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Travis County approves its first climate action plan

Wednesday, June 3, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a comprehensive climate action plan that outlines how to reduce the county’s environmental footprint through 82 recommendations.

Commissioner Brigid Shea, who called the plan a “big deal,” told the Austin Monitor that although the plan already has initiatives outlined to reduce the county’s carbon footprint, they are not the only projects that can be undertaken.

The plan focuses on seven areas: energy consumption, water consumption, waste disposal, transportation and fuel usage, purchasing and procurement choices, process improvements and county resiliency. Each of the 82 proposed projects is categorized by how long it will take to implement, which focus area it falls under and how the county will measure the resulting impact on sustainability efforts.

Shea told the Monitor that while there is currently no concrete number for a reduction in greenhouse gases, “We’d be working off the goals incorporated in the Paris climate agreement.” According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, requires that greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 40 percent below 2005 levels within the next 10 years.

Currently, the county emits 40,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of 44 million pounds of coal. Half of these emissions are tied to county buildings and their energy consumption needs. One-quarter of greenhouse gases are linked to the county’s vehicle fleet and 27 percent are from employees commuting in their own vehicles. Only 2 percent of emissions are from solid waste.

Tom Gleason, a sustainability project manager with the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department, told the Commissioners Court that the projects geared toward reducing emissions were ranked in terms of importance across departments as well as the time frame in which they can be completed. There is not yet a budget allocated for the suggested projects.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty cautioned the Commissioners Court and county staff about the importance of determining the dollar figure required for each project before committing to individual initiatives. In the motion for approval of the climate action plan, the commissioners added a caveat that any project that requires additional budgeting needs to come before the commissioners for approval.

The county has already taken some initiatives to combat its production of greenhouse gases. In May, the commissioners voted to explore extending the county’s work-from-home policy to 75 percent of eligible county employees in an effort to reduce transportation congestion and improve air quality. Last year, the county also finished connecting its four downtown buildings to treated sewage water, also known as the purple pipe, to run the buildings’ air-conditioning systems. This change saves 10 million gallons of water annually.

Gleason called the county’s push toward a more aggressive teleworking strategy a “silver lining,” saying that in developing the climate plan, staff identified remote work as one of the primary ways to impact emissions. “The number-one thing that the county could do to expand our environmental impact (efforts) is to expand our teleworking,” he told the Commissioners Court. He noted that shifting county operations to a four-day workweek would build on this tactic as another long-term strategy to further reduce Travis County’s carbon footprint.

Shea told the Monitor that she expects an effort to move to a four-day workweek to come sooner rather than later as a part of the effort to develop a countywide teleworking commuting plan.

The county’s adoption of a climate action plan follows the city of Austin, which adopted its plan in 2015 relying on much of the same data. Shea explained to the Monitor that it took the Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s bond credit rating agencies asking about the existence of a climate plan to make the development of such a document a priority.

Now that the county has a baseline plan to work from, the climate action plan will be updated every two years. The progress toward a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will be presented each year during the annual sustainability report the commissioners receive.

“In terms of climate change, we have a tremendous challenge in front of us, but we also have an incredible opportunity,” Gleason said.

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