After getting off track with some sustainability targets, Pima County is taking a new look at plans to tackle climate change within its operations.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on May 3 to authorize staff to establish a new Climate Action Plan for County Operations (CAPCO), which will supersede the county’s current Sustainability Action Plan for County Operations (SAPCO).

The new plan will mainly serve as a tool to refocus some of the county’s existing sustainability efforts and will extend the original timeline out five years, with a new goal of reaching sustainability targets by 2030.

The CAPCO will also increase the county’s carbon reduction targets, from 26-28% to 50% below 2005 levels, which conforms with other nationwide targets outlined by President Joe Biden in 2021.

Not fast enough

In 2017, the supervisors passed two climate resolutions and its SAPCO, aligning its operations with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Some of the hard targets Pima County aimed to reach by 2025 included reducing carbon emissions by 26-28%, reducing potable water use across all county facilities by 15%, and reducing landfill waste by 20%.

While considerable progress has been made in some areas since 2018 – such as installing more green infrastructure, replacing nearly 100 gas-powered vehicles in the county’s fleet with electric vehicles and planting nearly over 4,000 trees – the county has been slow to make progress in other areas.

“We’re not doing that badly, overall, but we’re not moving quickly enough,” said Linda Mayro, director of the Pima County Office of Sustainability and Conservation, at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“Out of the critical targets, we’ve seen advances in five of those targets (out of nine)...where we’ve fallen down, and this is typical of Arizona frankly, is in our water target and in our materials waste going to the landfill, as well as a decrease in use of preferred products,” she said.

According to a February 2021 SAPCO audit report, the county’s potable water usage increased nearly 45% between 2018 — when baseline measurements were recorded — and 2021.

Over that same period, the volume of the county’s solid landfill waste increased by nearly 85%, while the percentage of “green” or “preferred products” purchased by the county fell by nearly 40%, according to the report.

Several studies are underway to determine why some goals moved further from their intended targets, Mayro said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic may have complicated some efforts.

The report also noted that the county’s carbon emissions overall are decreasing, but “at a pace that does not align with the urgent call to drastic emissions cuts to reduce climate risk.”

Over the past two years, Pima County has reduced carbon emissions by about 5.6% – from about 102,059 metric tons of carbon dioxide in FY 2019 to about 96,272 metric tons of carbon dioxide in FY 2021.

“Already, significant efforts must be made if the county is to reach its current goal of 78,832 MT CO2e, a 26-28% decrease of 2005 levels,” according to the report.

However, if the county is to meet its new proposed target of a 50% reduction of carbon emissions by 2030 – or even net zero, as many communities are striving to do – it will need to reduce emissions at an annual average of about 5% or 11%, respectively.

Challenges, opportunities

As part of the 2021 SAPCO audit, county departments were asked to identify current challenges to implementing sustainability goals.

Respondents frequently expressed a lack of funding, the need for more knowledgeable personnel, and a lack of time, but overwhelmingly, respondents said the list of sustainability strategies was simply too large, too broad and not clearly prioritized.

According to the report, less than a third of the 90 total strategies outlined in SAPCO were actually implemented by 10 or more of the county’s 36 departments.

Most of those implemented were also “low-hanging fruit,” Mayro said, with departments favoring things like recycling programs and educational efforts.

But to answer the urgent call to increase climate resilience, Mayro said there must be coordinated, county-wide efforts that go beyond educational initiatives.

“We need the ‘big fix’ or high return strategies,” she said, pointing to targets that address the county’s carbon emissions.

“I believe those ‘big fixes’ adopted in 2017 are still valuable, I think we just need to evaluate where we are in actually implementing those strategies…how quickly some of those can be implemented, and if they are making slow progress today, what are the impediments,” Mayro said.

As part of further developing CAPCO, Mayro said her team would be headed “back to the drawing board” to take another look at the best strategies and tactics for achieving those goals.

“We’re going to go back to the drawing board, if you will, and start assessing what those strategies should be, the return on investment, how much investment is necessary, and what costs are we saving in the future from flood or fire or some other consequence that the community might suffer as a result of climate change,” Mayro said.

More plans

The county’s new climate action plan also includes recommendations for launching employee green teams, creating a sustainability dashboard to track progress, and making the county’s online, self-paced sustainability workshop – THRIVE – publicly available.

To report emissions more accurately, the plan will also align to the Local Governments Operations Protocol, a methodology developed by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives – Local Governments for Sustainability to ensure consistent and accurate emissions tracking.

Some changes using this methodology will include reporting wastewater facility treatment emissions separately from county owned and occupied buildings and counting employee commuter miles in annual emissions reports.

Mary Glen Hatcher | 520-547-9740

Mary Glen is a North Carolina native who's excited to explore the Tucson area through her reporting with Green Valley News. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2019.

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