Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

The city of Pittsburgh’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions have stalled over the past decade, putting the city on track to miss its 2030 climate goal of cutting emissions in half.

According to an inventory of emissions created within city limits, by 2022 local emissions of greenhouse gas had decreased by less than a third of 1 percent since 2013, the last time emissions were measured. The city would have to reduce its emissions around 100 times faster than that between 2022 and 2030 in order to meet its goal.

Environmentalists said the numbers showed the challenge ahead.

“It’s obviously disappointing that emissions overall haven’t gone down,” said Ashleigh Deemer, the deputy director at PennEnvironment. “And also, we have to remain positive and keep driving towards emissions reductions.”

If anything, local progress on climate change has slowed: Between 2008 and 2013, emissions dropped by around 1 million tons per year, but there has been almost no change since. Still, Deemer said there was an opportunity to focus on the goal now because of President Joe Biden’s “Inflation Reduction Act and all the funds that come with it to make real progress.

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Pittsburgh’s goal of reducing emissions 50% by 2030 is the same target that Biden set for the entire country. And while it has had some success — namely in reducing emissions from commercial buildings — emissions increased in four out of five sectors: residential energy, industrial energy, transportation and waste.

Those numbers were at the heart of data that Flore Marion, the assistant director for sustainability and research, presented to City Council in October. But they appear to have received little media or other attention.

Marion was blunt with city leaders about the lack of progress in the previous nine years. “This means we have not been changing, making enough improvement to our emissions,” she said. Marion told WESA she was also celebrating the fact that the city was roughly on track to meet its goal of reducing emissions 20% by 2023 — though that largely reflects progress made years ago.

Pittsburgh has been intermittently tracking its progress on climate goals for more than two decades. But this was the city’s first greenhouse gas inventory — which tracks the consumption of electricity, natural gas and gasoline within the city limits — since producing one for 2013.

The city had produced inventories every five years since the first inventory was created by students at Carnegie Mellon University students in 2003. It was supposed to create an inventory for 2018, but the city couldn’t obtain energy use data from one of its main utilities.

“We're asking information from industries that are not necessarily actively, or were not actively interested in tracking this information,” Marion told WESA. “So identifying the right contacts, having them make it a priority, was more difficult than in the past.”

Marion cautioned that not all of the comparisons in the inventory are reliable. For example, she pointed out that emissions from the city’s waste appeared to increase by more than 500% since 2013, but argued that the surge was likely due to the city receiving more accurate information about its waste.

The city had also produced climate action plans every five years for the past 15 years. But the last such plan was compiled in 2018, and Marion told the city council last year that the city has decided not to produce additional plans for the time being.

The federal government has funded a new climate action plan for the region that the city will draw on, she said, while the city will focus its community engagement work on a new comprehensive plan, which will include elements of climate action.

“Our goal is really to embed sustainability and climate action in everything we are doing as a city,” Marion told the city council in October. “So ideally we don't need a climate action plan anymore because it's everywhere in every other document that we have.

A silver lining

The silver lining in recent years has been a continued drop in greenhouse gas emissions from Pittsburgh’s commercial buildings, which has dropped steadily since 2008. The sector includes all buildings that aren’t homes or industrial buildings, such as storefronts, hospitals, restaurants and office buildings. Marion attributed this success to having an active 2030 District, a locally based initiative that is part of a broader international movement.

Pittsburgh is home to one of the country’s largest 2030 Districts, led locally by the Green Building Alliance, and one of the central goals to reduce energy use 50% by 2030. The nonprofit has been working with building owners to reduce their climate footprint for more than a decade. Techniques for doing so include conversions to more efficient light bulbs, windows and other building infrastructure.

Chris Cieslak, the chief operating officer at the alliance, said the local decrease in emissions closely follows a drop seen throughout the 2030 District’s hundreds of partner buildings.

“The city's numbers show a reduction of 47% from that 2003 baseline,” Cieslak said. “The Green Building Alliance and the Pittsburgh 2030 district's reduction from the same time period was 44.3%. So they're very closely aligned.”

Cieslak thinks one of the city’s best hopes for continuing those reductions is to get more buildings to join the effort.

“There are still a lot of buildings on the sideline and we would like them to step off of the sideline and get in the game,” she said. “The ones have already stepped off the sideline, they had a huge impact, and we're really proud of the work that they did.

Cieslak said there is additional funding in the Inflation Reduction Act to encourage building owners to make improvements. Incentives can cover up to $5 per square foot of renovation costs. Marion said the city is looking at how it might be able to access these funds for upcoming projects.

The city’s emissions would have been far higher if some of the coal power plants that once fed the city’s electricity had not been retired and replaced by natural gas plants and renewable energy. The electricity consumed by the city in 2022 produced 54% less greenhouse gas emissions than in 2013, according to EPA data used by the city.

But Aurora Sharrard, the director of sustainability at the University of Pittsburgh, said it will become increasingly important for buildings to switch away from natural gas to the use of electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. Sharrard said Pitt has also focused on increasing the amount of energy that comes from local renewable sources

“We have to focus on cleaning our energy sources even more,” she said. “And that's through, a number of cleaner source fuels including renewables, nuclear and a reduction of use of fossil fuels.”

How the information is collected

The city’s 2022 greenhouse gas inventory was created by compiling how much electricity, natural gas and waste was consumed and produced in the city, as well as how many miles were driven within it. The total energy consumed was converted into greenhouse gases by looking at how green the area’s energy supply was. The inventory doesn’t include emissions from consumer products, such as what you buy at the grocery store or the mall.

The emissions from transportation were estimated with a tool from Google, according to Melany Arriola, a climate and energy planner at the city. Google estimated that Pittsburgh drivers took more than 350 million drips and drove 1.5 billion miles within city limits in 2022. That appears to be an increase in car traffic since 2013, although a different survey tool was used to measure vehicle traffic then. On average, cars have become more fuel efficient in the last decade and every mile driven produced less emissionsin 2022 thanin 2013, according to EPA estimates used by the city.

Marion said the rise in emissions from residential energy use was likely due in part to the many people who had not returned to working in an office in 2022. And the longer-term increases in residential energy were due to things like the increasing need to charge devices like phones and tablets.

Marion said she is hopeful that the city will be able to do more regular inventories of greenhouse gasses if it can get more support from local utilities. Allegheny County, and other areas of Southwestern Pennsylvania, are beginning to ask for similar information about energy use for their own climate action plans, she said. So she’s hopeful utilities will make the information more easily available.

Making inventories more regular is the most important part of doing them successfully, Sharrard said. “The key is to be transparent with its stakeholders about its progress, the limitations of the inventory process and set goals for how they're planning on reducing those greenhouse gas emissions in the future,” she said. “And at a speed and breadth that reflects our climate emergency.”