Lisa Lin, Harris County’s Director of Sustainability, told commissioners that the CAP proposal she developed in collaboration with county departments includes six goals for internal county operations in Phase I. Their goal is to reduce emissions across buildings and facilities by 50 percent and electricity usage by 5 percent by 2030.
“Acting now benefits the local economy, ensures that County operations are efficient and managed responsibly, and prepares the County for future climate impacts,” said Lin.
To reach these goals, the county will upgrade all interior and exterior lighting to LEDs with automated controls, upgrade building “envelopes” to improve heating and cooling efficiency, and add solar generation. Additionally, Harris County will seek a long-term purchase agreement “with new solar or wind” farms and pursue carbon offsets.
The approved CAP will also address emissions from the county’s fleet of 7,698 vehicles by shifting 50 to 75 percent of “light duty fleet” to fully electric vehicles (EV) as well as installing a charging infrastructure to include solar generation, which will provide “the county with a resilient option to maintain operational use of EVs during extreme weather events,” according to Lin’s report.
Lin also proposes to reduce commute emissions from the county’s 17,775 employees, shifting 10 percent of commuter trips away from single occupancy vehicles by providing more facilities and services for those who ride bikes to work. She would also encourage employees to leverage a $60 per month mass transit subsidy available to those who use METRO services.
For Phase I, the county will establish a Sustainability Coordinating Council and “revolving energy efficiency fund” and hire a new Energy Manager within the County Administrator’s Office by February 2023.
Lin said that in Phase II the county will collaborate with the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience (CEER) and the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation to develop a county Climate Justice Action plan “to address environmental health disparities associated with climate impacts” and prioritize “frontline residents who have been most impacted by climate hazards and disasters.”
While stating the plan would involve the county health department, Lin did not offer specifics on what might be included in a Climate Justice Action plan. She emphasized that initial community outreach would focus on county Precincts 1 and 2, as those had been identified by the Biden administration’s “Justice40” maps as disadvantaged communities “marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”
Phase II will be supported by a $20,000 grant from the urban sustainability organization Partners for Places, and the county will seek some funding through the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which included $30 billion in grants for “environmental justice” initiatives.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) praised Lin for a plan with “ambitious goals” that would make the county more efficient and sustainable.
“It is exciting, your focus on Phase II already, and I’m looking forward to working with you and to move that forward. Because that will have some focus on front-line communities, of which I’ve got a big, big number,” said Garcia, who added he wants to make sure Lin has the resources necessary for implementation of the Climate Justice plan.
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3), who has a degree in environmental engineering, praised Lin’s work but said he wanted more specifics about goals, timelines, and costs, noting that once federal funds ran out, the county would have to provide taxpayer dollars for ongoing expenses.
“I think there is going to be a cost to transition, and I think it’s important that we always define that cost,” said Ramsey, who also expressed concern about EVs during weather events.
After Hurricane Ian flooded Florida communities last year, there were multiple instances of EVs being exposed to salt water and causing destructive fires. The National Fire Protection Association has warned of fire risks associated with lithium-ion batteries.
Commissioners approved the CAP in a 3 to 1 vote with only Ramsey voting against it. County Judge Lina Hidalgo was not present, as she is on a personal leave of absence.
The City of Houston previously approved a climate action plan, and Mayor Sylvester Turner was named chair of Climate Mayors in 2021. Austin and Travis County have also adopted such plans.
Both Harris County and Houston have adopted “Vision Zero” initiatives with the goal of eliminating all traffic-related fatalities by 2030 by promoting mass transit and biking and slowing other vehicular traffic partially through street design. The plan also includes goals of creating “equity” in transportation.
In another 3 to 1 vote, commissioners also approved modifications to flood mitigation project planning, which would use a controversial evaluation process that heavily weights population density and “social vulnerability” to determine which projects the county will fund. The plan also excludes consideration of partnership funding.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.