Twenty tips to combat global warming for public works professionals

Julia Anastasio, Esq.
Senior Manager of Government Affairs
APWA Washington Office

It is nearly impossible to open a newspaper or magazine or turn on the television lately without hearing something about climate change and global warming. A general consensus is emerging that climate change and global warming pose a threat to future generations and, for some, climate change is already happening. Changes around the world, including higher temperatures, rising sea levels, increased risk of drought, fire and floods, increased severity of storms, habitat losses, movement of heat-related illnesses and disease and economic losses, are predicted to occur as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions. The causes and consequences of climate change are so broad that they touch nearly every environmental issue—from air pollution to drought prevention, from coral bleaching to species extinction. Moreover, the consequences of climate change will certainly cause economic disruption and increase the likelihood of conflicts over dwindling natural resources.

A recent report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Fourth Assessment Report, assessed and evaluated the current state of climate change on the global climate. IPCC, 2007: "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change" [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Avery, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. The assessment concluded that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal and that there is a high confidence level that human activities are significantly contributing to this problem. Id. at 5 and 10. The assessment also states that while a long-term solution to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is needed, preventive steps are necessary to prepare for and mitigate the effects of global warming on countries by building better levees, abandoning flood plains and moving to higher ground. Id.

States and local governments across the nation are stepping up and acting where the federal government is not by implementing a range of initiatives from increasing energy efficiency in government facilities to converting public works department fleet vehicles to alternative fuel vehicles to incorporating green building and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) concepts when designing and constructing new government facilities to combat global climate change. Beside climate change mitigation, government officials cite other reasons for action, including improving local air quality, promoting economic development, and reducing vulnerability to fluctuating energy prices. Many cities and towns have joined the ICLEI Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) campaign. The CCP campaign assists cities in adopting policies and implementing quantifiable measures to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and enhance urban livability and sustainability. More than 800 local governments participate in the CCP, integrating climate change mitigation into their decision-making processes. Local governments join the campaign by pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from local government operations and throughout the community. The program centers around five milestones and provides a simple, flexible and standardized means for local governments to take action on climate change. Moreover, ICLEI assists cities in achieving their local goals and they have developed several software tools to help with undertaking the CCP program. The five milestones are:

  1. Conduct a baseline emissions inventory and forecast. Calculate greenhouse gas emissions based on energy consumption and waste generation for a base year and for a forecast year. The inventory and forecast provide a benchmark against which the city can measure progress.

  2. Adopt an emissions reduction target for the forecast year.

  3. Develop a Local Action Plan that describes the measures that the local government will take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve its emissions reduction target.

  4. Implement the policies and measures included in the Local Action Plan.

  5. Monitor and verify progress on the implementation of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.(1)

Even if you do not agree that global warming possesses a threat to the economy and the environment, implementing a few simple solutions can improve your department's operational efficiency and save money while also benefiting the environment. Local governments, and especially public works directors, play an important role in taking actions today to reduce or limit the impact of community services on the global climate.

Here is a list of twenty tips that you can use to reduce your department's or facility's greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the global environment, improve energy efficiency and save money:

  1. Switch from conventional, incandescent light bulbs to compact florescent light bulbs which use a quarter of the electricity and last longer than conventional bulbs.

  2. Turn out or dim the lights in unused conference rooms, and when you step out for lunch. Work by daylight when possible. A typical commercial building uses more energy for lighting than anything else.(2)

  3. Conduct an energy audit of your facilities to see where energy efficiency can be increased. Your local electric utility can direct you to resources on energy audits.

  4. Implement a comprehensive energy management program at your facility or within your department. Your local electric utility can direct you to resources to help you.

  5. Implement an environmental management system (EMS) for your facility (3). An EMS is a set of processes and practices that enable an organization to reduce its environmental impact and increase operational efficiency. EMS employs a continual cycle of planning, implementing, reviewing and improving the processes and actions that an organization undertakes to meet its business and environmental goals.

  6. Control the thermostat. Only heat or cool rooms that are used. Set your thermostat in winter to 68 degrees or less during the daytime, and 55 degrees before going to sleep (or when you're away for the day). During the summer, set thermostats to 78 degrees or more. Use sunlight wisely. During winter, leave shades and blinds open on sunny days, but close them at night to reduce the amount of heat lost through windows. Close shades and blinds during the summer or when the air conditioner is in use or will be in use later in the day.(4)

  7. Properly maintain equipment and vehicles. Change air filters regularly and properly inflate tires on your fleet.

  8. Convert your fleet to alternative, renewable fuel vehicles. Consider compressed natural gas (CNG), hybrid vehicles or diesel vehicles. The City of San Francisco set a target to cut the city bus fleet to zero emissions by 2020. To date, the city has converted more than 700 clean air vehicles in its city fleet.(5)

  9. Convert streetlights to LED (Light Emitting Diodes). The brighter, newer fixtures use 40% less electricity than traditional bulbs (6). The City of Portland, Ore., recently completed converting city traffic signals to LED bulbs and has seen savings of almost five million kWh per year and over $500,000 annually in energy and maintenance costs.(7)

  10. Purchase renewable/green power for your facilities. Electricity generation is the leading cause of industrial air pollution in the U.S. Most of our electricity comes from coal, nuclear, and other non-renewable power plants. Renewable energy sources (solar electric, wind, geothermal, biomass and small and low-impact hydro) can be used to produce electricity with fewer environmental impacts.(8)

  11. Look for ENERGY STAR products when making purchases. ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy designed to help consumers save money and protect the environment through energy-efficient products and practices.(9)

  12. Purchase WaterSense products. According to EPA, it takes a considerable amount of energy to deliver and treat the water we use every day. American public water supply and wastewater treatment facilities consume approximately 50 billion kWh per year. Running your faucet for five minutes uses about as much energy as letting a 60 watt conventional light bulb burn for 14 hours.(10)

  13. Reduce waste and increase recycling within your department. Products made from recycled paper, glass, metal and plastic reduce carbon emissions because they use less energy to manufacture than products made from completely new materials.(11)

  14. Implement a green procurement policy.(12)

  15. Install a green roof or eco-roof. A green roof will not only absorb heat but it will also filter the air moving across it. 1 m2 (10.76 ft2) of grass roof can remove between 0.2 kg of airborne particulates from the air every year. In addition to providing local environmental benefits, preliminary evidence suggests green roofs also reduce roof maintenance costs and energy use by insulating buildings from extreme temperatures.(13)

  16. Install Solar Panels. For instance, the City of Vallejo developed a strategy of incorporating onsite solar power generation at a variety of facilities to reduce its utility bills and protect budgets against potential future increases in utility rates. The solar power plant is located adjacent to a city water pumping station, and is designed to provide 60-80% of the station's energy requirements, saving the city an estimated $65,000 a year. The city worked with SunEdison on this project. SunEdison simplifies solar for government entities by providing solar energy services, rather than equipment leases or purchases. SunEdison takes 100% ownership of the solar system, including capital and installation costs, enabling the city to realize any tax benefits that are available. Once installed, the municipal partner pays only for the solar energy produced, at fixed prices equal to or below current retail energy rates for the life of the agreement. In addition to installing the system, BP operates and maintains the solar electric system on behalf of the city.

  17. Capture landfill gas generated at local landfills and use the energy to run your operations. Landfill gas is the single largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the United States, contributing almost 40 percent of these emissions each year. Reducing methane emissions is critical in the fight against global climate change because each ton of methane emitted into the atmosphere has as much global warming impact as 21 tons of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period. In addition, methane cycles through the atmosphere about 20 times more quickly than carbon dioxide, which means that stopping methane emissions today can make quick progress toward slowing global climate change. See www.epa.gov/landfill.

  18. Encourage your employees to carpool or to use mass transit. Encourage tele-meetings.

  19. Plant native trees and preserve open space whenever possible. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and use it as their energy source, producing oxygen for us to breathe. A tree in the temperate zone—found between the tropics and the polar circles—can remove and store 700 to 7,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime. A tree that shades a house can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime (14). Preservation of open space benefits the environment by combating air pollution, attenuating noise, controlling wind, providing erosion control, and moderating temperatures.(15)

  20. Work with local decision-makers to enact rules and policies that increase the use of energy from renewable sources, encourage the implementation of energy-efficient technologies and processes and limit carbon dioxide pollution.

Numerous resources are available to help you get started and to help you choose the right solutions for your facilities and departments. The EPA Climate Change website, www.epa.gov/climatechange, includes resources for individuals, businesses, and governments working on climate change issues. The "Basic Information" page provides a good overview of the information available across the site and the "What you can do" section offers practical solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There is a specific section for state and local governments that provides details on existing efforts various states and local agencies are implementing to address climate change. The site also provides links to EPA's voluntary programs that can help local governments meet their goals and it provides a directory of tools that will help you inventory your greenhouse gas emissions, analyze greenhouse gas reduction opportunities and quantify the energy, environmental and economic benefits of taking action to reduce your department's or facility's greenhouse gas emissions. Many state agencies also have resources available to help you get started and some states may have grant or reimbursement programs to help defray the cost of certain greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies.

Climate change is likely caused by a great many factors and it will take dedication and innovation to slow its effects down. Public works professionals are uniquely positioned to influence the debate, to implement changes that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from public facilities and work with community residents and business to achieve further reductions. Whether you agree with the general consensus that global warming poses a real threat, there are simple and smart energy choices that individuals, business and governments can implement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and help to slow the effects of global warming.

Julia Anastasio monitors legislative and regulatory affairs touching on environmental issues for APWA members. She can be reached at (202) 218-6750 or janastasio@apwa.net.

(1) See www.iclei.org/index.php?id=810
(2) See www.nrdc.org/air/energy/genergy/easy.asp
(3) Visit http://www.p2pays.org or www.epa.gov/ems.
(4) See www.nrdc.org/air/energy/genergy/easy.asp or www.ase.org.
(5) See San Francisco Case Study at www.theclimategoup.org.
(6) See www.cree.com/LEDcity.
(7) See Portland Case Study at www.theclimategoup.org or see "SEF helps Pennsylvania Borough Save Money and Electricity using LED Traffic Signals," www.dep.state.pa.us/news/cwp/view.asp?a=3&q=522021.
(8) See www.epa.gov/greenpower or www.green-e.org.
(9) See www.energystar.gov for additional information.
(10) See www.epa.gov/watersense/water/benefits.htm.
(11) See www.epa.gov/epaoswer/osw/recycle.htm.
(12) See www.thegreenoffice.com for resources and information.
(13) See www.greenroofs.net.
(14) See www.ase.org; www.urban-forestry.com or www.isa-arbor.com; www.actrees.org; or www.arborday.org.
(15) See www.smartgrowth.org.