Amid Climate Talks, One U.S. City Takes Especially Decisive Action

Andrew Keatts | @Andy_Keatts | December 14, 2015

Image via flickr/Bill Dickinson.

Image via flickr/Bill Dickinson.

As United Nations officials worked towards a compromise on the fight against global climate change, cities and regions representing nearly one-fifth of the world’s population took the chance to announce their own accord.

The Lima-Paris Action Agenda, a group of regional and city leaders, committed this month to a five-year agenda to push more cities around the world to take action against the effects of climate change.

In the U.S., the Sierra Club is moving forward with its own movement: in January, it’s launching a program to encourage 100 cities to commit to using 100 percent renewable energy in order to decrease their contribute to global climate change.

One city in particular – San Diego – is taking especially noteworthy steps as part of that movement.

Its city council votes Tuesday on a plan that would cut the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035. It would also commit the city to using 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

The plan has broad support in the city and is expected to pass overwhelmingly, if not unanimously.

It’s been marshaled through City Hall by Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer, is a priority of the Democratic city council, and has been embraced by local business, environmental, union, and building industry groups.

Significant move

Michael Schmitz, executive director of the advocacy group ICLEI USA-Local Governments for Sustainability, said the San Diego plan is a big deal because it folds in the best practices and key insights gleaned from other urban sustainability plans countrywide.

It’ll also be the largest city yet to commit to 100 percent clean energy.

“San Diego is a major urban center, a global economic hub, and a city of San Diego’s size and prestige taking actions so forward thinking is truly significant nationally and internationally,” Schmitz said.

The plan itself is a portfolio of specific policies that will need to be enacted later on areas like energy efficient buildings, transportation, and, crucially, the type of energy the city uses.

Other cities, like San Jose and Las Vegas, have pledged a 100 percent clean energy future. And others still, like Chicago and Boston, have comprehensive climate plans that San Diego advocates examined

But the San Diego is distinct in one specific way: it’s legally enforceable.

Unique structure

The city’s emissions reduction target – cutting 50 percent from the city’s 2010 baseline by 2035 – isn’t just an ambitious goal. It’s a requirement, and the stakes are high: the city could open itself to a lawsuit if it doesn’t deliver.

Nicole Capretz helped write the plan when she worked in City Hall, and now she runs an advocacy group that pushes cities to adopt similar plans.

Making the plan legally binding was essential in San Diego, which has a reputation for passing but not implementing bold plans, she said.

“The only tool we have in our belt here is, these are legal mandates,” Capretz said. “We can’t have paralysis by analysis, we can’t spend 20 years talking,” she said.

California’s landmark environmental law, CEQA, forces cities to pass general plans that outline how they’ll deal with future growth and specify how they’ll meet statewide greenhouse gas reduction requirements.

Cities routinely find themselves fighting back lawsuits over CEQA, alleging a specific project or a plan in general either wasn’t studied thoroughly or contradicts statewide environmental mandates. CEQA suits come in all shapes and sizes, from neighbor groups challenging bike lanes to environmental organizations fighting regional transportation plans.

That’s where San Diego’s climate plan is relatively novel: it explicitly ties itself to the city’s general plan. And since the general plan is subject to CEQA suits, so too are the actions in the climate plan.

In other words, the city is voluntarily giving the public a big stick to wield if the city doesn’t live up to its promises.

“To me, that seems like an interesting way to use the existing structure to add strength to GHG targets and actually achieve them,” said Alexander Aylett, a researcher at the Montreal scientific research institute INRS who conducted an urban climate change governance survey of 350 cities to see what steps they were taking to reduce their impact on climate change.

“To make reduction targets legally binding seems quite unique to me,” he said. “I haven’t heard of this.”

There is some precedent: Sacramento has a legally binding climate plan too, and other California cities are poised to follow suit.

Changing transportation

There are several ways San Diego plans to reach its goals. First and foremost, it will change its approach to transportation, the leading source of emissions in the city.

Image via City of San Diego.

Image via City of San Diego.

The plan seeks to change the behavior of everyone in the city who lives within half a mile of a major transit station.

By 2035, half of all people living in those areas would be expected to commute by means other than a car – 25 percent by transit, 7 percent walking and 18 percent by bike. That’s a dramatic shift: last year, 83 percent of San Diegans commuted by car, according to Census data.

The plan imagines making this happen primarily by implementing true transit-oriented development patterns, though so far, it’s largely failed to execute on that vision. Proponents think the threat of legal liability could make city leaders less susceptible to NIMBY opposition, and local land-use plans will need to be consistent with the climate plan’s goals. Those local restrictions tend to dictate a lot of new development.

But to achieve such a massive increase in transit usage, the city will need a major in transit infrastructure, Aylett said. That’s a problem, however, since those decisions don’t happen at the city level.

“The city is effectively using tools it has to punch above its weight given the context of regional, state and federal agencies,” Aylett said. “But transit funding is always the issue.”

Changing Energy

San Diego’s plan also seeks to give the city itself authority over the energy it consumes.

Right now, the state requires all utilities to provide 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. The local utility in San Diego is subject to that requirement but not the city’s goal for 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

So, the city would take that responsibility into its own hands.

Through a program known as “community choice aggregation,” or CCA, the city would create a nonprofit in charge of deciding where San Diego’s energy comes from. It would buy energy – from entirely non-fossil fuel sources – and the local utility would simply deliver it to city residents.

In California, San Diego would be the largest community to pursue such an undertaking.

Building Efficiency

San Diego’s plan also requires property owners to disclose their homes’ energy usage at the time of sale.

That’s not an entirely new idea. The United Kingdom already has legislation requiring energy transparency at the time of sale. But it’s not widespread in the U.S.

Aylett said it’s an effective policy because when a building changes ownership, there’s a unique opportunity to make major changes to it. Otherwise, such renovations tend not to happen.

“It’s pretty logical,” he said. “If you think about it, imagine if when you bought a car, you didn’t know its fuel efficiency? It’s the same thing.”

Increased Resiliency

Aylett’s survey of urban governments found American cities are well behind international cities in one crucial way: dealing with the already-unavoidable effects of climate change.

Internationally, nearly 80 percent of cities were both reducing their contribution to climate change and putting in steps to deal with its inevitable effects. In the U.S., just 60 percent of cities were dealing with both issues. That trend comes at a time when climate scientists are increasingly viewing long-term climate change as an inevitably that we must learn to cope with.

San Diego’s plan addresses climate resiliency, but it’s something of an afterthought.

“That raises a red flag, not because San Diego stands out but because America stands out, in the global context,” Aylett said.

Capretz, the former city official, acknowledged that San Diego’s plan puts most of its effort into reducing the effects of climate change – not learning to live with it.

But, she said, the plan does direct the city to put together a new, standalone plan that’s focused only on resiliency.

“Like it or not,” she said, “we have got to prepare for what sea-level rise and drought means for our day-to-day life.”

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