On Durham’s streets and highways, you can see contrails streaming from thousands of tailpipes. In neighborhoods, you can hear the hum of air conditioners as they suck electricity from the grid. And somewhere, coal is being mined, transported and then burned, to power the lights, computers and machines in offices and factories.

While Congress grapples with the so-called Climate Change bill that would require the United States to slash its greenhouse gas emissions, Durham is also struggling to meet its ambitious goals in reducing its share.

From 2006 to 2008, Durham’s overall greenhouse gas emissions increased an average of 3 percent, according to a recently released draft of the Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Action Plan. Residential, commercial, government and vehicle emissions rose; only industrial emissions decreased, and this 10 percent reduction has been attributed to the economic recession.

Granted, it’s early in Durham’s efforts to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. Two years ago, it became the first community in North Carolina to adopt such a strategy, when the City Council and County Commission approved a Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Local Action Plan that recommended Durham aggressively cut its emissions over the next 20 years. Using 2005 levels as a baseline, local government is expected to reduce its emissions by half; residential, commercial and industrial sectors by 30 percent. (See “Capping greenhouse gases,” July 4, 2007).

“We can achieve the long-range goals, but it’s going to take a lot of work,” said Tobin Freid, who was hired in May 2008 as Durham’s sustainability manager. She is charged with educating the public about energy efficiency and with finding grant money for programs.

  • Residential emissions are up 2 percent, with consistent gains in electric, natural gas and propane use, and decreases in light fuel oil and kerosene.
  • Commercial emissions rose 3 percent.
  • Government emissions increased 4 percent, although those from the City’s water treatment plants remained stable. Freid speculates the reduction is due to a decrease in water use during the 2007 drought.
  • Vehicle emissions rose 8 percent.

“I think the community numbers [residential, commercial and industrial] in particular are the hardest ones to get at,” Freid said. “But the federal and state government are taking bold actions, like increasing building codes standards and fuel efficiency. That gives me a lot of hope.”

The City of Durham has applied for $2.1 million in federal stimulus money for energy efficiency programs. Half the money would be used to retrofit city buildings, Freid said, including installing LED lighting. In addition, solar hot water heaters would be installed at two fire stations.

The other half of the funds would be allocated to improving energy efficiency in homes. One voluntary program, which could be launched early next year, would target single-story homes of less than 2,000 square feet. (Rentals would also be eligible.) The money would be spent on programmable thermostats, sealing, caulking and other improvements, for a cost of $2,000 per home. Homeowners would kick in about $250 and provide energy bills for the previous year and the next two years. This allows the city to track energy savings and report its findings to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The residential program is similar to that of Clean Energy Durham, a nonprofit group that works with homeowners and neighborhoods to reduce greenhouse gases.

“The task before us is huge,” says Judy Kincaid, executive director of Clean Energy Durham. “This report gives us an indication that we need to work harder as a community. We’re beginning to do that; more people are engaged and beginning to understand the significance of the crisis that we face with climate change.”

Last year, Clean Energy Durham conducted a survey in which volunteers canvassed neighborhoods to find homes best suited for solar hot water heaters. They offered a $200 coupon to homeowners as an incentive, but got few takers. It costs $1,500 to $3,000 to buy and install a solar hot water heater.

The group was more successful in training 40 low-income residents in Durham to weatherize homes. Those residents, in turn, trained their neighbors. With a small grant, Clean Energy Durham was able to improve 10 houses; the homeowners also agreed to provide their energy bills to track their savings.

“What all of us can do is learn how to save energy in our homes and help others in our neighborhoods to achieve it,” Kincaid said. “The work we’re doing is challenging, creative and inclusive, but I hope it’s going to be enough.”

There are additional challenges in curbing emissions from the commercial sector, which, over three years, generated 58,000 additional tons of greenhouse gases.

The Durham Chamber of Commerce is certifying businesses that go green through its Green Plus program, co-sponsored by the Institute for Sustainable Development, a group composed of UNC, Duke, GlaxoSmithKline and Lenovo.

“It’s a way to get people to be sustainable,” said Sheena Johnson, the chamber’s director of communications and marketing. Eighty percent of the chamber’s membership is small businesses, Johnson added, “and they don’t have the resources or time to make sure they’re being green.”

The incentive for businesses is that the green certification will attract environmentally conscious customers.

“People really embrace the whole going-green aspect,” Johnston said. “They want to support businesses that support the environment.”

There are shortcomings in the data that complicate tracking Durham’s progress. For example, local officials know how many carsand types of carsare registered in Durham County, but they can’t account for cars driven by commuters from outside the county. Durham Area Transit Authority has not reliably reported its fuel costs, an important detail in figuring emissions, and reductions, particularly after new hybrid buses begin running later this year.

Nonetheless, Freid said, given rapid climate change, Durham, like the rest of the world, has to do its part.

“The question can’t be whether the goals are attainable,” she said. “What is our other option?”

Correction (July 9, 2009): Tobin Freid’s name was misspelled in the original posting of this article.