First, the bad news: Durham ranks well abovesometimes doublethe national average in amount of greenhouse gases generated per person. And despite the city’s 1999 plan to reduce these emissions, with a few exceptions, efforts to decrease these pollutants have been weak or non-existent.

Now, the good news: The city and county are starting to do something about it.

In late June, Durham unveiled its proposed Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Local Action Plan. The 102-page document details the local sources and amounts of pollutants that contribute to global warming, and offers solutions for curbing them.

Durham has a daunting task. The plan recommends that by 2030 local government should reduce its emissions by 50 percent; residential, commercial and industrial sectors, 30 percent. Without these cuts, Durham is forecast to emit more than 10 million tons of greenhouse gases annually within the next two decades.

“It’s aggressive, but doable, if we’re really committed,” says Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, a liaison to the Greenhouse Gas Steering Committee.

“It’s terrific that we’re setting goals,” adds Judy Kincaid of Clean Energy Durham, a nonprofit group that works with neighborhoods on home energy issues. “The important thing to come out of this is the inspiration and commitment to aggressively work on this.”

The city and county paid a Canadian consulting company, ICLEI, $55,000 for the inventory and plan. If approved by city council and the board of county commissioners this fall, Durham would be the first county in North Carolina to adopt such a measure. Orange County, including Chapel Hill and Carrboro, is working on its greenhouse gas inventory.

Durham is faced with an additional challenge. The steep reductions must occur as the county’s population is expected to increase by 25 percent by 2030.

“We have to cut greenhouse gases against the backdrop of population growth,” says Rob Jackson, biology professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Like a diet, it takes discipline. It takes a group of people to keep the topic in front of City Council and the community all the time.”

That vigilance requires not only a greater energy consciousness on behalf of the citizens, but the government’s political will to permanently stick to the plan. “There are no regulations to say that cities have to cut their greenhouse gases,” says Ellen Beckmann, a city transportation planner. “But local government can be an example. It’s going to be up to the citizens to be sure we’re upholding it.”

The plan calls for a sustainability coordinator, who would educate the public about energy conservation and possibly monitor the government’s progress toward meeting the reductions. The city and the county would fund the position, and each has allocated $50,000 to implement the plan.

Yet, local energy activists, volunteers who for years have done much of the heavy lifting in educating Durham residents about home energy conservation, say the coordinator must be more than a figurehead.

“The sustainability coordinator is only as effective as local government,” says Fred Broadwell, a sustainable energy consultant and Clean Energy Durham volunteer. He adds that government should coordinate land use, transportation, trees and recycling into the greenhouse gas plan. “We need an energy plan. It’s not fair to ask the coordinator to magically rally all these other plans to make this effective.”

In addition to car and truck emissions, electricity usage, much of it generated from coal, is Durham’s main culprit in greenhouse gases. And the city, perennially beset by budget woes, is wasting millions of dollars on energy costsmoney that could go toward efficiency and conservation. In government buildings alone, energy efficiency could save the city and county $3.5 million annually; if each of Durham’s 90,000 households saved $100 a year in energy costs, residents would save $9 million.

“As a community, we are throwing away money every day through horribly inefficient buildings,” Broadwell says.

The 2007 report points out that there have been no significant greenhouse gas reductions in homes or businesses. Many energy-saving measures sponsored by Duke Energy and PSNC Energy have not been implemented in Durham. Nor are there many incentives for energy efficiency. Any advances have come from private developers, including GreenFire and Xero Flor, an international company specializing in green roofs, which has relocated to Durham.

To their credit, Durham County and Duke University have built or retrofitted seven facilities to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, the national certification for green buildingsthe most of any county in North Carolina. The City of Durham has no LEED-certified buildings. The city’s performing arts center, currently under construction downtown, is not being built to LEED standards. The City of Durham’s new performing arts center, currently under construction downtown, is LEED-certified, although the city did not require it.

Although the city is beginning to work toward energy efficiency, including passive solar heat for its indoor swimming pools, an approved bond didn’t include money for such initiatives, only overdue maintenance. “We don’t really have the means to carry out a comprehensive plan,” says Chris Boyer, interim director of the general services department. “We’re trying to work within the budgets we have.”

A lack of money and direction eight years ago put Durham further behind in its emissions reductions. A 1999 plan, prepared by engineering firm CH2M HILL, set a low targeta mere 5 percent reduction in emissions by 2025. Yet, the plan, which excluded the county, was never presented to City Council and was shelved.

“It was unclear as to what the plan meant,” says Nancy Newell, now a civil engineer in the city’s water management department. For the 1999 plan, she supplied data on the city’s solid waste. “Budgets were tight and it was unclear what you could and couldn’t do.”

While the 2007 plan is voluntary, Jackson says there soon could be a critical point at which emissions cuts could, or should, become mandatory.

“In my view, we need a mandatory plan as soon as possible. I say that as a scientist who studies the earth,” Jackson says. “The trick is to craft the plan so that the hammer is as light as possible. The longer we wait, the heavier and more expensive the hammer is going to be.”

Correction (July 16, 2007): Due to incorrect information from the City of Durham, there was an error in this story; see strikethrough and following text above.

Goals of Durham’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Local Action Plan

  • Target year: 2030
  • City and county government: 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels
  • Community, including citizens, business and industry: 30 percent reduction over the same period
  • Reductions can be made through energy efficiency and conservation and hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles
  • Hire a sustainability coordinator, funded by the city and county, to oversee local government’s progress, educate the public and submit annual reports

Other highlights:

  • In 2005, local government emitted 158,710 tons of greenhouse gases, equivalent to the amount of emissions in 60 million gallons of gasoline.
  • The same year, the community emitted 6,837,430 tons of GHG, equal to the emissions in nearly 2.6 billion gallons of gasoline.
  • In Durham, electricity usage, cars, trucks and buses are the main sources of GHG emissions.