Climate Action in Pittsburgh

  • Old lighting fixtures in the City County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh have been retrofitted with more energy efficient bulbs. Photo: J.S. Jordan

April 18, 2014

Recently Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced that the city is making progress in efforts to reduce its contributions to climate change. Though most people who live in Pittsburgh might not know it, the city has a climate action plan.  It’s designed to reduce the carbon footprints of businesses, local government, citizens, and the universities in town. 

Climate Action Players

When students are carefully scraping salad greens and other bits of food left on their plates into a bin at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, they are helping to reduce Pittsburgh’s carbon footprint.

The school’s sustainability coordinator, Mary Whitney, says the napkins and straws are compostable, too. She says composting cuts down on waste disposal, which produces the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Efforts like this are part of a bigger agenda. Several years ago, universities, businesses, local government and others created the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan.

Chatham and ten other universities are are working together on carbon-busting goals.

"We are actually working together with Pennsylvania Resources Council to build capacity for more composting in the city," she says.

Whitney says they’re also trying to coordinate energy purchasing. Schools use a lot of lights, heat and air conditioning. By working as a group they hope to make a dent in the amount of renewable energy that is purchased in Pittsburgh. Energy from wind and solar power create less greenhouse gases than energy from coal and natural gas.

The Goal

Lindsay Baxter is with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the group that helps move Pittsburgh’s climate plan along. She says the goal is to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent from 2003 levels by the year 2023.  They started in 2006 by doing what’s called a greenhouse gas inventory. It measured how much things like waste, transportation and energy use contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. Then they got to work, trying to reduce those impacts. In 2010, they did another inventory, to track their progress. It didn’t look good. Pittsburgh’s greenhouse gas emissions actually went up.

"Really, what you find doing a greenhouse gas inventory might surprise you in terms of impact," says Baxter.

It turns out Pittsburgh’s buildings were using a lot of energy, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity was the most significant factor, because most of the city’s power still comes from coal.

Reducing Impacts

As the city tries to push those numbers down from 2010, they’re finding it’s as easy as changing a lightbulb.  At the City County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh, hundreds of bulbs have been changed, just on the first floor.

The  building is nearly 100 years old, and the huge, saucer-shaped lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling in the City Controller’s office look like they’ve been here just as long.  But they've been retrofitted with new, more energy efficient lightbulbs

"They have automation in terms of when they turn on and when they turn off," says Aftyn Giles, the city’s sustainability coordinator.

Automation and energy efficient light bulbs have helped boost the building’s Energy Star rating. It’s just like the rating on your refrigerator or computer, something like a report card for appliances. Giles says this old building just got a grade of 89.

"It’s out of a hundred, so an 89 means that we have a high 'B'.  So we’re getting toward that 'A' range," she says.

Light bulbs are considered low hanging fruit in terms of lowering a city’s climate footprint. Giles says changing them and making other energy upgrades is also paying off in the more literal sense.

"Anytime we don’t have to pay for a light switch to be turned on, in money that can be saved in somebody’s budget so we can use it to do other things," says Giles. 

Giles says it’s money that can fund anything from filling in potholes to green roofs. This week, Mayor Peduto gave an ‘A’ to community groups for helping move the city toward its climate goals, with efforts to plant trees, increase biking, and improve recycling.

Giles says even if you don’t believe in climate change, there is something to be said about improving the health, beautification, and the livability of a community, and of a place.

Getting Traction

While many people still don’t believe climate change is happening, climate scientists agree it’s impacting us now. Weather patterns are getting more extreme, and dangerous. Places like Pennsylvania are big contributors to the problem. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists finds Pennsylvania, alone, is the twenty-second largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world.

But getting people to act can be difficult, largely because of the politics. Lindsay Baxter says when she’s pitching ideas from the plan to businesses or community groups, she doesn’t need to use the term ‘climate change’ if it’s a turn off.

"If you have to sell it to somebody on energy savings or utility bill savings, it’s all going towards the same goal," she says.

Baxter hopes the actions that have been taken so far will make a difference in Pittsburgh’s carbon-cutting goals this time around. Work on a new greenhouse gas inventory is planned in the coming year.