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If U.S. won't meet Paris accord, Erie County will, Poloncarz says

When President Donald J. Trump pulled the United States out of the global 2016 Paris Climate Agreement last spring, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz announced the county would do its part anyway to meet goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Erie County administrators paid a visit to Poloncarz’s office in recent weeks with exciting news.

“They said, ‘Guess what? We’re already there,’ ” Poloncarz said.

Staff reductions in Erie County government, fewer coal-fired power generation, energy conservation projects in county office buildings and other measures allowed the county to meet the Paris accord’s 26 percent reduction goal in greenhouse gases more than a decade ahead of schedule, according to an inventory Poloncarz unveiled Thursday.

“It does go to show you can meet the standards,” Poloncarz said.

He added: “I truthfully thought it would take years for us to meet it.”

Power generation drove the drop.

In 2005, the county got 36 percent of its electricity from coal-fired generating plants and 15 percent from oil. By 2014, it was 6 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

Poloncarz issued an executive order last spring enforcing the Paris agreement in Erie County shortly after the Trump administration pulled out of the agreement.

Although Erie County's recently completed greenhouse gas inventory showed much of the gains were unintentional, Poloncarz said it also shows that meeting Paris’ goals aren’t as difficult and lofty as federal executive officials contend.

Erie County Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, questioned Poloncarz’s motives for holding a media event to announce something the county accomplished largely by accident.

“It’s obviously a good thing that we’re lessening our environmental impact,” Lorigo said. “But, if it was lower all along, I don’t understand the point of the press conference other than to tell everyone he’s not Donald Trump, which is what he does everyday anyway on Twitter.”

Environmental advocates at Thursday’s event lauded the county executive’s message.

“It’s leadership,” said Brian P. Smith, associate executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Smith said at a time when there’s little will at the federal level in reducing greenhouse gases in the environment, much less acknowledging climate change is real, others have to take the lead.

“The county is making real, tangible advances at the county level and working collectively with other local governments,” Smith said. “The collective action can make a big difference.”

Tracking change in the five climate zones of Western New York

Poloncarz said Erie County will not rest on its laurels.

“I know we can do better,” Poloncarz said. “We will lead by example.”

He said that includes joining cities like Rochester, Albany and Pittsburgh in committing to the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” campaign, which pledges obtaining 100 percent of its electric power from renewable sources by 2025.

Poloncarz said he’ll also direct Erie County department heads to set more ambitious environmental goals.

The county’s greenhouse gas inventory will also be updated annually. Officials said Erie County will leverage its resources to help its towns, villages, cities and school districts meet thresholds of the Paris accord as well.

“They are big users of power, they need to be part of the plan as well,” Poloncarz said.

Besides municipal governments, getting industry and communities involved will also be important.

Although Erie County government met the Paris goals, it only accounts for 0.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from all sources countywide. For the larger community, the reduction achieved was only 12 percent from 2005 to 2014, data from the county’s Department of Environment and Planning shows. That’s less than half of the Paris climate goals for 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2025.

Transportation still accounts for the largest sector in Erie County’s community at large.

Officials said robust efforts reducing reliance on fossil fuels by expanding public transit, including electric buses and rail service, as well as conservation and a transition to renewables can help further lower the community’s figure.

The county is also pushing renewable energy in industry. For instance, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency allocated more than $4 million for the construction of a “zero net energy” building on the north end of the county-owned Bethlehem Steel parcel that would offer office and light manufacturing space to interested tenants.

The proposed building would harness geothermal, solar and wind energy, and it would use architectural features to create a healthy space with low energy needs and a carbon-neutral footprint with little or no waste.

“Everybody has a role,” Poloncarz said. “I think the importance is to send a message that we can do it.”

News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report.

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