In her book, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and The American Tragedy author Anna Clark recounts how the water supply for an entire city could be contaminated with lead, a neurotoxin that made countless residents very ill. The crisis, unfortunately, was nothing new. Places like Love Canal, and big cities like Cleveland and Washington, D.C. defined massive-scale environmental tragedy.
What made Flint different was how authorities had information that could have been passed along to those whose job it is to analyze data and make decisions in the name of unsuspecting citizens of Flint. The epic failure was the banality of it all. The passing of the buck between EPA and City officials and the invisibility (lead, unlike the industrial waste pouring from a pipe into the Cuyahoga River, is a silent killer). It would still be going if not for a dogged scientist and a group of environmental activists, Clark details.
The same “tragedy of the commons” could be said for today’s Love Canal — air pollution. Most of it is carbon based, and invisible to the naked eye. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of the petroleum used to run vehicles. When large amounts are emitted into the atmosphere, they get trapped there and keep piling up, like blankets, until something has to give. In this case, it is temperature. The historically high global temperatures are producing a chain reaction of events, melting polar ice caps, making ocean waters higher in acid (leading to bleached out coral and crustaceans unable to produce shells), and increasing the energy of storms.
All of which leads to Cuyahoga County, which recently hired the Brendle Group to calculate its carbon footprint, that is, the tons of carbon dioxide produced from energy and food production, transportation, and buildings from 2010 to 2017. The calculation will be used by the County to write a Climate Action Plan (CAP). Like the City of Cleveland, which is currently producing the second version of its CAP, also with the help of the Brendle Group and a large gathering of stakeholders, the idea is to identify actions to reduce CO2 emissions. At a kick off meeting, County Sustainability Director Mike Foley detailed that Transportation was the only sector where CO2 emission increased, by 9%. Related to that, the 5-county Northeast Ohio region which includes Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina produced a staggering 4,154,415 metric tons of carbon dioxide from cars in 2016—45% of that comes from individuals driving alone.
The carbon intensity of energy production actually declined due to a shift from coal to natural gas as the source.
The discussion around Transportation quickly shifted to land-use and Vehicle miles travelled (VMT) which increased in Northeast Ohio—going against the national trend. As the region sprawls and people move to auto-dependent locations, the distances lock them in to driving more.
As one observer noted, “we are driving longer distances and in larger vehicles. In order to change that, we’re facing a lot of headwinds.”
Even if fuel efficiency standards stay put (unlikely given the Trump Administration’s announcement that it will seek to relinquish CAFE standards), NOACA’s models predict only a tiny fraction less in emissions from driving by 2020.
Which brings us to the discussion of alternatives. The County working group called on city and suburban leaders to collectively agree on priorities. Top of the list for Transportation: Infrastructure investments that support more walkable and transit-connected places. Most called for a transit growth strategy, and a sustainable funding model to expand RTA. Signs of that happened at the County with its Council forming a subcommittee on transit last year (which recommended a local source of funding, given the historically low level of state funding) and a plan to better connect places. We would like the County to support biking as transportation by building protected bike lanes on county owned and serviced roads, and by helping to implement complete streets in communities that seek it. Finally, Cuyahoga County would benefit from a regional land use plan that includes a moratorium on highway interchanges and farm/green space preservation. A strong effort in all of these areas by the 51 suburbs that reside in Cuyahoga could help clear the air in Northeast Ohio.