County tallies its greenhouse gas emissions

In a sign of growing attention to a warming planet, Mecklenburg County has finished its first greenhouse-gas inventory of county government operations.

Energy use by county buildings accounted for 85 percent of the 55,000 tons of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, calculated for 2006. The figure establishes a baseline to measure reductions, or gains, in future years.

“It's something that needed to be done because of all the concern” over local-government contributions to climate change, said county air-quality director Don Willard, whose staff spent eight months doing the inventory. “We felt like we needed to get a handle on this.”

A May analysis of the nation's largest metro areas, by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, found that the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord area's carbon footprint grew faster between 2000 and 2005 than most cities.

The average metro Charlotte resident accounted for 2.7tons of carbon from transportation and home energy use in 2005, it said. That ranks 28th highest of 100 cities.

Charlotte is a few weeks away from completing its own city-operations inventory. The city passed a resolution in 2007 committing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, but has not set a reduction target.

“It's all new ground for us and we're trying to do it right,” said Assistant City Manager Julie Burch, who oversees the staff doing the work.

The city recently completed a showcase for its efforts to shrink its carbon footprint: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities' new Environmental Services facility off Billy Graham Parkway.

A colorful glass canopy depicting the tiny critters found in water and wastewater covers the entrance of the $12.2million laboratory building, which opened in April.

Less obvious are the features that make it eco-friendly: a reflective white “cool roof,” irrigation-free landscaping and linoleum made from flax. Carpets are made of recycled material and carefully positioned roof monitors flood the interior with natural light. Paints and sealants that don't emit potentially toxic vapors were chosen, and cabinetry was crafted from sustainably harvested wood.

The building has been nominated for certification by the U.S. Green Building Council as a high-performance Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building. It would be the city's first LEED certification.

The 2 percent to 3 percent those measures added to the building's cost, said utilities spokeswoman Erin Culbert, are expected to be recouped in energy savings over about 10 years. The building was designed to use 15 percent less energy and 24 percent less water than conventional designs.

Four Mecklenburg County facilities are under construction or renovation to LEED standards. Anecdotal evidence suggests green building practices cost up to 2 percent more, said county real estate services director Mark Hahn, but recover the higher costs in one to three years, chiefly through energy savings.

Both the city and county have policies aimed at using less energy, buying low-emission vehicles, designing environmentally sensitive buildings and reducing waste.

Charlotte's fleet, for example, has added 34 hybrid and 98 flex-fuel vehicles. About 35percent of its 119 fixed-route buses have been retrofitted with emission-reduction equipment.

The county has met more than 90 percent of its goals for 2008, said Heidi Pruess, Mecklenburg's environmental policy administrator. “Most of these are saving us money,” she said.

It's hard to compare the county's greenhouse-gas inventory because few other N.C. counties have done them.

Durham County buildings, evaluated for 2005, emitted about the same amount of greenhouse gases per square foot as Mecklenburg's. But Mecklenburg's 1,200-car fleet released significantly fewer gases per vehicle than Durham County's 350 vehicles.

Willard said he's more concerned about ozone, which triggers asthma attacks and other health problems. But because both ozone and carbon dioxide are linked to burning fossil fuels like oil or coal, taking steps to reduce one will lower the other.

“If this gets people to reduce air pollution – whether because of ozone or greenhouse gases – that's a plus,” he said. “Energy use is a huge area that's an untapped source of air pollution reductions.”