In a split 3-1 vote, Harris County commissioners approved a new climate action plan for the county’s internal operations during their Jan. 10 meeting, in turn setting a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.

Framing the impetus for the plan around recent climate hazards like Hurricane Harvey, Winter Storm Uri and extreme heat and drought during the summer of 2022, the 24-page report outlines a cost-benefit analysis of transitioning to a lower-emissions future.

According to the report, the total emissions from the county’s operations in 2021 were 179,445 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, with 67% of emissions associated with its facilities and infrastructure. Through the climate action plan, the county will aim to reduce that chunk of the county’s emissions by 50% without the use of offsets by 2030 as well as reduce electricity usage by at least 5% per year.

"This plan does set some ambitious, albeit flexible goals, but we've got to set those goals to shoot at and shoot for, otherwise we won't move," Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. "But without a doubt, this is positioning Harris County as a leader in this regard, and I'm very excited about the progress we've made."

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey voted against the plan, saying it did not adequately address the financial costs and the timeline associated with objectives.

“We need to be sure we get the most bang for our buck when we’re trying to solve a problem and not just have a plan that looks good on paper, sits up on the shelf and it’s impossible to implement,” Ramsey said at the Jan. 10 meeting.

Plan goals

The plan is divided into three focus areas: buildings and energy, clean fleet and commuting, and sustainable procurement and waste management. Those three areas have two subgoals each, along with corresponding quantifiable targets for 2030.

Lisa Lin, director of the office of sustainability, told Community Impact her office went for shorter-term 2030 targets to make goals more actionable and easier to implement.

“It’s fine to have a 2040, 2045 [or] 2050 goal, but there’s a lot of things that need to actually happen [by] 2030,” Lin said. “We need to have a lot of upfront, near-term actions to get us going now to reduce our emissions. ... We’re really focused on this being a very action-oriented plan.”

During the Jan. 10 meeting, Ramsey questioned the goal of shifting the county’s vehicle fleet to zero or low-emission vehicles.

“We don’t know really, how does it impact fleet operation maintenance? Can the same type of work be completed?... What’s the impact of using electronic vehicles during weather events?” Ramsey said.

Lin said her office is looking to diversify the county’s vehicle fleet. The report names a 2030 target of electrifying 50%-75% of light duty fleet and increasing the percentage of hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles. She said her office had also received feedback from a constable precinct that had challenges getting fuel during Uri but still had access to electricity.

“It's just like your investments—you diversify your investments; we're diversifying our fleet so that we're not solely reliant on one type of technology or fuel," Lin said. "We also know there's other alternative fuel technologies that are being developed, right? So we're not trying to kind of pigeonhole ourselves into one rigid pathway."

Financial cost

In the report, the potential costs of implementing the plan are categorized as low-cost operational actions, redirecting existing funds and new investments to support clean energy transition.

Lin said Ramsey’s question about the cost of the transition was common across county departments, but she said there was a reason for not estimating one overall number to the plan.

“The way we answered it was that it's not as useful an exercise to model the whole cost of the transition because it's going to be happening in phases,” Lin said. “In the plan, there's actually some nearer-term actions that we want to go forward with in the next two years, and we do plan on actually doing some cost modeling and financial modeling for those that are happening this year or next year.”

Lin added that as an example, it would be hard to say what labor and building material costs will be in five years. In addition, Lin said the county has different considerations when it comes to upfront costs, contrasting it with private developers who flip properties and sell assets quickly.

She said her department will keep the court apprised of associated costs throughout the plan's implementation.

“With any type of sustainability investment ... there's always that argument of the first cost [being] a limiting factor. But what I would say is that the county actually holds our assets for a really, really long time,” Lin said. “We will hold properties [or] buildings for 10-20 years plus, so that's where it makes sense for us to make that initial investment.”

Next steps

According to the report, the county will establish a sustainability coordinating council to track and guide the plan’s implementation as well as provide feedback to adjust the plan’s goals, targets and timelines as needed. The county will also direct its attention outward through community engagement in its next phase of the plan, which focuses on climate justice and equity.

The report said Phase II will “prioritize frontline residents who have been most impacted by climate hazards and disasters,” and that the county will partner with commissioner precincts and with organizations such as the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience—whose website lists among its members local Houston-area organizations such as LINK Houston, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and the Coastal Prairie Conservancy—and the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation to develop the plan.

“It is very inspiring to see our elected officials take action to reduce [the county’s] emissions,” Stephany Valdez, an organizer with CEER said at the Jan. 10 meeting.