Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Sustainability

Sustainability


People are healthier, wealthier, and happier when cars don't come first

It'd be pretty tough to read through everything on our list of the best planning books. But if you have 16 minutes, author Jeff Speck shares the basic arguments of his book Walkable City in this TED talk.

Speck's argument for walkable cities appeals to what just about everyone wants: more money, better health, and a cleaner environment.

In cities that require more driving, residents spend far more of their income on transportation. Physical inactivity, which suburban design encourages, has grave health consequences. And the farther away households are from cities, where it's easier to share resources, the more carbon dioxide they produce.

Speck acknowledges that it's hard to challenge people's established ways of life. But at the same time, there's good reason to think we'd all be happier if we didn't view car travel as the norm or spaced out living as what's best.

"I'd argue that the same thing that makes you sustainable gives you a higher quality of life," he says. "And that's living in a walkable neighborhood."

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Sustainability


Tommy Wells will head DC's environmental agency

Councilmember Tommy Wells will run the District Department of the Environment in Muriel Bowser's administration. The mayor-elect is expected to announce the pick at an event this morning.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is responsible for monitoring air, water, and soil quality in DC, running programs to encourage energy conservation, and much more. Wells had a strong track record on the environment while in office, most notably winning support for DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee.

Wells has recently spoken about his interest in programs to "green" DC's fleets, both the government-owned ones like trash trucks and, through incentives, private ones like FedEx and UPS's delivery trucks.

He also has talked about cleaning up the Anacostia River and encouraging people to enjoy DC's natural resources like the parkland on its banks. He has been a champion of programs at Kingman Island, in the river near the National Arboretum and RFK stadium. Its annual Bluegrass Festival brings many residents to a part of DC's natural environment they rarely experience on a daily basis; Wells hopes that unfamiliarity will change.

Wells ran against Bowser in the mayoral primary, but then endorsed her and energetically campaigned for her in the general election. He will be leaving the council at the end of this year, and there was widespread speculation that he was seeking a role in the administration.

Will Wells and DDOE be able to lead, or be stuck on the back bench?

One open question is how influential DDOE will be in under Bowser. While Mayor Gray had a very far-reaching sustainability plan, his administration largely relegated DDOE to a narrow role. The DC Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning led the sustainability plan process much more than DDOE.

In 2012, City Administrator Allen Lew fired Director Christophe Tolou and, soon after, gave DDOE staff a harsh talk including references to "Attila the Hun." Lew's beef with the agency, apparently, was what he felt to be a too-close relationship with the EPA.

Only time will tell if Wells and DDOE are able to play a broader role in helping DC become a leader against climate change. The agency could work across the government to help implement the sustainability plan. It could participate in shaping economic development, transportation, and other city initiatives in a more sustainable direction.

By appointing a high-profile, well-known figure to this post and doing so before choosing most other agency heads, Bowser could be signaling that she will take the environment very seriously and make river cleanup and carbon emissions a priority.

Alternately, by giving Wells the post of DDOE rather than a more policymaking agency like transportation or planning, she could be paying back a strong supporter without actually giving him much real influence over the city's future direction—or committing to the "livable, walkable" policies he has championed.

Bowser is not expected to make any announcements about other agencies today, and has thus far revealed no plans about transportation, planning, economic development, or most other cabinet positions.

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Events


Events roundup: Post-holiday fun

After a short holiday break, we are jumping right back into a busy week of fun-filled events. Learn about Buzzard Point, Montgomery County rapid transit, and President Obama's transportation funding strategy. See new apps and tools using Capital Bikeshare data, and learn how smart growth and environmental protection go hand-in-hand in Virginia.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The future of Buzzard Point: This section of DC has started to change with the nearby baseball stadium and will change far more if a soccer stadium comes to the area. GGW contributor David Garber is moderating a panel discussion about Buzzard Point development Tuesday, December 2, 6:30 pm at 101 M Street SW.

Obama's transportation strategy: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, wil discuss the Obama administration's transportation funding strategy at a talk on Tuesday, December 2. It's at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm.

Capital Bikeshare technology: Coders around the region have continued to build useful and fun apps and visualizations using Capital Bikeshare data. The third CaBi hack night is coming up on Thursday, December 4. People will show off their creations at the WeWork Wonder Bread Factory, 641 S Street NW starting at 6 pm.

Montgomery County rapid transit: If buses are more your flavor, then spend your Thursday night learning about the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line for Montgomery County. The Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit will host an informational open house at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 7:30-8:30 pm, where you can get up to speed on the proposal for 10 major BRT routes to connect several communities in the County.

Greener smart growth: Interested in saving the environment while supporting smart growth? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the MVCCA Environment and Recreation Committee to consider how smart growth can help support restoring the watershed around Route 1 in Fairfax County. Ecologist Danielle Wynne with Fairfax County will discuss the current restoration plans for the watershed and how we can balance growth and the future health of the environment. The event is on December 3 at the Mt. Vernon Government Center, 2511 Parkers Lane, from 7:15 to 8:30 pm.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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Roads


Gas is suddenly cheap(er); the reason is bigger than you think

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn't the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.


Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That's why gas prices always fall in the fall.

But that's not enough to explain this autumn's decline, since gas hasn't dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that's also only part of the explanation.

The bigger piece is that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it's totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that "OPEC is over."

It's that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven't changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn't changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale isn't limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That's a mathematical certainty. But it's not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn't very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here's what it doesn't mean: There's never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we've only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn't be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody's guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn't change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that's necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we've made on those fronts and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Sustainability


How close are you to a grocery store?

Walk Score has a tool to generate heat maps showing how far you have to walk to reach things like a grocery store. Here's DC's grocery access map:


Image from Walk Score. Click for interactive version.

According to the Walk Score blog, 41% of DC residents are within a 5-minute walk of a food store, placing it 5th among US cities of half a million residents or more and just below Boston (45%). New York is tops, at 72%.

DC's sustainability plan (which gets a special mention in the WalkScore post) calls for 75% of people to have a food store within a 5-minute walk by 2032.

Southern and southwestern cities rank the worst, with Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Tucson and Albuquerque all or at or below 7%. Tucson is an interesting case in that the city has done a lot to make it safer to walk, such as adding pedestrian signals to help people cross its wide streets, but everything is very spread out making many walks quite long.

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Sustainability


Plans for a sidewalk and bike lane get caught on trees

While a proposed sidewalk and bike lane on Broad Branch Road has community support, possible damage to trees has sparked opposition. But it's unclear why these particular trees are worth saving.


Alternative 4 includes a sidewalk and bike lane, but would impact more trees. All images from DDOT unless noted.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and engineering firm Parsons have developed three alternatives to rebuild the deteriorated road for an Environmental Assessment. Numerous problems make reconstruction necessary: a collapsed culvert, deteriorating roadbeds, and undergrade that is crumbling into the adjacent stream, which is ecologically dead from runoff.


Alternative 2 only has room for cars, but would hurt fewer trees.

Alternative 2, costing $29 million, will rebuild only the road, adding retaining walls and stormwater retention swales. Alternative 3, for $34 million, would also include a sidewalk, while Alternative 4 adds a sidewalk and a 3-foot bike lane on the northbound, uphill side of the road, at a cost of $37 million. But it could also impact up to 460 trees, 175 more than if the road was simply rebuilt.

Environmental groups don't want to give up trees for a sidewalk

Alternate 4 is the only configuration that connects the neighborhood to Rock Creek Park. Currently, residents either have to face a hostile road or drive to appreciate the extraordinary woodland. Rebuilding the route with a sidewalk will allow residents to take advantage of the park without having to find parking.

Additionally, an uphill climbing lane would make cycling, either for recreation or commuting, significantly easier. What makes Broad Branch essential as a bike and pedestrian route is that it was originally designed for non-motorized transportation. The gentle grade and tree shade matter much more for people moving under their own power.


Alternative 3 adds a sidewalk, but no bike lane.

That's why ANC3F, which represents almost all of Broad Branch, unanimously supported bicycle and pedestrian access, as well as the best possible stormwater management. Tenley-Friendship ANC3E praised it. ANC3G voted to support Alternate 4. Testimony at the November 15th public meeting overwhelmingly supported the multimodal design.

But a number of organizations ostensibly committed to sustainability have come out in opposition to that option, primarily because of the loss of trees. DDOT's environmental assessment counts between 285 and 460 trees of at least four inches in diameter as "impacted," meaning that at least 30% of their root structure would be damaged.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Casey Trees, and Commission on Fine Arts member Thomas Luebke have objected both to the loss of trees and loss of a "rural" look. One person at a recent presentation said she wasn't so "macho" as to be above driving into the park, if it saved trees. Another compared the 2-lane road to the Center Leg Freeway. On twitter, one critic called Ward 3 Vision's endorsement of Alternate 4 "anthropocentric."

I like trees. Joyce Kilmer likes trees. Everyone likes trees. But if we perpetuate auto-dependent appreciation of the park so as to not risk 175 specimens of unknown quality, then we are literally missing the forest for the trees.

What is a tree good for?

The reason for saving these trees is unclear. Is it for the enjoyment of residents? The environmental benefits for humans? Is it to preserve a tree as an element of the natural world? In all three cases, building the path and the bike lane would bring more lasting ecological benefits.

To preserve an environment for its own sake is to treat it as wilderness, where humans have no more impact than other animals. In a wilderness, the tree fills many niches as part of a larger ecosystem.

The National Park Service defines "wilderness" as the lack of motor vehicles and permanent structures. A paved road frequented by commuters, flanked by houses, and altered by two centuries of use definitely does not qualify.


Broad Branch Road with the Italian Ambassador's Residence gatehouse in the background. Photo by the author.

Critics of Smart Growth see urbanization as environmental degradation, but in the aggregate, densification protects rural and wild environments by using land more efficiently, especially as runoff from roads is the most pollutant-laden kind. However, as the Sierra Club's Kaid Benfield points out, density has its drawbacks in issues of air quality, aesthetics, and volume of water pollution.

Parks like Rock Creek counteract that effect. The "smart" in Smart Growth is striking the balance between those ecological effects globally as well as locally. On Broad Branch itself, the harm from damaged trees weighs against health gains from more activity, lowered vehicle emissions, and modern runoff infrastructure.

Plus, users would actually be able to stop and enjoy the beauty of the valley. It might no longer have the "country road" aesthetic Luebke praises, but it could take on any number of looks that have worked for metropolitan parks elsewhere. Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons, who designed Rock Creek Park, knew that a roadway could complement and frame the landscape, if it is well designed.

Cladding the retaining walls in stone, as the environmental assessment indicates, is a good step in getting good quality. However, where the design requires stream-side walls, using metal railings like the ones used on the Mission 66 bridges nearby would reduce the visual impact. Using dark stone set in dark mortar would make the uphill walls more discrete.

Controls to cut down reckless driving, like speed bumps and cameras are worth considering. A proposed T-intersection at Brandywine, with added stop signs on Broad Branch, would discourage speeding around that dangerous corner. Finally, DDOT should replant trees wherever feasible, with native species.

There are also a number of other projects in the area. Project managers should coordinate with the Soapstone Valley sewer replacement, 27th Street bridge reconstruction, and work with utilities to bury the overhead lines along the road.

Broad Branch Road has some very beautiful moments. A redesign that sensitively opens it to the broadest public will make the city more livable while making it easier to have a light impact on on the natural world.

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Politics


College Park's mayor takes Smart Growth to school

Andrew Fellows came to College Park from Silver Spring in 1991 as a grad student at the University of Maryland and never left. Now mayor and newly elected to a third term, Fellows wants to draw staff and faculty back to this college town, all while making it more environmentally sustainable.


Andy Fellows, mayor of College Park. Photo by the author.

It's Thursday morning at the Starbucks in College Park, perhaps the main thoroughfare for college students in this 30,000-person city. Fellows walks in quickly. If you're not looking up at the time, you'll miss him. A hand shoots out.

"Morning, Mayor," says a man from a lounge chair.

"Hey, how are ya doin?" says Fellows.

In November, Fellows was reelected in the city's first contested election in 24 years. Fellows, whose day job is regional director at Clean Water Action, agreed to meet me for one of the first interviews since then.

What are the executive powers of mayors of small municipalities like College Park?

Mayor Fellows: Almost none...the city council sets policy. I have a vote on council matters, but only if it's a tie. Then we have a city manager who is full-time: basically who runs the city, and implements the policy that we settle.

It's not really my authority, but it's my ability to meet with leaders. When I was sworn in, I said that I wanted to improve the relationship with the University of Maryland and also with Prince George's County. So I spend a chunk of time meeting with people and talking with people about ways we could work together and improve relationships. I'm a little bit of an ambassador for College Park.

Could you tell me a little about your work [at Clean Water Action]?

Mayor Fellows: Clean Water Action is a national organization. We have about a million members around the country. I coordinate our program in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. Our mission is both to make democracy work and get people involved in the decision-making process on environmental issues, and also to implement the Clean Water Act, which is to make the water of the United States more fishable and to make sure there's safe and affordable drinking water. It's partly political because we do endorsements and we do election work, and it's also education and outreach.

It seems College Park is a bit of a hotbed for non-profit environmental work. Did that activity and organizing attract you to the city in the first place?

Mayor Fellows: It's part of being a college town where those types of groups tend to be here. In a sense it did attract me. But then again I didn't really work in environmental work at first. I worked at Citizen Action, which did do environmental work but they worked with other issues as well.

I've attempted to make it a point not to bring my Clean Water agenda to being the mayor at College Park, but it overlaps in the sense that I'm a green mayor. I'm an environmentally-minded mayor. So I want to encourage as much sustainability as possible.

What are some of the challenges that are unique to College Park instead of other nearby municipalities?

Mayor Fellows: I think the unique opportunity we have, and in some ways the challenge, is being home to the flagship campus to the state of Maryland. Because of that we have a lot of count-down issues. Sometimes it's the tension of people who are renting and living short-term and maybe have a different lifestyle than their neighbors: partying and noise. That's a lot of what the Quality of Life Workgroup does, is address some of those issues.

But also with planning, transportation, and economic development issues. The university has a lot of power and the city doesn't have final authority on land use; the county does. So, our focus is on coordinating our efforts with the university and the county to make sure that we're working together.

What are you proud of having accomplished?

Mayor Fellows: Well a lot of the university faculty don't live here in town, and so one of the things that we recognize for the university to be more sustainable is having them living closer to the university so that they can bike or walk to work.

The reason they don't is education. The public schools of Prince George's County don't have a good reputation, so education has always been a top priority of mine. But the city of College Park didn't run education. We do now that we are helping to run a new charter school called College Park Academy, that just opened this fall...It's in a former Catholic school called St. Mark's. We will be creating a full-time location for the College Park Academy, but we're still in the process of doing that.

To me that's a really concrete accomplishment of getting the university, the city, and the county to work together to improve public education opportunities for kids.

Where does affordable housing rank on the list of the city's priorities?

Mayor Fellows: It's pretty high, but affordable housing is one of those issues that's mostly related to students. Of course, that's not true in a lot of parts of Prince George's County. I think for us in College Park, we've got a pretty good amount of diversity of income and affordable housing.

We imposed rent control and rent stabilization to address what we felt were students being ripped off by landlords who were charging really high rates. A lot of the parents of students can afford high rates. So the rents around here in the group houses were going up. So we did two things: one, we put rent stabilization in place, and then we went to war with the landlords, which took a while to get going.

What were some of the provisions of your rent control?

Mayor Fellows: You could only raise the rent a certain percentage of the value of the property.

Are student advocacy groups active on this front?

Mayor Fellows: The Student Government Organization and the Graduate Student Government have somewhat engaged in housing issues. Their big issue is getting more housing. Because, the market says, in theory, that if you have enough housing, the prices will come down because of supply and demand.

Where does smart growth fit into all of this?

Mayor Fellows: Smart growth for me is the more we can build around transit areas, areas with transportation infrastructure, so that people aren't as dependent on cars. And for us it's working. We're actually decreasing the amount of vehicle trips on Route 1 because of the fact that students living so close to campus don't have to drive to campus, which reduces cars on the road.

Okay, let's switch gears. What's the strangest thing a constituent has ever said to you?

Mayor Fellows: Well, the first thing that comes to my mindů I'm not really sure if it's strange, but it's strange to me. We put up speed cameras a few years ago, and sure enough people got caught speeding. But I was amazed that people would call me up, the mayor, and complain about being caught for speeding. Basically, their attitude was, "How dare you put up a speed camera ad how dare you fine me for breaking the law." It was so weird to me.

What are some of your personal challenges that you've faced since becoming mayor?

Mayor Fellows: My personal challenge is probably time. I end up working 60 or 70 hours a week. And it's work I love doing. So it's figuring out, "how do I prioritize and get things done in a way that's effective, but doesn't drive me crazy?"

Also, being patient, which is somewhat of a strength of mine because I'm a pretty patient guy. But some things don't happen overnight or really quickly. The most sustainable things are the ones where people take a lot of community ownership or a lot of people involved in the project to get people going together. It's bottom up and not top down. And that also takes time.

A version of this post appeared on Jimmy's Writing Samples.

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Transit


Calculate your commuting emissions with Metro's new tool

Earlier this fall, WMATA's sustainability team developed a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings calculator and have launched a draft version on their blog, PlanItMetro. You can use it to compare their carbon footprint when taking transit or driving.


Photo by Leonski Oh Leonski on Flickr.

The tool is simple and intuitive to use, similar to WMATA's trip planner. Enter your origin and destination and the calculator will give you options for how to arrive at your destination via transit or by driving, and will tell you the total amount of CO2 emissions for each option. If your trip involves walking, the calculator will even give you an estimate of the calories you expended in the process.

Check out a sample entry I did for a trip I used to make from my old place in College Park as a student at the University of Maryland to the Coalition for Smarter Growth office near Union Station. By taking the Metro rather than driving, I reduced my carbon footprint by 61% and burned over 90 calories in the process.


Metro's carbon footprint calculator.


A map of transit versus driving routes.

The transit emissions the tool calculates represent your slice of the total emissions pie of Metro's fleet divided by all Metrorail or Metrobus riders. Since we have already invested in these transit systems, every additional person who boards a bus or train improves the efficiency of the overall system, while avoiding the emissions they would generate by driving.

But it's also instructive to see the significant emissions our transit vehicles emit. Reducing transportation emissions by using cleaner fuels for Metrobus and Metrorail should be a goal for our transit system as well. Public concerns over natural gas have been increasing, given the devastating environmental impacts of fracking. Recent studies suggest that natural gas' net climate impact may be even worse than coal.

Metro wants to move from using traditional diesel or natural gas vehicles to diesel hybrid buses. Today, the bus fleet consists of 41% hybrids, which will rise to 62% by 2018.

The emissions figures from riding Metrorail are based on the amount of electricity the system uses from Maryland's and Virginia's electricity grids. Maryland and Virginia currently both generate over half of their electricity from fossil fuels.

Maryland must generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and passed a major offshore wind bill last year. Virginia is lagging behind Maryland, having only adopted a voluntary renewable portfolio standard. Someday, if we have a clean grid, Metro could also consider running trolley buses on clean energy like in Seattle and San Francisco.

If we are to lower emissions at the rate and degree scientists say is necessary to avert climate disaster, we will have to find a way to dramatically reduce our transportation emissions, which make up 30% of the Washington DC region's carbon emissions. Tools like WMATA's offer the opportunity for individuals to understand the environmental impact of their commutes and the benefits of walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Still, behavior change is difficult, and studies have found that carbon calculators tend to reach a limited and self-selecting audience. So how can WMATA improve the tool to maximize its impact?

One idea would be to illustrate the meaning of "kilograms of CO2" in easily understandable ways by comparing it to gallons of gas, the cost of gas, or home energy use. WMATA could potentially use data from this tool from the EPA, which compares kilograms of CO2 to a wide variety of everyday energy uses.

It would also be great if the tool incorporated more options, especially biking to transit stations. In testing WMATA's calculator, we also found that it didn't offer biking or bikeshare as options where those appear to be a convenient alternative.

In addition, the emissions savings from one trip may not be a huge motivator, but what if you could see the impact of riding transit and ditching your car for a whole year? Driving represents by far the biggest share of the typical American's carbon footprint, so switching to other modes over the long term is one of the most important actions an individual can make to fight climate change. The following chart shows the major contributors to the average household's carbon footprint.


Graph from NRDC and UC Berkeley.

Finally, WMATA's tool could work in concert with the Housing + Transportation Cost Calculator pioneered by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and adopted by the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities to show how transit-accessible neighborhoods can not only reduce your carbon footprint, but your living expenses as well.

What ideas do you have to improve WMATA's greenhouse gas tool? Let us know in the comments.

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