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Photograph by Rory McNamara

Weather Woes: Ann Hancock spearheaded the Cities for Climate Protection project with the participation of Sonoma County's local governments.

Hot in Here

In Sonoma County, what goes up--greenhouse emissions--must now come down

By Joy Lanzendorfer

It's the end of a strange summer of a strange year, filled with equally strange weather.

The most talked about weather event of the year was the heat wave that burned through Europe, causing forest fires, droughts, and ruined crops. France was the worst hit, with over 11,000 people dying from the heat, many of them elderly. France's temperature peaked at 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest it has been since 1873. The rest of Europe suffered as well. Switzerland has not seen such a hot June for 250 years, and England and Wales haven't experienced summer like this since 1976.

The heat wave was not the only unusual weather event this year. In May, the United States saw a record number of tornadoes, peaking at 562 compared to the previous peak of 399 in June 1992. The country also saw much colder weather conditions than normal in the east and southeast. In India, a premonsoon heat wave ranging from 113 F to 120 F killed more than 1,400 people. In Sri Lanka, a cyclone caused major flooding that killed another 300 people.

Often when a natural disaster strikes, people worry what it means. Though everybody knows weather fluctuations are normal and that natural disasters like earthquakes, heat waves, floods, and tornadoes are recorded in some of the earliest accounts of human existence, the increasing frequency of these events concerns scientists.

This year has seen so many odd occurrences that the World Meteorological Organization, a U.N.-appointed climate science agency, released a warning about the weather. The study said that the strange weather events of 2003 might point to an increasing amount of extreme weather in the future. Though no one can say for sure, many believe the odd weather is a result of global warming.

Global warming, of course, is the theory that human activities are releasing too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since these gases cannot leave the atmosphere, they just hang there magnifying the sunlight, leaving us trapped like ants under an ever thickening glass dome.

Global warming has been a mainstream issue for decades. International efforts like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries (and which has been stalled due to George Bush's refusal to ratify it), may come into effect if Russia decides to ratify it. Even in the face of increasing evidence of environmental danger, governments are reluctant to initiate change.

But just when it seems like all hope is lost, a source of inspiration comes from an unlikely place: Sonoma County's local governments. With the Cities for Climate Protection project, Sonoma County becomes the first in the nation to have 100 percent of its municipalities pledge to quantify and reduce greenhouse gases.

Hot to Trot

The project is part of a larger coalition led by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, an association of worldwide governments that are pledging to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Over 560 governments worldwide are part of the coalition, including 143 in the United States.

"It's exhilarating to be part of an international campaign," says Ann Hancock, who spearheaded the local project. "It shows that we are not alone when trying to figure out what to do with this big, huge problem."

Hancock first heard about the Cities for Climate Protection in 2001 when she worked as a Marin County planner. She went to a conference hosted by the ICLEI and was so inspired, she knew she had to get Sonoma County involved.

The ICLEI provides the municipalities with a five-step model designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through the five steps, a government inventories greenhouse gas emissions, sets a target of how much it wants to reduce the emissions, makes a plan to reach the target, implements the plan, and monitors improvement and makes adjustments as needed.

Of the local governments, Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa implemented the project first, back in 2002. They have completed their inventories of greenhouse gas emissions and are in the process of setting targets and developing plans. Sonoma County has supplied $25,000 to the remaining eight cities to help finance the first phase of the project for them. The cities have also put up $4,000 each.

The other eight cities in the county are nearing the end of the first phase. The results of their inventories will be announced at a meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 23 at 8:30am. The results will also be published on the project website, www.skymetrics.us.

Consultant for the GHG (greenhouse gas) Inventory Project Ned Orrett developed the methodology for the inventory when he measured the county's greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, six Sonoma State University interns have taken over doing the inventories for the remaining cities.

For months, the interns have collected data on greenhouse gases emitted by government buildings, streetlights and traffic signals, fleets of public vehicles, government employee commutes, water and wastewater, and solid waste. Sources of the data varied. Information on employee commutes, for example, was gathered from employee surveys, while data on streetlights and traffic signals were obtained from PG&E.

"It's a rather tedious process," says Hancock. "It's a little bit like doing your tax returns the first time."

However, as tedious as the inventory may be, the real work, according to Orrett, starts in steps two and three, when governments set targets and plan how to reduce emissions.

"When we did our inventory, we found that, lo and behold, these things were emitting greenhouse gases," Orrett says. "Now the major part of the work is to look at what the governments is already doing to reduce emissions and how to reduce them further."

Boiling Point

The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring phenomenon. All living things give off greenhouse gases, which keep the earth's temperature at around 60 F. Without the greenhouse effect, the temperature of the planet would be around 14 F and uninhabitable.

The problems occur when increasing population and technological advances release more of these greenhouse gases into the air than are supposed to be there. The two greenhouse gases scientists are the most concerned about are carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon dioxide is released whenever fossil fuels like oil, gasoline, or diesel fuel are burned to heat buildings, produce electricity, or power vehicles. As we use more energy, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

Methane is the second most significant greenhouse gas. It's a result of organic waste and is often worse in crowded urban areas. Methane becomes a problem when organic waste like paper, yard trimmings, and food decompose in landfills. Sewage treatment plants also give off a large amount of methane. Though there is less methane in the atmosphere, it is 21 times more powerful per unit than carbon dioxide, according to the Climate Protection Campaign.

Scientists and climate-control advocates say that the average earth surface temperature has risen 1 F in the last 100 years, which correlates with the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations that started 150 years ago during the Industrial Revolution. Though that seems just a small amount, any fluctuation in the earth's temperature can have serious effects on the life around it.

"Small changes affect life as we know it in so many ways," says Orrett. "For example, in California, our water supply is contingent on rainfall and snowfall. A small change, such as a slight increase in the snow level, has effects all throughout California, like how much water there is and how water is stored."

Some scientists predict that if carbon dioxide doubles from preindustrial levels, the average earth temperatures will rise between 2.3 F and 7.2 F. They say this could occur as early as 2050.

We All Win

The ICLEI project has sometimes been written off as "not newsworthy." But locally, at least, just the fact that all the municipalities have agreed on something is worth mentioning. Even more unusual is the upbeat atmosphere surrounding Cities for Climate Protection, especially considering the doomsday implications of global warming.

"Isn't that amazing that all the cities joined together like that?" says Hancock. "In place after place after place we went to promote this project, it was almost mind-boggling how supportive the councilmembers were. Out of the 50 people we approached, only three people voted against this project." Hancock was also pleased to see that officials not normally labeled as environmentalists signed on early.

Local governments have embraced this project for several reasons. For one, the seriousness of global warming concerns them. The Cities for Climate Protection seemed a way that the government could take a leadership role with the issue.

"The county realizes that we do have a responsibility in climate protection," says, Sonoma County supervisor Tim Smith. "If the government leads the way, the effort will grow locally. People say, 'Gee, things are fine with the climate,' but there is sufficient evidence out there that everything isn't fine. We want to leave behind a legacy of a cleaner environment."

And even if some scientists and activists are still skeptical about global warming, the overall intent of the program is to increase efficiency in governmental operations and to reduce pollution, issues that appeal to most people.

"Even people who are skeptical about global warming are not skeptical about energy conservation and air pollution," says Santa Rosa City Council member Jane Bender. "By reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we save energy, reduce air pollution, and even save money. It covers a range of interests."

The Cities for Climate Protection program may also help governments save money. By focusing on efficiency and long-term benefits, the governments often come out ahead. Combining efficiency and using technologically advanced equipment not only reduces greenhouse gases, it can also save thousands of dollars. For example, the new air blowers Santa Rosa is installing at the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant will not only use 50 percent less energy and reduce over 2,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, it will save the city approximately $400,000.

Even though there are potential long-term savings as a result of the program, the changes often cost money to implement, which can be difficult for cash-strapped government budgets.

"Sometimes these changes do save money over a long period of time," says Ken Wells, director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. "But they usually require an up-front capital expense. That can be a challenge to local governments."

But, he adds, making efforts to reduce damage to the environment opens the governments up for grant programs and low-interest loans that can help with some of the initial expenses.

Making the Grade

As the majority of cities near the end of phase one of the project, the next step will be to set a target and make a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Santa Rosa and the county released their inventories in late 2002. The inventory found that Santa Rosa emits 40,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year, though much of this is due to the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant used by all the cities. Sonoma County emits 37,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year.

Sonoma County has set a target to reduce emissions 20 percent by 2010.
Santa Rosa is considering a target reduction of between 10 percent and 20 percent. Though scientists say greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by 60 percent to 80 percent, a reduction of 20 percent is an improvement considering that in most cases, greenhouse gases are increasing.

"At least it's going in the right direction," says Hancock.

There are a number of ways a government can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from small to large changes. Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have already done a number of things to reduce emissions. The County landfill already captures 70 percent of the gas given off by the organic waste and converts it to electricity.

Both the city and county are looking at replacing their fleets with fuel-efficient vehicles. In 2002, the county added four hybrid cars to its fleet. The county may change its buses from diesel to natural gas and is also looking at increasing energy efficiency in its detention facilities.

In addition, the city's new Green Building Implementation Plan, which will be up for a vote in January 2004, will provide holistic guidelines to green building that go beyond the state's energy efficiency standards. The guidelines are designed to educate and encourage contractors to build longer-lasting, environmentally friendly buildings.

"The program is intended to be on a volunteer bases, not mandatory, and to be of minimal costs," says Ed Buonaccorsi, general services administrator for the city of Santa Rosa. "It is to educate and encourage this type of construction."

Action Item

As the Sonoma County and Santa Rosa governments approach the second phase of the project and the other eight cities complete their inventories, the project may largely reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, believes Hancock.

"We collectively have a huge impact on the world," she says. "I think the program makes a difference. It's a start in thinking how are we going to keep the world from turning to toast. We do it by moving other people into action."

"Ann Hancock is a miracle worker," says Orrett. "Ann's gift is to bring the elected officials awareness of the problem without a lot of angst and lecturing. She appeals to what's in their hearts."

With all the governments on board the project, Hancock has moved on to the next challenge. She has helped create a "Cool Schools" program that encourages schools to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while educating children on global warming.

"It's a great thing," says Hancock. "We have teams of teachers and students recording low-cost ways to reduce emissions. Most of it is this high-tech device called the 'off' switch."

Like Hancock, the ICLEI is also having an impact on the world. The organization's coalition of 560 governments has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 10.5 million tons worldwide since 1998, saving over $250 million in the process. In the United States, the ICLEI now represents 17 percent of the population and includes Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Seattle, and others as part of the coalition. And the numbers keep increasing.

"Considering how important these issues are, it makes the most sense to take action," says ICLEI spokesperson Ryan Bell. "If we're wrong about global warming, we've still helped with issues like reducing air pollutants and cleaning the water. And if we're right, we're making a difference in the world while we can."


A report on the greenhouse gas inventories and a free workshop takes place on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 8:30am at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors office, 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa. Also see www.skymetrics.us.

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From the September 18-24, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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