2017 State of Our Environment Report

Climate Change

Figure 1. Drought and extreme temperatures increase the risk of wildfires. On Labor Day 2011, nine major wildfires raged across Central Texas, burning 47,000 acres and destroying more than 1,800 homes.

Importance

Ten years ago, the Austin City Council passed a groundbreaking Climate Resolution. The goal: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Since that time, Austin has set an aggressive net-zero goal for community-wide emissions by 2050. Despite these efforts, impacts from climate change are already being experienced in the form of ongoing and repeated severe weather events in Austin and the rest of the state, such as extreme heat, drought, flooding, and wildfire. Last year, Hurricane Harvey dropped record-breaking rainfall on southeast Texas, flooding multiple cities and causing an estimated $180 billion in damages. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes.
With U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, climate action at the local level is more important than ever. Austin has joined the international community in the fight against climate change with participation in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, and the Climate Mayors group.

Status and Trends

The Office of Sustainability continues to track Austin’s progress toward the net-zero goal by regularly calculating locally emitted greenhouse gases, often referred to as a carbon footprint. The major sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Travis County are:
  • electricity generation from Austin Energy, Pedernales Electric Cooperative, and Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative;
  • combustion of fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) by residential, commercial, and industrial buildings and facilities;
  • transportation (miles driven per day and the amount of emissions per mile, based on fuel efficiency and traffic congestion);
  • waste management (methane and carbon dioxide emissions from landfills); and
  • industrial processes related to the semiconductor industry and lime manufacturing.
The two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Travis County are electricity generation and transportation.
Using the most recent data available, the 2016 Austin-Travis County greenhouse gas inventory is calculated to be 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, as shown in Figure 2. This is a slight decrease from the 2013 community-wide total of 13.7 million metric tons.
13.5 Million Metric Tons CO2e


 
Figure 2. Total greenhouse gas inventory for Austin-Travis County in 2016
Figure 3 compares emissions totals between 2013 and 2016 for each source, showing areas that have increased and decreased.
Travis County Emissions Sectors











Figure 3. Greenhouse gas emissions comparison by sector between 2013 and 2016
Emissions from the following sources have decreased since 2013:
  • Electricity use from Austin Energy. While electricity demand has increased, the City of Austin’s commitment to an increasing portfolio of renewable and natural gas generation resulted in lower emissions.
  • Transportation. A growing population resulted in additional cars on the road. However, emissions standards for vehicles have continued to improve fuel efficiency, which resulted in a slight decrease in overall emissions from transportation sources.
  • Electricity use from other regional utilities. Electricity demand for other regional utilities increased four percent. Despite this increase, emissions are down five percent, mainly due to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ (ERCOT) switch from coal to natural gas fueling.
  • Waste management. Private landfill operators have reduced methane emissions, likely from improved emissions capture and destruction. 
  • Stationary combustion. Warmer winter weather in 2016 resulted in less natural gas usage and a reduction in emissions.
Emissions increased in one category:
  • Industrial processes. While emissions in this category have increased since 2013, they still account for only seven percent of the total greenhouse gas inventory for Travis County. The increase is due to fluctuations in production, process changes, and changes in emissions accounting methods.
As shown in Figure 4, overall greenhouse gas emissions declined, despite a rapidly growing population. It is expected that emissions from the energy sector will continue to drop as the Austin Energy Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan is implemented. This plan includes the goal of 65 percent renewable energy by 2027. Strategies to reduce emissions from transportation sources will be increasingly important to achieve Austin’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Figure 4. Emissions and population trends for Travis County

Annual Focus

The Office of Sustainability, Austin Energy, Austin Transportation Department, and Austin Resource Recovery continue to lead in implementing specific actions related to emissions reduction as identified in the Austin Community Climate Plan. Current projections based on these activities suggest that Austin will meet the interim emissions reduction target of 11.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020.
Creating a more climate-resilient city is also a recommendation from the Austin Community Climate Plan. In light of Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic impacts on the Texas Gulf Coast in 2017, as well as recent record-breaking extreme weather events in Austin – including drought (2007-2015), a heat wave (2011), wildfires (2011), and flooding (2013, 2015, and 2016) – increasing Austin’s resilience to climate impacts will be a point of focus in the coming year in addition to emissions reduction.
Figure 5. Climate resilience refers to the ability to effectively manage both immediate shocks and long-term stressors related to climate change and weather extremes. A climate resilient Austin is prepared for and adapted to climate-related threats.
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