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In 2005, K.C. Mayor Kay Barnes signed on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. She was one of the first two hundred mayors to do so, and the impact on her city has been impressive and heartening. Dennis Murphey, the city’s chief environmental officer, spoke last month at the St. Louis Climate Action Summit about what Kansas City has accomplished.

The city set up work groups to assess the use of energy in its buildings and its transportation. Buildings are responsible for 47 percent of emissions in the U.S.; transportation accounts for 27 percent. Another work group looked for ways to employ carbon offsets, that is to say using plantings to take greenhouse gas emissions (ghge) out of the air. Another analyzed the city’s waste management. Did you know that landfills emit methane, which is 21 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide?

The last two groups looked at policy and education. Sometimes policy needs to be changed. State policy, for example, rewards utility companies for building more power plants and selling more energy. The state needs to provide incentives for utilities to sell less energy.

As for education, nothing could be more important than showing the city’s residents how they can cut back on energy use. From 2000-2005, Kansas City government had cut its energy use by 6.8 percent, while residents had increased their use by 4 percent. After all, city government is only responsible for 3-4 percent of the energy usage in a community. The real savings in emissions–and money–occur when residents learn how to cut their energy usage. One way to do that is to make energy audits available that will not only explain what changes people can make in their homes and businesses, but will also help them figure out how long it will take for the savings that result to pay for the cost of the investment.

As the price of oil soars, the money in our pockets for using energy more sparingly will reinforce our attempts to cut emissions. Kansas City’s energy efficiency improvements in its buildings have saved the city $2 million a year while cutting 34,000 tons of ghge.

Fifty percent of K.C.’s fleet now operates on alternative fuels (the city is waiting for hybrids to become cheaper before investing in them). K.C. hit a bump last year when biodiesel fuel shot up $1 a gallon, so now they’re going to get their biodiesel from animal waste, which is better quality anyway than the biodiesel obtained from soy.

And by the way, K.C. is no proponent of using ethanol, especially from corn. The audience applauded loudly when Murphey said that, and I couldn’t agree more. You’d think the national anthem sung the praises of amber waves of corn, the way we overproduce the stuff.

But back to the business at hand, specifically that Kansas City is gradually installing LED traffic lights (those lights that give the impression of red or green by using dots of light), which save 90 percent on energy usage. The city also saves money because such lights last 5-7 years, so less is spent paying people to change the lights. Another traffic light savings angle is that the city is working to synchronize its lights, thereby reducing ghge by 80,000 tons a year (synchronized lights reduce stop and go traffic as well as idling).

Saving energy with more efficient lighting is the low hanging fruit on the tree, and K.C. has reached out to its residents with programs to distribute compact fluorescent lights to low income and fixed income residents. Get this: a single 60 watt bulb saves 500 pounds of ghge over the life of the bulb, not to mention $26 in electricity costs for a single bulb. 18seconds.org is a website database that tracks the retail sale of CFLs, and it says that since January of ’07, at least 1.4 million CFLs have been distributed in the K.C. metro area. That would come to a savings of 375,000 tons of ghge. That goes to show the power of a lot of people making small changes.

Here’s an idea you may not be aware of: green roofs. You can put a membrane layer on a roof, add soil and grow plants. Green roofs reduce energy consumption in a given building by 20-30 percent, not to mention saving water from runoff during rains. The green roofs Kansas City is installing should thus help the city avoid having to build bigger wastewater treatment plants.

The water treatment plants are another area of savings in K.C. By installing energy efficient pumps and motors, the city is saving one third its former cost of pumping water and treating waste water. Okay, it’s not sexy. And neither is this: the city is recovering methane from its waste water treatment plants and using it in place of natural gas. The water department even purchased ten million pounds of carbon dioxide from a local distiller and used it to treat waste water. Those strategies may not be sexy, but they are Yankee ingenuity at work.

When Mayor Barnes instituted the Climate Protection Agreement in Kansas City in 2005, her administration was not in a position to do anything regional. Like St. Louis, K.C. is a bi-state metro area, which makes regional planning difficult at best. But the folks there are accomplishing the “difficult”. As of now, fifteen mayors, from both sides of the state line, have signed on to the Climate Protection Agreement.

Furthermore, the business community is being engaged in the effort. K.C.’s Climate Protection steering committee included the CEO of Kansas City Power and Light as well as the president of the Chamber of Commerce. Their presence on the committee is paying off. K.C. Power and Light has pledged to reduce ghge in that part of the state six million tons a year by 2012. And 130 employers, with 100,000 employees, have signed on to the Climate Protection Parnership Program and pledged to assess their energy usage and find solutions for lowering it.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, seeing Bush’s recalcitrance about global warming, took action, and Kay Barnes joined them enthusiastically. Think what kind of shape K.C. would be in now if Sam Graves had been the mayor instead.

By the way, you can find out whether your mayor has joined, listen to Henry Robertson, the Sierra Club Energy Chair, describe the Climate Protection Agreement and give advice on how to get your mayor to join, listen to Dennis Murphey’s entire speech, or listen to the other speakers at the Climate Action Summit.