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City’s 2013 sustainability goals hit 60 percent

Wednesday, February 4, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Although sustainability efforts are notoriously difficult to measure, Austin’s Sustainability Office has outlined 10 targets and concluded that the city is making substantial progress within its operations, but has room for improvement.

Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens sent a memo to City Council and city staff on Friday concluding that, as of 2013, citywide combined department operations have met or exceeded six goals and failed to meet three, with one not yet fully developed. The memo also specifies that the measures do not cover community-wide activities outside of city operations.

Athens told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that, if she had to grade the city’s sustainability efforts, she would prefer a narrative evaluation over a letter grade. “I think that we got excellent results in the majority of our key performance indicators — it’s well above a passing grade,” she said, adding that “there’s always going to be things that you need to work on.”

The yearly goals met consist of reducing city building water use by 5 percent, increasing the amount of waste recycled at city office facilities by 5 percent, increasing the number of employees participating in wellness programs by 5 percent, planting 4,500 trees in rights of way and 3,100 trees in parks, constructing 39 miles of new bike lanes and 12.5 miles of new or reconstructed sidewalks, and ensuring that all new LEED-certified capital improvement projects comply with silver-level standards.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a U.S. Green Building Council certification program.

The yearly goals that were not met include reducing carbon emissions from city operations by 5 percent, reducing energy use in city buildings by 5 percent and ensuring that at least 95 percent of all new vehicles the city purchases use alternative or hybrid fuel sources.

In 2013, the city released 57,521 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere. This is an increase from the 51,522 tons released in 2012, though it is still far less than the 69,779 released in 2011.

Athens said that the 2012 drop corresponds with the city moving the Austin Energy accounts associated with city-owned buildings into the utility’s GreenChoice program. Aside from that, she said, fluctuations often relate to major initiatives the city may undertake, such as large construction projects or garbage pickup expansions.

The carbon measure, Athens added, ties in with vehicle purchasing. In 2013, 93 percent of the vehicles the city purchased were alternative-fueled or hybrid-fueled, down from 94 percent in 2012 and 99 percent in 2011.

“A lot of our CO2 emissions are coming from our fleets,” Athens said. “The major variable is that, for every vehicle purchase that we want to make, the market does not necessarily offer an alternative-fueled or hybrid-fueled vehicle for that vehicle class. Sometimes this is going to be impacted by the kinds of vehicle purchases that we need to make at any given time.”

Despite these challenges, Athens said she is confident that the city will meet its goal in the future. “We’re going to be focusing on that very carefully over the next budget cycle,” she said.

As far as reducing energy use in city buildings, Athens said, the city came very close to its goal, with a 4.8 percent reduction since 2012.

The yearly goal that is still in development involves the percentage of funds the city spends on sustainable purchases. Athens said the city has a method for categorizing and keeping track of such purchases, but that it’s not yet “fully operational.” In addition, the city does not yet have a stated goal to adhere to.

Athens said her staff plans to work with the city’s Purchasing Department to improve data collection procedures and eventually set a goal.

The Sustainability Office based its goals mostly on formally adopted Council resolutions and internal targets from various departments, though the energy reduction goal comes from a target that the Texas legislature set in Senate Bill 898.

Acknowledging a lag in reporting the 2013 data, Athens said that gathering the necessary information from various sources is time-consuming, but the Sustainability Office is going to consider adopting new strategies to get information out more often.

“We’re currently doing a feasibility assessment and some project scoping to see whether or not we can turn this into more of a dashboard that would display some data that would be updated on a fairly regular basis, as opposed to just annually,” Athens said.

Athens said that her staff plans to upload the 2013 report to the Sustainability Office’s Web page shortly. In the meantime, it is available here.

Graphic by City of Austin Office of Sustainability.

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