Street sweeper file photo

A recent UW study compiled the carbon dioxide emissions from each city department, with the Public Works Department seeing highest amount of emissions out of each department. The Streets Division and Solid Waste Division are part of the Public Works department.

The city of Laramie now has a better picture of what kind of carbon footprint municipal operations are making.

During a work session Tuesday, the Laramie City Council was presented with emissions data completed by students during a spring sustainability capstone course and through UW senior Xanthe Yorke’s summer internship through the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.

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While it’s good that UW spent the time to analyze the issue, I think it’s helpful to reflect for a moment on what these numbers really mean from a practical standpoint. The study notes that the city government’s three largest producers of greenhouse gases combine for a total of just over 9,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions annually. For comparison, global annual greenhouse gas emissions are on the order of 50 billion metric tons, or 5.6 million times larger than the aforementioned city-specific figure. The notion that there’s any real urgency (or benefit) in the city diverting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to address this is of dubious merit.

For example, the article cites representatives of the Alliance for Renewable Energy as proposing that the city could achieve net-zero carbon emissions by investing in a combination of electric vehicles (EVs) and solar panels. For the sake of argument, if the city were to purchase a small fleet of 25 EVs at a conservative cost of $40,000 each, that’s one million USD. What practical impact on climate change do we expect that this million-dollar investment could have? Furthermore, if the EVs are being recharged via connection to the existing electric grid, where the bulk of the electricity is being generated by burning coal and natural gas (as is usually the case in Wyoming), the benefit becomes even foggier. Regarding solar panels, studies of their cost-effectiveness generally conclude that they’re a wash, at least in the sense that end up costing as much up-front as the cost of conventional power over an installation's 20-year lifespan. Certainly, solar panels emit very little in the way greenhouse gasses (ignoring their manufacturing, of course), but again, is the relatively paltry reduction in CO2 (coupled with the need to still draw energy from the existing grid) really worth the investment for a small town like Laramie?

It seems that these kinds of environmental initiatives are usually born out of an ideological need to feel like we’re doing something, even if it means generating lopsided costs somewhere else. There’s a romantic notion that “even little changes can make a big difference,” and this kind of thinking gets imported into environmental activism far too often. The reality, however, is that the great bulk of climate-impacting greenhouse gases are generated by industrial processes that lie far, far outside the scope of a small town’s ability to address them. Laramie need not spend itself into debt just so a handful of activists can purchase a sense of virtue.

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