Burlington Climate-Change Study Fails to Address City's No. 1 Culprit | Off Message

Burlington Climate-Change Study Fails to Address City's No. 1 Culprit

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Six months ago, a global team of experts from IBM came to study Burlington's carbon footprint and to make recommendations for how the city could reduce its output of the so-called greenhouse gases that are changing the world's climate. Working in conjunction with the Miro Weinberger administration, the six IBMers produced a 60-page report last week that makes a half dozen policy recommendations.

None of them, however, squarely addresses what the report itself identifies as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions: transportation — which is to say, private automobiles.

Asked why the report didn't at least mention alternate forms of transport, such as walking and cycling, Marian Lawlor, a spokeswoman for the IBM team, said, "I can't answer that question for you." She added that the three-week-long assessment "should have" paid more attention to transportation issues generally. "They just didn't bubble up" during the interviews the IBMers conducted with numerous city officials and other local leaders, Lawlor explained.

Chapin Spencer, who was director of the Local Motion alternative transportation advocacy group at the time, echoed Lawlor's comments in an interview on Monday. "I wish it would have dealt more with transportation," said Spencer, who was recently appointed head of the city's Department of Public Works.

The analysis notes that transportation accounted for 51 percent of Burlington's greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. That's 22 percent more than in 2007.

Emissions from the two other significant contributors to Burlington's GHG output — natural gas and electricity — declined during the same period. Natural gas amounted to a 22 percent share of the city's GHG pollution in 2010, which was 7 percent less than in 2007. Electricity's 19 percent share in 2010 was 4 percent lower than in 2007.

Mayor Weinberger, also interviewed on Monday, defended his record on promoting alternative transportation. He pointed to a series of initiatives, including a recent effort to enable city employees to take full advantage of the University of Vermont's bus service. "If you're going to reduce greenhouse gases," the mayor declared, "you have to be working on transportation."

The IBM study, conducted without charge to the city as part of the corporation's international "Smarter Cities Challenge," focused on ways to maximize the energy-saving potential of the smart-grid network that is now being put in place in Burlington. Lawlor said Weinberger had identified that as his preferred area of concentration in initial discussions that set the scope of the study.

"Leverage the smart grid" is the heading of the IBM report's recommendation No. 2, after No. 1: "Make Burlington synonymous with green technology." The third suggestion is to "optimize the Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station" in unspecified ways.

With its fourth recommendation — "enable electric vehicle sharing" — the report does turn its attention to a transportation-related topic. The team urges the city to integrate shared electric vehicles into the existing public transportation system, "with links to nearby cities, helping to address traffic, parking and GHG emissions."

The final two recommendations — "promote energy-efficiency execution" and "create a coordinated communication plan for 'Burlington: the green tech city'" — say little or nothing about transportation issues.

In its round of meetings with "stakeholders," the IBM team neglected to consult managers of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority. An appendix to the report does include CCTA on a lengthy list of contacts, but that's only because of the conversation with Spencer, who's identified as "immediate past chairman, board of commissioners" of CCTA.

Spencer added on Monday that he spoke with the IBM experts on the phone for 15 to 20 minutes a couple of months ago. And Lawlor, manager of IBM's corporate citizenship unit, said the interview with the former Local Motion chief came near the end of the two-week interviewing process.

Despite its major omissions, the study will prove valuable to Burlington's efforts to combat climate change, Weinberger and Lawlor both said. The IBM rep noted that the study produced data that had not been previously available to the city, while also identifying "data points" that the city should compile.

"They did a good job in their limited time here, and it was at no cost to the city," the mayor added.

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