Allegheny County appears ready to create its own climate action plan by next summer.
An ordinance passed unanimously by county council Tuesday night directs the county’s Department of Sustainability to create a document meant to guide the county’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Potential strategies laid out in the plan could include updating infrastructure in county-owned buildings to increase efficiency, switching to vehicles powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels, and expanding transportation options like bike lanes and buses.
Tuesday night’s vote means Pennsylvania’s second-largest county is on track to join the city of Pittsburgh, Mt. Lebanon, Forest Hills and other local municipalities in compiling action plans. Those climate plan efforts in smaller communities have been driven in part by the Congress of Neighboring Communities, or CONNECT, which helps municipalities address the impacts of climate change. Pittsburgh enacted its version in 2008, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection created a state-wide plan in 2021.
The ordinance says Allegheny County’s plan must be completed and presented to both council and the county executive for approval no later than July 1, 2024. Fitzgerald is term-limited and cannot run for county executive again, which means the plan will ultimately be shaped by either Democrat Sara Innamorato or Republican Joe Rockey, who are both running to replace him.
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The ordinance received overwhelming support from nearly two dozen speakers during public comment, though some expressed surprise and dismay that the county doesn’t have a plan already
“It’s time for Allegheny County to set a course to reduce our climate emissions. Allegheny County should have its own plan to pursue its goals which can be done in coordination with other regional governing bodies” said Matt Mehalik, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group the Breathe Project. “Our county residents will benefit from committing to this course of action because our county’s health will improve, our county’s quality of life will improve, and our county’s reputation will improve.”
Speakers stressed the need to focus on vulnerable and underserved communities that bear the brunt of the effects of pollution and climate change, like those in the Mon Valley. Others asked the county to prioritize community engagement in writing the plan, and urged that it include specific and measurable goals.
“The urgency is extremely real,” Ray Roberts told council. “The time for us to be able to address this before the absolute worst consequences of climate crisis hit us — we are really, really close. … You have barely [enough] time to make changes that are going to protect this county, to protect our children.”
Amie Downs, a spokesperson for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said he supports and plans to sign the bill. She added that during his tenure he has “addressed environmental issues proactively and has taken significant steps to increase the County’s own sustainability and leadership role when it comes to lessening our carbon footprint.”
While some environmentalists have criticized Fitzgerald’s support for the natural gas industry he and council worked last year to create the Department of Sustainability — part of an effort to boost the county’s commitment to fighting climate change and implementing more sustainable practices.
County council member Anita Prizio, who sponsored the bill and chairs council’s Committee on Sustainability and Green Initiatives, said she hopes the Department of Sustainability will seek community input. She also recommended a “robust educational campaign,” listening sessions and drawing on existing local climate action plans.
“Climate does not know municipal boundaries,” Prizio said.