reduce landfill waste and boost recycling, a school lunch program that has boosted recycling and composting in Alameda’s public schools and an effort by Miss Alameda Jessica Robinson that has encouraged dozens of local restaurants to compost scraps.

Emissions caused by car travel dropped 14 percent and bus travel, 19 percent, though one of the architects of the city’s emission-reduction efforts said he’s concerned that those numbers could inch up again as the nation emerges from a deep recession that saw millions of Americans lose their jobs – and with them, their daily commute.

“It sounded like a good bit of that drop was due to the recession. As we see the economy come back, are we going to see a bump that makes us lose some of that gain? It’s a warning sign for me,” said David Burton, who helped draft the city’s local climate protection plan and also helped found a citizen group that seeks to encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint.

The city and its utility have put a host of programs in place intended to reduce energy use and emissions, a list that includes green power purchase and energy efficiency programs, a sustainable landscaping ordinance and efforts to reduce the amount of time vehicles idle at stoplights. Alameda has a Styrofoam ban in place and Alameda County’s cities recently enacted a plastic bag ban for grocery and convenience stores.

But Burton, who said he was encouraged by the report’s findings, said there are limits on what local government can do to reduce emissions.

Cars, trucks and buses are responsible for 57 percent of the city’s total emissions, the report says. And while groups like Community Action for a Sustainable Alameda and Bike Alameda can use their respective bully pulpits to try to change people’s driving behavior – and federal fuel efficiency standards could reduce emissions further – he said there’s no “magic bullet” that will get cars off the road.

“We can’t sit around as residents and ask, ‘What is the city government going to do to change this?’ It’s what we as residents are going to do ourselves to change emissions,” Burton said. “It’s what we as a community can do to make a difference.”

Emissions for Alameda totaled 368,813 metric tons of carbon dioxide or its equivalents in 2010, including roughly 39,000 tons from sources like lawn mowers and residents’ BART trips, which weren’t counted in the 2005 study. All told, Alameda’s per capita emissions equaled five metric tons per resident, or roughly the amount a typical passenger vehicle spits out in a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s calculations. That rate is the lowest in Alameda County, a staff summary of the report, which will be presented to the Public Utilities Board tonight, says.

Initial figures for 2005 put Alameda’s emissions at 303,096 metric tons of greenhouse gases, though the author of the 2010 study said the calculations contained an error and that true number should have been 357,092 metric tons. Taking away the new emission sources that weren’t included in the 2005 figures, the city saw emissions drop.

In 2006, state legislators charged the California Air Resources Board with implementing a program to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and the state board encouraged local governments to implement better land use and transportation planning, waste management, energy efficiency efforts, in addition to protecting habitat and boosting awareness of the need to pollute less. (Legislators later produced a bill that ties some transportation funding to better land use and transportation policies.)

That same year, Alameda partnered with other cities to launch pollution reduction efforts, with the City Council resolving to reduce emissions by 25 percent between 2005 and 2020 and putting together a task force that came up with a local climate protection plan that focuses on reducing emissions through better land use and transportation planning, reduced energy use, waste reduction and recycling and community outreach and education.

Burton, who helped draft the plan, said he would like to see AMP – which has one of the greenest power mixes in the nation – cull all of its power from renewable sources, and he’d like the city to have a stronger green building ordinance than the one in place now.

More progress could also be made with efforts to reduce home heating and other natural gas emissions, which account for four-fifths of residential emissions, Hong and Burton said.

Hong echoed Burton’s comments about needing the public’s help in finding ways to reduce Alameda’s greenhouse gas emissions further. The Public Utilities Board will receive the report at its meeting tonight, which starts at 7 p.m. at the Alameda Municipal Power Service Center, 2000 Grand Street, and the report is slated to go to the City Council on April 16.

“We really need the community’s help and support with identifying ways that we can really reduce transportation use, which is a large factor,” Hong said. “The results reflect the strong effort of the community and we will need continued support to help Alameda reach its goals.”