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City of Wichita starts tracking greenhouse gas emissions in step toward climate action plan

Hugo Phan

Report finds most community-wide emissions come from commercial properties, while the landfill is the biggest emitter from city operations.

Wichita completed its first inventory of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in April, which will be a baseline for its first climate action plan.

“The City of Wichita recognizes that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity can impact climate change, the consequences of which will affect the future health, wellbeing, and prosperity of our community,” the first line of the report reads.

Wichita is particularly at risk for extreme heat and drought resulting from climate change, the report said.

The inventory tallied community-wide emissions coming from homes, businesses, vehicles and industry throughout Wichita in 2021. Energy use from the commercial and residential sectors dominated the emissions, accounting for more than half. Transportation followed both sectors at 23%.

AFOLU are agriculture, forests, and other land use that act as a carbon offset to emissions.
AFOLU are agriculture, forests, and other land use that act as a carbon offset to emissions.

The report also added up emissions that came solely from city government operations in 2021, such as energy usage at municipal buildings and fuel from transit vehicles.

The biggest challenge? Sixty-three percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from city operations come from solid waste facilities like Brooks Landfill. Organic material decomposes there and lets off methane, a gas with even stronger warming potential than carbon dioxide.

"(The report) can give us an idea of what we want to do to kind of address that,” said Ethan Kershaw, the city’s sustainability coordinator and an author of the report. “It's mostly going to be finding ways to help either reduce material that's being put in the landfill, or find ways to capture more of the methane."

The report notes that the city does not produce the majority of the waste that enters the landfill. And it says city estimates of the landfill’s methane emissions are lower than EPA estimates, which were used to calculate the greenhouse gas inventory.

Production of methane at the landfill has been lower in recent years, in part because of reduced water infiltration into the trash, said Alex Dean, the city’s environmental health program manager.

Local government operations looked only at emissions resulting from city government operations.
Local government operations looked only at emissions resulting from city government operations.

The greenhouse gas inventory will act as a baseline for community-wide emissions reduction goals in Wichita, said Lizeth Ortega, senior environmental specialist with the city.

“It helps us kind of look at viable options,” Ortega said. “If we say reduce by this percentage, by this year – is this something that's achievable? We want to make sure … it's something achievable that we can do.”

Wichita’s sustainability board is in the process of giving input on the city’s potential climate action plan, which will include a greenhouse gas reduction target and timeline. Forty-five of the most populated U.S. cities have set similar goals, according to a 2020 analysis by the Brookings Institution.

Once the sustainability board has recommended a climate action plan, Kershaw and Ortega will work with city departments and provide opportunities for public input before it goes to the City Council.

The city used a methodology to calculate emissions set by an international organization called ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. For community-wide emissions, it takes into account electricity use, natural gas use, vehicle travel and several other factors. The city relied on utility companies like Evergy, Kansas Gas Service and Black Hills Energy to provide data on energy use by sector and at city buildings.

Ortega said the city measured emissions from 2021 because a predecessor in her job had started the task but did not have time to finish it. Kershaw joined the city last October, after the sustainability board voted to use most of its one-time funding to hire a sustainability coordinator. He was able to complete the 2021 greenhouse gas inventory.

“We do hope to do more recent years,” Ortega said. “That was just kind of the one that was started … so it was the easiest one. We hope to try and maybe do 2023 … if our time permits to be able to do that.”

Lori Lawrence is a member of the sustainability board and the secretary of a local chapter of the Sierra Club. She encouraged the city to undertake an updated report as soon as possible

“I hope it will give an outline to the city to start working on the changes that they see are necessary from this report,” Lawrence said. “But like I said, this report is old. We need a new report to see where we stand right now because things change a lot in three years.”

Lawrence said the report shows the need to focus on reducing emissions from solid waste and transportation – but she doesn’t limit it to just that.

“There are so many things that need to be tackled,” Lawrence said. “... but we're not moving fast enough. Not nearly.”

The ICLEI organization Wichita worked with to develop the emissions inventory calls for climate neutrality. That’s defined as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in government and across the community to “an absolute net-zero emission level at the latest by 2050.”

James Williams is another member of the sustainability board, as well as senior community affairs manager for Black Hills Energy. He says he serves dual roles on the board: as a Wichita resident, and a Black Hills representative.

He said the greenhouse gas inventory showed the need for energy efficiency projects moving forward.

“Energy efficiency for residential and city buildings is a pretty good place to start, as we think about our climate action plan,” Williams said.

Ortega said that once the climate action plan is in place, the city will seek grants to carry out emissions reductions projects. Kershaw’s position as sustainability coordinator is funded by the city for just two years, and he is seeking grant funding to support the position on a long-term basis.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.