A new report provides a road map and emissions data for Pittsburgh suburbs that want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2017 the city of Pittsburgh released its third comprehensive plan to reduce its climate emissions. But it’s often difficult for many smaller communities to produce their own plans, according to the Congress of Neighboring Communities in Allegheny County. So only a couple of the 130 municipalities in the county have since followed suit.
But last week, the Congress released a report that makes it significantly easier for 35 of these communities. The new report shows communities where their greenhouse gas emissions are coming from and outlines actions communities can take to reduce their carbon footprint.
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The biggest sources of emissions from the 35 communities are in Clairton and West Mifflin, where U.S. Steel operates the Clairton Coke Works and the Irving Works.
Although these industrial facilities are largely regulated by the Allegheny County Health Department, said Lydia Morin, the executive director of the Congress, there are many other steps that municipalities can take. A handful of the communities, such as Mt. Lebanon, Swissvale and Millvale, have already been doing this work for several years, and the new report highlights ideas from these municipalities.
The best way to tackle climate change would be for every community in the county to work together, said Anita Prizio, the chair of Allegheny County Council’s Sustainability and Green Initiatives Committee.
But she said there was little interest in creating a countywide plan to tackle climate change. “That was pretty much shut down by the administration,” she said. “They had no interest in doing a sustainability committee or a climate action plan.”
The new report by the Congress shows greenhouse gas emission levels for each of the 35 communities in 2018.
In Pittsburgh only about 6% of its total emissions come from industrial sources. But in the new report, nearly half of all the emissions for the neighboring communities come from industrial sources. And most of those come from just two towns, Clairton and West Mifflin, where U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and the Irvin Works are located.
Clairton produces more than 150 tons of greenhouse gases per person, the most of any municipality, and 27 times as much as Reserve Township, which produced the least.
A representative for U.S. Steel wrote in a statement that the company has committed to reducing its greenhouse gases 20% by 2030 and that it plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The company recently purchased a steel plant in Arkansas that produces fewer carbon emissions and announced plans to spend $3 billion to build another one. The company pulled out of its commitment to invest $1.5 billion in cleaner technology in the Mon Valley.
Eric Raabe, who has done most of the greenhouse gas inventories for the Congress of Neighboring Communities, said these kinds of emissions are not easy for a single town to tackle on their own.
“Maybe the health department has more influence than a single municipality does on what an industry can do in their municipality,” he said. “But they do have a lot of influence over the other sectors of residential energy, industrial and commercial energy, transportation and water waste.”
Raabe said one of the biggest hurdles for many of these towns in trying to reduce their emissions is just knowing where their emissions come from. And by working together on this single plan for all 35 communities, they were able to get this work done with a lot less effort, he said. And towns that pass climate action plans will be eligible for additional state money.
Many of the most effective actions a municipality can take, Morin said, are also just good governance. For example, she said, software can help municipalities coordinate with utilities to prevent streets from being torn up multiple times. She said this not only would cut emissions directly but also would save money that they could use on bigger climate projects.
“We don’t need a bunch of small little initiatives in a one-square-mile town,” Morin said. “We need big ideas.”
More towns needed
The Borough of Forest Hills began working on sustainability in earnest in 2015 when residents said they wanted energy efficiency to be an important part of the plans for a new municipal building, according to Patricia DeMarco, the vice president of the borough council.
Nearly 40% of the borough’s houses are vulnerable to landslides, she said, and increasing rainwater in the streets at the bottom of the valley has shown how vulnerable the community is to climate change.
It wasn’t until the borough passed a comprehensive climate action plan in December of 2020, she said, that the borough really began to prioritize. The plan showed that nearly two-thirds of the borough’s emissions in 2017 came from the energy use in homes. So the borough council has made it easier for residents to install rooftop solar, she said. The borough has pledged to cut its emissions 3% per year through steps like this until it achieves “net zero” emissions in 2050.
But Forest Hills shouldn’t be one of the only ones acting, DeMarco said. “We’re a 1.5 square- mile town. Doing climate action all by ourselves isn’t going to really make a huge difference unless the people around us are also doing the same,” she said.
Allegheny County responds
Although there isn’t currently support for a countywide plan to tackle climate change, Prizio is planning to propose a “sustainable procurement policy” for Allegheny County. The procurement policy would create sustainable criteria for all the purchases the county makes.
The plan is very similar to the plan the city of Pittsburgh currently uses, she said. Prizio said she met with the county administration once about the plan and is waiting to hear back about a second meeting before formally moving forward.
“I want to meet with the administration to see. I don’t want this to be so difficult for them to administer,” she said. “But I’m thinking if the city can do it, the county can do it. We just need the will.”
Amie Downs, a spokesperson for the county, did not respond to a query about the county’s lack of a climate action plan. But she said the county has increased its emphasis on sustainability under Rich Fitzgerald’s leadership. The county’s sustainability program used to be run by a single person, she said, but now is a whole program under facilities management.
“We are proud of our record,” Downs wrote in an emailed response, adding a link to two recent sustainability reports.