Advocates push local greenhouse gas audits as first step to lowering emissions

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Elaine Fischhoff always loved bird-watching. She remembers going to Point Pelee, a reservation in Ontario that looks out on Lake Erie, when she was in her 20s.

“There were tons of birds, flocks of all kinds of scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, just beautiful birds in the spring migration,” Fischhoff said. 

But that was 50 years ago, and things look different now. 

“You don’t see those kinds of numbers anymore, you have to look here or there for one or two,” she said.

Seeing these environmental changes made Fischhoff realize the gravity of the climate crisis, so she began advocating on behalf of the League of Women Voters to push local governments to perform greenhouse gas audits. Advocates view these audits, which assess an area’s greenhouse gas emissions and where they are coming from, as the first step in reducing emissions. 

After retiring from her job in the state attorney general’s office, with more than 15 years in the Environmental Protection Division, she looked for ways to do her part.

In 2016, Fischoof started working on behalf of the League of Women Voters of the Lansing Area to convince local municipalities to pass climate emergency resolutions and to undertake greenhouse gas energy audits. 

Fischhoff has been pushing local governments to undertake these audits and has been successful with East Lansing, Lansing and Michigan State University. She asked the Ingham County Board of Commissioners to do the same during a public meeting on Nov. 10.

The Ingham County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution on July 28 that acknowledged the existence of a climate emergency, so Fischhoff said she is hopeful. 

“I think a number of the commissioners are very receptive,” she said. “The problem always becomes money, but the state has a number of programs going to assist municipalities in taking action.”

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy created the Community Energy Management Incentive Program to give up to $20,000 to local governments for energy-related projects from Nov. 1, and July 31. 

But the state itself has not completed such an audit, said Heather Douglas, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Philosophy, who does research that focuses on the relationship between science and democracy, especially the relationship between citizens and scientists, and citizens’ trust in scientists.

But climate advocates have continued to push policies to address the climate crisis. Resolutions like the one passed in Ingham County this summer give those advocates a base from which to continue to push for change.

“I think it’s really hard to be patient enough to acknowledge that this is the way in which governance works,” Douglas said. “That we acknowledge that we have a shared goal, and then it’s still going to take time to reach that goal. It’s going to take time to even settle on the policies to reach that goal.”

Douglas said she would expect that the majority of emissions in Michigan and the Lansing area would come from energy usage, by both household and commercial users. 

On an individual household level, Douglas said that as appliances and cars age, consumers have the opportunity to make changes in behavior. 

“So the good news is, we’re all going to be making infrastructure changes in the next 10 to 20 years,” Douglas said. “People’s furnaces will die, people’s cars will die. These are all opportunities for change. Every time you’re thinking about replacing a car, or furnace, or a hot water system, or a lighting system, in the next 10 years, you need to be thinking about what is the most efficient one that I can get?”

There also are programs in Michigan to help households make these switches, including Lansing-based Michigan Saves, which helps individuals and businesses finance energy efficiency improvements.

Michigan Saves President and CEO Mary Templeton said the organization does this by using the public funding it receives to help those looking for loans. 

“We bring together those contractors, we bring together the lenders, we bring together utilities and run programs that allow more individuals and businesses to be able to invest in energy improvements,” Templeton said. 

Michigan Saves was started about a decade ago, Templeton said, and was based on helping households secure funding from credit unions. While Michigan Saves has also expanded to commercial and municipal operations, she said about 60% of its work is still in the residential market. Douglas said these changes could help lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Small changes at the individual level are important while advocates continue to push for larger, systemic changes, Fischhoff said.

“It’s the everyday activities of human beings that created the situation and unless we adjust our activities so that we create a sustainable environment and economy, it won’t happen,” Fischhoff said. “The federal government can pass laws, they can undertake products, but until and unless the citizens of the world change how they live, it won’t happen.”

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