Juneau tracks progress on greenhouse gas emissions in new report

An unusually warm day in Juneau on May 16, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Juneau’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by nearly 30% in the last decade, according to a new report. That meets a goal set in 2011 to cut local carbon emissions — but a lot has changed since then. 

Climate experts have since underlined a need for more ambitious emissions reduction targets to avoid catastrophic global warming, and huge sums of federal funding have opened up to help local governments meet those targets. 

Denise Koch, the city’s deputy director of public works, said the report — which analyzes Juneau’s greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 — is essential for planning local climate action. 

“I see it as a foundational document,” Koch said. “Once you know where your emissions are coming from, then you can make decisions.” 

It’s nearly impossible to track progress toward climate goals without data. And Juneau’s data is sparse — the new report is the first time the city has taken stock of energy use and emissions in more than a decade. It shows that the community is using more renewable energy and emitting less greenhouse gas, but it can’t show where those improvements came from. 

Steve Behnke, energy chair for the Juneau Commission on Sustainability, says there is no single action that would cut emissions enough. 

“There really just aren’t any silver bullets,” Behnke said. “You really have to make incremental gains on a whole bunch of different fronts.”

What the report does offer is a better understanding of where those fronts stand now. Juneau’s most emissions-intensive sectors are transportation and buildings, which emit 47% and 25% of local greenhouse gasses respectively. Most of that comes from the use of diesel or heating fuels.

In Juneau, the availability of cheap, renewable hydropower is a readily available, carbon-cutting alternative. 

“That’s a real asset for the community,” Koch said. “So as we move and continue to electrify transportation and buildings, that’s really going to move us towards that net zero future.”

Many major city and community-led climate actions are focused on switching over to renewable energy.

Capital Transit, for instance, has ordered seven new electric buses, which will join the city fleet next summer. That could replace thousands of gallons of diesel fuel with clean electricity. And local non-profits like Alaska Heat Smart and Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority have improved energy efficiency and installed electric heat pumps in thousands of local homes, reducing or eliminating the need for heating oil.

Those actions seem to have moved the needle, but a lot of the decisions about future actions will come down to the Assembly. 

“Our idea is to give them, you know, the big picture of what is going on in the community, what’s been successful, and what the upcoming opportunities are,” Behnke said. “And also to raise this question about the goals.”

In other words, the report could start a conversation about introducing more ambitious local emissions reductions targets, to keep pace with national and international goals. Based on the report, Benke said the Juneau Commission on Sustainability will submit new climate policy recommendations to the Juneau Assembly this summer.

The report could also inform priorities when it comes to federal funding. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act promise money for a wide variety of climate projects, and understanding where local emissions come from could help to narrow in on what would do the most good. 

“I think that we will make a lot of progress in five years as we aggressively apply for grants,” Koch said. “Hopefully some of that major federal funding will move us towards a lower carbon future.”

The city is already pursuing federal funding to establish a municipal compost facility and to expand electric vehicle charging and fueling infrastructure. 

In the short-term, the inventory establishes a baseline of local climate data, with significant caveats. The COVID-19 pandemic likely affected how much energy Juneau used and where — emissions in schools and other buildings likely went up due to new ventilation demands, and transportation emissions may have been lower as tourists and many workers stayed home.

New, annual reports should give a clearer picture in the coming years, but for now, Koch is cautiously optimistic. 

“It’s good news, Juneau is doing well,” she said. “Reducing emissions is something that is a community value. And we’re moving in the right direction.”

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