Carbon Emissions Would Be Down in Phoenix If There Weren't So Many Darn Cars

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Phoenix wants to be a carbon-neutral city. But with more cars on the road and the resulting increase in emissions, it's making it harder for the city to get there. 

Increasing vehicle emissions are holding the city back from rapidly reducing greenhouse gases, according to a report presented to the city council this week in a policy session.

The city's 2050 Environmental Sustainability Goals say that Phoenix wants to become a sustainable desert city and eventually achieve carbon neutrality. Carbon neutrality means that in a final tally of greenhouse gases, a city is a net-zero polluter, usually because of a strategic use of clean power and other carbon-reduction methods.

But in a car-centric city like Phoenix, getting to zero could take some creativity as more people keep moving here.

For decades, the Phoenix metro area has been centered around highways and sprawl. Single-occupant vehicles dominate the daily commute, according to the city's report. Citywide light rail transit is still unfolding. Walking or biking from point A to point B is difficult, especially in summer. And despite attempts to rethink downtown Phoenix, these broad factors probably aren't going to radically change anytime soon.

So it's not surprising to hear that emissions from cars went up by 7.3 percent in just a four-year period, from 2012 to 2016, while other categories of emissions dropped. Vehicle emissions as a share of the city's carbon emissions are also higher in Phoenix than other cities: 60 percent of the total carbon footprint.

Although the city had settled on the 2050 goals, there was no interim goal on the city's road map to carbon neutrality. So, Sustainability Officer Mark Hartman and Deputy City Manager Karen Peters brought a proposal to council members Tuesday.

Based on the city's four-year analysis of carbon emissions, Hartman said a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases would be a reasonable halfway mark. Using a 2012 baseline of greenhouse gas emissions, in order to get to the 2050 goal, the city needs to reduce greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2025.

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In the city's greenhouse gas emissions report, which looked at 2012-2016, there was some good news. Overall, there was a 7.2 percent reduction in Phoenix's carbon emissions.

Emissions from waste decreased, as did the buildings sector, which saw a pretty remarkable 23 percent drop in greenhouse gases in four years.

Transportation? “Not such good news,” Hartman told council members. Vehicles were the culprit for the 7.3 increase in transportation emissions, as opposed to commercial aviation (basically flat) or railways (emissions actually decreased).

“It’s actually the number of vehicles on the road, the number of trucks on the road, and the vehicle miles traveled," he said. "The gasoline use has increased.”

Hartman added, "As we look toward long-term goals, the transportation sector definitely is something that we need to focus on, look at, and set as a priority.”

There are a few hurdles. Electric vehicles require charging stations. The adoption curve on electric vehicles is tough to predict, too.

But Hartman said that the emerging battery technology of electric cars could help, as vehicle range increases. And with every new electric car on the road, you're taking a chunk of carbon out of the atmosphere.

"If we as a city really promote that, and increase the uptake, pretty significant improvements in local air quality as well as greenhouse gas emissions [are] associated with those," he said.

Additionally, Hartman explained that by improving the efficiency of new and existing buildings, increasing trees and shade, and exploring more options for residents to buy clean energy, Phoenix could effectively push down emissions. “Those four key actions could get us to a 30 percent reduction by 2025," Hartman said.

Although the number-crunching hasn't happened yet, in their report city staff said we can reach this goal with "limited additional investment by the city outside of normal operating budgets."

The council approved the interim carbon reduction goal unanimously, but there was some back-and-forth. Councilwoman Thelda Williams raised some concerns about forging ahead into electric-car territory as an alternative transit method.

"As we move forward with the environmental improvements we make, we have to also compensate the negative impact it could have on the city," she said. Williams suggested that if we reduce vehicle emissions by putting more electric cars on the roads, it could create more wear and tear on the roads as well as a potential reduction from gas tax revenue.

Councilwoman Kate Gallego brought up the possibility of the city partnering with schools to improve sustainable transit options to reverse "the unfortunate trend on the transportation side of the increase in emissions."

Other interesting stuff from the city carbon emissions report? Ninety-one percent of residents the city surveyed wanted to double the number of trees in Phoenix. And 81 percent want the city to adopt an energy-efficient building code, even if the new home costs slightly more.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty