“Greenhouse” gases: pleasant-sounding name for carbon dioxide, methane, and other carbon-based gases that threaten to destroy ecosystems, play havoc with weather patterns, raise sea levels worldwide, and inundate much of Long Island.

We know we’re producing way too much of these gases. We know we need to cut back. And we even have a slew of programs designed to do so. State programs, county programs, town programs, programs from the utility companies.

So, “How’re we doin’”?

This is the problem: we simply don’t know.

But finally we’re going to start finding out. Because this month an important new study was released that provides an inventory of the carbon gases Long Island is releasing and where they are coming from.

The study, one of the first regional greenhouse gas emissions inventories in the country, is more accurate than any we’ve had before, because it is based on local data, rather than estimations based on state and national averages.

The data provides an essential baseline, showing us where we are now. It lets us set reasonable goals for improvement, and most important allows us to measure our progress over time.

The study tells us what sectors are producing the gases, to help us focus our efforts at reduction where they can be most effective. The three biggest emitters on Long Island?

  • Homes, producing 39% of emissions. These come mainly from heating and electricity use.
  • Transportation, at 31%. Cars and light trucks account for 77% of this sector; heavy trucking adds 19%, with buses and trains chipping in 4%.
  • Business, industry, government and public facilities, producing 26%. Again, mostly for heating and electricity.

The remaining 4% comes from solid waste and wastewater treatment, boats, streetlights, and agriculture.

The grand total, as of 2005: 38 million metric tons. That’s 13.7 tons for each Long Islander.

The groundbreaking study was conducted by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, the national leader in carbon inventories. It was funded by the Rauch Foundation.

Where we go from here.

Clearly, Long Island leaders need to get together and map strategy. To date, Long Island does not have a regional goal for reducing emissions. How are we supposed to achieve something we’ve not even set a goal for? Yes, we have many programs, but are they sufficient? Are they putting scarce resources where they will produce the greatest results?

Early next year additional data will be released, showing emissions at the Town level. Town governments will see where they stand and where they need to go. In 2012, a new inventory will reveal the progress we have made from our 2005 levels, with periodic updates following every three to five years.

Ignoring climate change is not an option, especially for folks who inhabit an island. And good intentions about “going green” won’t save us. Will we or will we not take the serious, sustained action necessary to meet the challenge? The data from these reports will tell.