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Some of City's 'Green' Claims Full of Hot Air

By John Fleck
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    It is a claim every Albuquerque resident who cares about global warming could be proud of: Since 1990, city residents have cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent.
    It is also untrue.
    The claim was contained in a report that was until recently featured prominently on the city's AlbuquerqueGreen Web site. As the nation's emissions of global warming-causing pollutants is on the rise, ours are going down, the report claimed.
    But the report vastly overstated the city's greenhouse gas reductions. City officials acknowledged the problem and removed the report from a city Web site after the Journal requested supporting data.
    It is not an isolated case. A Journal review shows the claims of greenhouse gas reductions and other "sustainability" successes made by the city are often exaggerated, misleading or wrong.
    In response to the Journal's inquiries, city officials acknowledged problems in the data they were presenting to the public. The Web site containing the questionable claims was taken down completely last week. It was replaced with an old Web page produced by city staff more than a year ago. Officials said the change had already been in the works and was unrelated to the Journal's inquiries.
    Most of the erroneous figures presented to the public came from a study done in late 2005. The report contained warnings that the information was "preliminary," and could change as more accurate information became available. Those caveats were generally not included when the information was presented to the public.
   
Site not updated
    When more up-to-date analysis showed the city's successes were more modest than originally thought, city officials continued to use the old data.
    Mary Lou Leonard of the city's Environmental Health Department blamed the problem on a failure to update the numbers on the public Web site.
    "We haven't been keeping them as up-to-date as we should have," Leonard said in an interview.
    Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez, who has made "green" issues a centerpiece of his current term, said inaccurate information undermines the city's efforts.
    "There ought to be no exaggeration," Chávez said in an interview.
    Chávez's name was featured prominently on the AlbuquerqueGreen Web site, and his picture appeared on the Web site's home page in three places. The city has spent $30,000 on a citywide advertising campaign that includes billboards and refers people to the Web site.
    The AlbuquerqueGreen.com Web site was created in fall 2006 to create a separate place for Albuquerque residents to go for information about the city's sustainability efforts, said Alfredo Santistevan, head of the city's Environmental Health Department.
    Chávez has repeatedly sounded the alarm about global warming, which scientists say is caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels in our cars, factories and power plants. In an interview, Chávez pointed to the problems that Albuquerque could face as a result, including reduced water supplies.
   
Accomplishments
    In June, Chávez accepted an award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which declared Albuquerque "the greenest city in the nation." The award application, written by city staff, was based in part on the erroneous preliminary data.
    However, the underlying data, from the city and independent sources, show significant accomplishments:
   
  • Water usage has decreased substantially since citywide water conservation efforts were launched during Chavéz's first administration in 1995.
       
  • Bus ridership has risen 54 percent the past five years.
       
  • Emissions of methane— a powerful greenhouse gas— from city landfills have been substantially reduced.
        But even in those cases where the city has made progress, the city has frequently overstated the accomplishments, the data show.
        For example, a frequent claim that city government has dramatically reduced its greenhouse gas emissions is based entirely on a project to burn off methane at the city's landfills.
        In other areas, including fuel used to heat city buildings and miles driven by city vehicles, the latest numbers show that city government's greenhouse gas emissions have risen substantially since 2000.
        City officials did not dispute the Journal's analysis of the problems with their data.
       
    Not enough effort
        Critics say exaggerating success with easy steps makes it harder to make the serious development and lifestyle changes that are necessary to deal with climate change.
        "There is a risk that people will be placated or feel like that the community is contributing to its fullest, when we haven't really even begun what is necessary or what is required," said Gabriel Nims, executive director of 1000 Friends, a group fighting suburban sprawl.
        Nims' concern is that while city officials focus on narrower greenhouse gas reduction concerns, new construction under Chávez's leadership continues on the city's fringes, forcing residents to spend more time in their cars. Nims called what the city has done "greenwashing"— a pejorative term used by environmentalists to describe efforts to make an organization look "green" when it is not.
        Critics of sprawl's effect on greenhouse gas emissions point out that as Albuquerque has spread over the last two decades, the average driver has spent more time behind the wheel. According to the Mid-Region Council of Governments, average per capita miles driven in the greater Albuquerque area have risen 10 percent since 1990.
        Chávez bristled at the criticism. "If they say 'greenwash,' I would say 'hogwash,' '' he said.
        He pointed to developments like the Mesa del Sol community planned for a large empty tract of land south of Albuquerque's airport, which he said will be an environmentally sensible project.
        The claim that Albuquerque had reduced its citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent came from a report by city staff that attempted to account for all the emissions in our homes, vehicles and workplaces.
        When the report was completed, it was posted at the top of the city's AlbuquerqueGreen.com Web site.
        The heart of the claim was a dramatic reduction in Albuquerque residential and business use of natural gas, a major greenhouse gas emitter. The report claimed, for example, that residential natural gas usage in Albuquerque had dropped 87 percent from 2000 to 2005.
        When the Journal and others questioned how that was possible, city officials reviewing the data concluded that they had made a mistake and withdrew the report for revision.
        Creating a greenhouse gas inventory for the community is an ambitious task that is critical to understanding what needs to be done, and the city deserves praise for undertaking it, said Eva Thaddeus of the Sierra Club.
        "Only if we know what our carbon footprint was in the past, and what it is now, can we know how to focus our reduction efforts," Thaddeus said.
        Thaddeus was one of those who raised questions about the data, and she praised city officials for withdrawing the report to fix it.
        CLAIM
        The city's latest "Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory" said emissions were reduced by about 6 percent from 1990 to 2005.
        REALITY
        Figures were based on the claim that natural gas usage dropped 87 percent from 1990 to 2005. PNM data show no such drop. City officials acknowledged a calculation error and withdrew the report.
        CLAIM
        Albuquerque city government rated fourth best among U.S. cities for use of alternative fuel vehicles.
        REALITY
        Many of the city vehicles are capable of running on ethanol but don't because the ethanol fueling infrastructure is not complete.
        CLAIM
        From the AlbuquerqueGreen.com Web site: "Mayor Chávez and the citizens of Albuquerque have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 64 percent since 2000."
        REALITY
        The claim applies only to city government, not to the community as a whole.
        CLAIM
        City government reduced natural gas usage by 42 percent.
        REALITY
        New data show a 10 percent reduction since 1990 in natural gas usage, but the city continued citing the old data.
        CLAIM
        "Every new building in Albuquerque will be carbon neutral by 2030," meaning no greenhouse gases would be emitted in energy use.
        REALITY
        A recently passed ordinance will reduce carbon emissions 30 percent, according to City Councilor Isaac Benton. Benton said reaching that goal by 2030 is "conceivable" and the ordinance is "a modest first step."
        CLAIM
        City government has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 64 percent or 67 percent since 2000.
        REALITY
        A new city study showed a more accurate number, 53 percent, but the old claim continued to be used— on the same Web site. Most of the reduction was in methane emissions in landfills, where the city has a program to burn methane.
        In other areas, city government greenhouse emissions rose 19 percent between 2000 and 2005.
        On the Web
        albuquerquegreen.com