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Thurston County is stepping up to reduce its carbon foot print

Global warming and climate disruption are with us. We are seeing the melting of Antarctica’s massive glaciers, widespread drought in California and the Midwest, unprecedented storms and flooding in New York City and the Phillipines, and wars in the Middle East caused in part by drought and food shortages. We are also experiencing local effects, from increasing risk of wildfires to record levels of rain and flooding. All of this is driven by greenhouse gas emissions that result from human activities, including use of heating and lighting our buildings and driving our cars and trucks.

Looking at who suffers and will suffer the most from climate disruption, it’s becoming clear that low income, rural and minority populations tend to pay the highest human costs. From the rural residents of Washington, Oregon and California suffering from drought and wildfires, to the Native American communities in Western Washington experiencing depleted salmon runs and coastal flooding of their communities, those with limited resources and few options tend to bear the largest burden of these disasters. In addition, we know the impacts will grow in severity over the coming decades, leaving our children, grandchildren and those yet unborn—the most vulnerable among us—to face the consequences of our addiction to oil and coal.

With state and national politics gridlocked in partisan bickering, it can seem that local communities are helpless in the face of the monumental national and international problems due to carbon pollution and climate disruption. Refusing to sit idly by while their people suffer, local communities across the country and around the world are leading the way. As they take aim on reducing their carbon pollution to minimize the impacts of climate disruption, they are also creating jobs, reducing the strain on infrastructure, reducing energy costs, and improving public health. A recent report by Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) presents several reasons cities are leading on climate action:

Many emerging climate change risks are concentrated in urban areas.

Climate change impacts on cities are increasing.

The world’s urban population is forecast almost to double by 2050, increasing the number of people and assets exposed to climate change risks.

Steps that build resilience and enable sustainable development in urban areas can accelerate successful climate change adaptation globally.

The greatest potential for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions may lie in rapidly developing cities in industrializing countries.
Thurston County has progressive political and business leaders, along with an engaged community and several local non-profits and interest groups working on sustainability and climate change. We’re also fortunate to have progressive statewide policies encouraging renewable energy, including solar energy, renewable fuels, and energy efficiency. So we’re very well positioned to make significant strides toward improving our energy efficiency, using more renewable energy, and reducing our carbon pollution.
Over the past several years, our communities have made important efforts toward reducing our carbon footprint.

Several of our local governments have made concerted efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce vehicle fuel consumption within government operations. This has resulted in cost savings as well as reduction of carbon emissions. In 2009, Thurston Economic Development Council, in partnership with Thurston Climate Action Team (TCAT), received a federal grant to provide energy efficiency services to local homes and businesses. Now called Thurston Energy, this program has since expanded to a five-county area and reduced energy usage and costs for hundreds of homes and several businesses throughout the county.

To determine exactly what our local carbon footprint is and to help set targets for reducing greenhouse gases, TCAT completed the first-ever greenhouse gas inventory for Thurston County and all jurisdictions. This inventory tells us in detail what county-wide emissions were in 2010. It is now being updated to include figures for 2011 and 2012. Several community solar projects have been completed or are underway, including the Olympia Farmers Market, Olympia Timberland Library, and Olympia City Hall. Zoning regulations for local jurisdictions have been updated to allow for electric vehicle charging stations.

The Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) completed a three year sustainability planning program. Called Sustainable Thurston, its resulting plan included strong targets for reducing carbon emissions, based on the Kyoto Protocol and the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These targets are that emissions within Thurston County be reduced by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020, 45% by 2035, and 80% by 2050.

In 2010, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in all of our communities are estimated at around 2.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCDE). Though we don’t have measurements of 1990 levels for the county, based on what we know about statewide emissions that year Thurston County emissions are estimated at about 2.1 MMTCDE. Using the work of last year’s state-level study of emissions and emission-reduction strategies by the Governor’s Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup (CLEW), it is also possible to estimate the reductions likely to be achieved in Thurston County over the next few years due to state and federal policies already in place. Accounting for these reductions, and considering what would take place without any of these policies (“business as usual”), we still need to reduce our Thurston County carbon pollution by about 1.4 MMTCDE by 2020 in order to meet the Sustainable Thurston target.

The 2010 GHG inventory also tells us the biggest source of carbon emissions: electricity and natural gas used to heat and light buildings (52%), and transportation (45%). So these are the areas for us to focus on: making our buildings more energy efficient, getting more of our energy in our buildings from renewable sources (for example, solar and wind energy), and reducing our use of petroleum in our cars and trucks. It turns out that in pursuing these climate goals, there are amazing opportunities to reduce costs to individuals, companies and government organizations, while creating jobs and improving our economy.

Though the county and cities can make important progress through ordinances and other regulations, financial investment will also be required. It costs money to complete energy efficiency retrofits for a home or business, to promote use of solar technology, and provide incentives for purchase of energy efficient vehicles. Many of these initiatives can yield significant cost savings. For example, if 1,000 Thurston County residents switched from a 20-MPG vehicle to a 40 MPG vehicle, that would reduce our emissions annually by about 5500 MTCDE, and would save each driver around $500 per year.

Another important area for reducing our local carbon footprint is improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses. About one-third of Thurston County households live in rental units. Since renters pay utility bills, landlords don’t have much financial incentive to make energy efficiency improvements in their units. Public investment in tax or interest rate incentives to make it more attractive for landlords to make these improvements could help bring down our GHG emissions. This would help renters save money on their energy bills, and make the rental units more attractive to potential tenants and so have the potential to generate more income over time for the landlord.

Thurston Climate Action Team has started a conversation with some local elected officials about how to raise local money to support clean energy and climate activities. TCAT has also been learning from other communities—Boulder, CO and Jackson, WY—which have launched public financing programs dedicated to clean energy and climate investments.

There are several other climate related activities and initiatives taking place locally. Here’s a sample:

Thurston County, partnering with Puget Sound Energy and others, is exploring ways to turn waste into electricity using anaerobic digester technology.

TCAT is holding the 2014 Thurston Solar Tour to showcase several homes and businesses that have successfully adopted solar technology. This year’s Solar Tour is being held Saturday, September 13 from 10 am to 4 pm, and the hub will be at the Olympia Timberland Library, 313 8th Ave SE, Olympia. (The library recently installed a solar array on its roof.) This is a self guided tour of ten sites throughout the county. It allows folks to learn more about how well solar works in Thurston County, and the financial advantages to installing solar for your home or business.

TRPC has committed to completing a regional climate action plan over the next several months that will contain more specific goals and actions for reducing our GHG emissions and for protecting our communities from coastal flooding and other expected climate change effects.

So Thurston County is on the move to save money and create jobs and to reduce our carbon pollution. Will we be able to move rapidly and boldly enough to create a clean energy economy, and protect our communities—especially the most vulnerable among us—from the worst effects of climate disruption? That will depend in large part on how well our government, business and community leaders come together and bring focus and resources to bear on local climate efforts.

Tom Crawford has lived and worked in Thurston County for the past 25 years, and is current Board Vice-President of Thurston Climate Action Team. He can be reached at

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