How 'green' is Nashville? For now, no one really knows

Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 10:05pm
StreetcarPlaza.jpg
Rendering courtesy of MTA 

Local transit riders and readers of lengthy feasibility studies got some encouraging news last month. On Jan. 27, the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced it had made the very ambitious move of taking a $1.18 million federal grant, plus $437,000 from its own funds, to pay New York City-based consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to conduct a transportation study of Broadway and West End. According to the MTA news release, “The study will identify the transit needs of the corridor and examine all feasible high-capacity transit options such as Urban Street Car, Light Rail Transit or Bus Rapid Transit that could be implemented to meet those needs.” 

If Parsons Brinckerhoff does indeed make one of those recommendations, Metro Nashville could become eligible for  as much as tens or even hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars to make a rapid-transit project happen. 

The possibility that a major artery may soon have a rail system may represent a radical shift in Nashville’s urban planning priorities. There are, on average, 25,000-30,000 bus rides here per day. Buses barely operate after dark. According to MTA officials, only about 275 Metro employees have used their free EasyRide cards — a program Mayor Karl Dean started in 2008 to encourage bus ridership among public employees — in the past three months. And fewer than 1,000 daily riders use MTA’s existing commuter rail line, the Music City Star. 

A new rail or BRT line would also, of course, be a boon for Dean’s three-year-old environmental initiative. Chris Bowles, director of the Mayor’s Office on Environment and Sustainability, held back on saying whether he, in his official capacity, was hoping for a build recommendation from the study. But he certainly sees the very existence of the study as a positive sign. 

“I think that public transit in general is a huge component of sustainability in the city. I am sure the mayor is very excited about the fact that we’re doing this study,” Bowles said. “As far as implementation, a lot of that in the city and across the country is a funding issue, and I certainly couldn’t give you any sort of timeline on when that would be implemented. I do know that, at least in the last year’s round of federal [Department of Transportation] funding, streetcars were very popular and received a lot of support.” 

Such a project would likely go a long way in reaching Dean’s goal for Nashville, which is to become — or at least be regarded as — the “greenest city in the Southeast.” It would likely go a long way because it would deal directly with what is perhaps the city’s biggest environmental problem: high levels of carbon emissions. A May 2008 Brookings Institution report ranked Nashville 95th out of the 100 largest U.S. cities for carbon footprints. The high rate of single drivers here was cited as a major contributing factor to the poor ranking. A month after that report, Dean signed an executive order creating the Green Ribbon Committee on Environmental Sustainability, the first action signaling that Nashville intended to tackle environmental issues with sweeping public policy reforms. 

Put aside the overarching debate about whether greenhouse gas emissions are a matter of critical importance to the environment in general. It is irrelevant to The City Paper’s purpose, which was to gauge the success of Nashville’s “green” programs using just one of those programs’ many major goals: reducing carbon emissions. 

As The City Paper discovered, Metro hasn’t exactly been keeping a close eye on how its “green” programs are actually affecting carbon emissions — at least not up to this point.

The carbon count

Though it covers wide array of environmental topics — including non-greenhouse-gas topics like water quality and increased green and open spaces — many sections of the Green Ribbon Committee’s 2009 report to the mayor include a carbon reduction component, including building efficiency, transit and air quality.

The report, titled “Together Making Nashville Green,” is the keystone document, containing 16 goals and 71 recommendations for the city’s environmental programs. Likewise, it essentially became Bowles’ professional mission statement when, last year, Dean created the office of Environment and Sustainability and hired him as its director. 

Just two years out of Vanderbilt law school, Bowles took over a small but high-profile job. (With only a $150,000 city budget allocation, the office is low on the financial totem pole, though Bowles’ salary is paid out of a $6.2 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.) 

It was perhaps a far cry from his last job, as an environmental attorney for Bass, Berry and Sims, a law firm that — though its offices are in the LEED-Certified Pinnacle Building, and they have replaced plastic water bottles with an “icy pitcher of tap water during meetings,” according to the May/June 2008 issue of E Magazine — has listed BP, for example, among its lobbying clients, and whose environmental law department often argues against regulatory agencies like the EPA and the Tennessee
Department of Environment and Conservation. 

Where many of that firm’s clients — particularly its corporate clients — may have been fighting carbon regulation and reduction, it is now Bowles’ job to direct public policy in favor of it. 

“That is a major priority, I would say for a couple reasons,” Bowles said. “It’s a big part of environmental stewardship for anyone interested in greening a city. But also in particular, everything that you would do that would be related to greenhouse gas reductions has a major impact on the livability of a city, on the natural resources of a city, and the health of residents of a city.”

Earlier in 2009, Metro government took an extensive inventory of the city’s GHG emissions, establishing a 2005 baseline of approximately 650,000 CO2 equivalent tons of annual municipal government output (representing, it’s worth noting, just 4.5 percent of the 14.4 million tons the entire community emits). The largest contributing factor, at 44 percent, was energy usage at Metro-owned buildings, followed by its vehicle fleet and Metro employees commuting to work, both at 15 percent.

In January 2008, Dean signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection agreement, which, among other things, theoretically obligated his administration to lower municipal emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels. The 2009 inventory estimated those came to 460,000 tons per year, meaning that goal would have been 428,000 tons per year by 2012. But the GRC let the mayor off the hook on that point. Their stated goal was not a reduction from the 2005 baseline, but rather to stabilize at the 2005 level by 2012. 

According to the inventory, yearly increases were averaging about 1.3 percent, so Metro should expect to have curbed its anticipated increases by about 5 percent in 2009, the year the inventory was taken. To hit the 2005 baseline, 2012 emissions should be 9.4 percent (61,000 tons) below what they would have been if nothing were done. 

It’s a solid numerical goal, and Metro government has seemingly taken great strides in getting there: requiring that all new Metro buildings obtain LEED certification, making an effort to phase in energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs for Metro facilities, adding a free downtown bus service, reducing the size of Metro’s fleet and adding energy efficient vehicles to it, initiating a no-idling policy for Metro employees, installing geothermal energy systems and solar panels to Metro Development and Housing Agency buildings, and many more. Nearly all of them take reducing greenhouse gas emissions into account.

These and many more — direct your Web browser to nashville.gov/green/accomplishments.asp for a complete list — are laudable accomplishments, and surely they must make a measurable difference in Metro’s total GHG output. But what specifically has that list of accomplishments done to address the Metro-identified critical issue of greenhouse emission reduction?

Taking inventory 

The City Paper asked Bowles for a quantitative update on how close local government has come toward meeting its explicitly stated goal of carbon reduction. 

Bowles couldn’t say. At all. With just one year to go before its target date, he said, Metro government hasn’t been monitoring its greenhouse reductions, and beyond that, there isn’t even a ballpark estimate of how much any of its already-enacted programs ought to have reduced GHG emissions. 

The lack of incremental progress updates suggests that, novel-length list of accomplishments aside, Metro government has no true sense of whether it has enacted the right programs to meet that reduction goal in the most expedient way.

“I can’t give you a comprehensive number across Metro as to how the initiatives have moved the needle, but I can tell you that our General Services Department would be able to provide you with information about the large number of projects they have been working on over the last year or last two years,” Bowles said. 

The City Paper contacted General Services and requested any data they had on how already-enacted programs had affected emissions, as either a percentage reduction or in tons of CO2 equivalent; or, failing that, at least a reduction in kilowatt hours in city buildings. But after three days, the department did not respond to the request by press time. 

Compare that to Atlanta. The City Paper made a similar request to Aaron Bastian, communications director for the city’s sustainability program, at 1:07 p.m. last Tuesday. Here was the response, received via email at 3:58 p.m.: 

“Thank you for your inquiry. Here are the answers:

1. Yes, we measure [greenhouse gas emissions] annually. We have it up to date through July ’10.

2. We have reduced our GHG emissions by 9.5 percent below 2007, our baseline year.” 

Bowles did say his office is now in the process of negotiating a second emissions inventory, though he could not give any details as to when those negotiations would be complete or what firm or firms are likely to conduct it. He also indicated that it’s something Metro will be working on throughout the year.

Of course, even if Metro has that inventory done by the end of this year, it will then be 2012, Metro’s target stabilization year, meaning city officials would have precious little time to adjust if it turns out Nashville hasn’t made as much progress as its government would have liked. 

“I don’t really know the details of Metro’s green initiative, and I wouldn’t want to pass judgment on it without familiarizing myself,” said Jonathan Gilligan, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science and the associate director for research at the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network. “But if you’re going to  set those goals, it’s important to track your progress, make an estimate, as to how you’re going to get to the goal. Otherwise it’s — it’s not useful to set a goal if you’re not sure of what you’re doing to get there.”

Gilligan said making incremental estimates of how enacted programs ought to affect carbon reduction is indeed difficult, and that Metro would not be expected to have very precise estimates, but that a quantitative goal within a specific time frame requires them. 

“I think that on the basis of the 2009 inventory, it would be possible to go in and say, ‘This is what we should do now. This is what we should hold on for now,’ ” he said. 

Gilligan said a carbon inventory, such as the one Metro conducted in 2009, is a work-intensive process, parts of which — like Metro employee driving habits — are inexact and subjective, requiring many time-consuming surveys. Often, he said, a single municipal inventory can take a year. 

“So I’m not surprised that Metro hasn’t yet done another inventory. That’s fairly common. A city will only do one at best every year, more often every couple of years,” he said. “I am pretty surprised that they haven’t made those estimates.”  

2 Comments on this post:

By: EDUNITED on 2/7/11 at 7:47

What counts about Green Goals is how good you feel! Setting the goals feels good and claiming achievement feels better! Curbside recycling is inefficient, expensive, and polluting, but don't we feel good? Closing Thermal Transfer caused greater air pollution because the garbage had to be hauled many extra miles to a landfill. Truck emissions standards are comparatively loose compared to the Clean Air standards that Thermal Transfer had to meet. Purcell wanted us all to feel good, oh, and "pay off" Big Garbage and the Greenies!
With Mayor Dean we should expect no less than to feel REALLY, REALLY GOOD! Who cares about actually meeting any silly goals.

By: courier37027 on 2/7/11 at 2:10

Cutting trees is bad, unless a newspaper is being made. Carbon monoxide and air pollution are bad, except when crosstown school busing is implmented.

My question to Professor Gilligan at Vanderbilt is this: how much of your department's research budget is federally funded?