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Editorial: Erie County is leading necessary effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

With the federal government’s refusal to accept the facts of climate change, it has become the responsibility of states and lower governments to assume the role of leadership, both in seeking to avoid worst consequences of a warming planet and also preparing for potentially catastrophic events such as befell Texas and California last year.

Erie County, it is pleasing to note, is in the forefront of that effort. As other governments around the country have pledged to do, Erie County committed to the goals of the 2016 Paris climate agreement, which the Trump administration rejected. On Thursday, less than a year after signing an executive order, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz announced that the goals had been met, and more than a decade ahead of time.

Human-driven climate change is real. Even a White House study confirmed it. Nevertheless, doubters remain. But they, also, have cause to cheer this news: It means their children and grandchildren will live in a healthier, less polluted environment. Can anyone really think that’s a bad idea?

The goal of the agreement was to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases 26 percent by 2025. A recent evaluation showed that Erie County government met that standard in 2014 – before the agreement was even signed, but nine years after the baseline of 2005.

It’s fair to say, as some observers already have, that much of the decline was merely fortuitous, as opposed to the result of thoughtful planning, carefully implemented. For example, in 2005, 36 percent of Erie County’s electricity was produced by coal-fired generating plants and 15 percent from oil. Both fuels are known, and notorious, producers of greenhouse gases.

But, by 2014, those figures had plunged. That year, just 6 percent of the government’s electric supply was produced by coal and 1 percent from oil. That had to do with how power was produced, not how the county procured it. The county did, however, implement energy conservation projects in its buildings.

Similarly, the county also reduced its number of employees, as matters of necessity or efficiency, not in a specific effort to reduce the government’s carbon footprint.

But, who cares how the reduction was achieved? The fact is that Erie County has significantly reduced its role in producing climate change. That’s not only progress, but encouragement – like the day in your weight loss program when you first notice your clothes hanging a little more loosely. It’s a sign that you’re on the right track and incentive to keep at it.

There is a lot more work to do, of course. While county government, itself, has already exceeded the 26 percent goal, it accounts for only 0.5 percent of greenhouse gases emitted from all sources countywide. For the entire county, the decline from 2005 to 2014 was 12 percent, just under half the goal, with seven years remaining.

Poloncarz says he is committed not only to improving county government’s performance in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but in helping towns, villages, cities and school districts meet the goals of the Paris agreement. More challenging, but even more necessary, is helping manufacturers and other businesses to achieve those standards, as well.

It’s a deadly serious matter, as the victims of last year’s catastrophic hurricanes and wildfires could attest. While no one can prove climate change is the culprit, those calamities are among the predicted consequences of a warming climate. And we know the polar caps are melting and that both sea levels and temperatures are rising. Those are facts and we ignore them at our peril and that of those who inherit the Earth we leave them.

Erie County has done well. It can do better. But then, so can the rest of the world.

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