Rock Hill waded into the ever-polarizing world of environmental politics this week, and it wasn't a show of unity that would make Al Gore proud.

A divided City Council signed on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, with dissenters Kevin Sutton and Jim Reno questioning what it is they're pledging to do.

"I think it sends a signal that we as a city are going to do everything we can," said Mayor Doug Echols shortly before the 4-2 vote.

The reality, however, is that Rock Hill committed to less than many of the 600-some U.S. mayors who already have signed the agreement.

In its version, the city said it would strive over the next five years to reduce pollution levels caused by city operations to 7 percent below what they were in 2005. Other cities have taken more aggressive approaches.

• Leaders in Raleigh, N.C., vowed to cut carbon emissions by roughly 30 percent to account for rapid growth in the 1990s.

n In Charleston, city leaders in 2001 signed a $3.9 million, 15-year contract with Johnson Controls to get help with reducing emissions through energy-saving upgrades.

Still, local activists credit Echols for putting climate protection on the city's agenda. Rock Hill became only the fifth South Carolina city to sign the agreement, following Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and Sumter.

"Any kind of agreement to do something is better than doing nothing," said Joe Zdenek, chairman of Henry's Knob, a local environmental group affiliated with the S.C. Sierra Club. "Personally I thought it was kind of a no-brainer. Why would anybody want to not reduce greenhouse gases? Why would anybody not want to save energy?"

A good move for taxpayers?

Sutton offered a response to such questions at Monday night's council meeting.

"I question whether the benefit outweighs the cost," he said. "Just to blanket sign off on this ... I think this will be used in a way that may not be beneficial for taxpayers."

Sutton wondered whether it's hypocritical for the city to promote U.S. Green Building Council practices when city-owned facilities aren't built to those standards.

"Our own city manager basically made the comment that we are not going to start building our own facilities (using the practices) ... because of the cost," he said.

Rock Hill staffers say they are taking action in other ways. For example, new energy-efficient lightbulbs are being installed at City Hall. Toilets and sinks are being upfitted with low-flow systems that conserve water.

Three electric all-terrain carts and five low-fuel hybrid vehicles are being added to the city fleet, and an E-85 pump gases up some vehicles with energy-efficient flex fuel.

"It makes sense for us to join the effort," Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Pender said Monday. "I just see this as a list of possible things. There are probably hundreds more."

Effort started last year

It took nearly a year to get this far. Last November, Zdenek sat down with Echols at City Hall to pitch him on the initiative, known nationally as "Cool Cities."

"He said he would look at what other cities have done and how successful they've been, and really give it a good looking-over before they attempted (it)," Zdenek said.

Nine months later, Echols hosted a luncheon at his office for 20 people from Winthrop University, York Technical College, the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce and other local agencies.

A newly created Cool Cities Coalition will study future ways to take action.

"It is a broad stroke kind of endorsement, but I do think it says the city of Rock Hill ... is going to make every good faith effort to try to take into consideration all of these impacts on our environment," he said Monday. "It is a way of sending a signal."

Translating signatures on a document into a defined set of policies will be the broader challenge, says Michael Juras, a DHEC environmental health manager who consulted with Rock Hill on the agreement.

"It's one thing to sign the resolution," he said. "Implementing it, that's the biggie right there."