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Taking Local Action on Climate Change
By Alec MacDonald
If you didn’t hear the news, maybe you felt it: 2014 was California’s warmest year on record, dating back to 1895. This revelation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave us yet another reason to sweat about our changing climate, following the agency’s 2013 announcement that the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million for the first time in three million years. In explaining the significance of this unfortunate milestone, NOAA’s Pieter Tans told The New York Times, “It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem.”
In the Bay Area, however, many people reject failure as an option, and they have been tackling the problem with vigor. In this undertaking, public policy has served as an indispensable tool. Motivated by recommendation of the California Air Resources Board, jurisdictions across this region have been working to slash their communities’ greenhouse gas emissions to keep pace with state reduction targets mandated by the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Assembly Bill 32). This means that by 2020, emissions must return to where they were in 1990, and by 2050, they must drop an additional 80 percent. It’s a tall order, but one that local governments have the power to fulfill.
“Local governments are really uniquely capable of addressing a lot of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions,” declared Timothy Burroughs, chief resilience officer for the city of Berkeley. “Local governments have land use authority that affects how and where things are built; we develop transportation infrastructure; we develop energy policies; we collect your solid waste and recycling.”
How can jurisdictions leverage these responsibilities in order to cut emissions? Their most comprehensive option is to create a climate action plan. Lengthy documents that necessitate extensive preparation, climate action plans usually contain a few core components: an overview of relevant scientific principles, an inventory of community-wide emissions, a set of reduction targets, and a list of strategies for reaching those targets. Many also feature adaptation sections that propose ways for the community to protect itself from climate change’s inescapable impacts, which may strike in the form of sea level rise, drought, wildfire, or severe weather events, depending on the local landscape.
Berkeley began to craft a plan after its voters approved Measure G, a 2006 ballot initiative that codified reduction targets for the city. Of the drafting process that ensued, Burroughs recounted, “We tried to create as many opportunities as possible for our residents and our businesses to engage in development of the plan, because we knew if the plan was to be implemented effectively, it really had to have support from the community.” This participatory endeavor culminated in 2009 with the city council’s adoption of the final plan, one of the first instituted in the Bay Area.
Numerous jurisdictions followed suit, and now a total of 58 cities and counties — representing 80 percent of the region’s population — have plans in place, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Abby Young. Her agency helped jumpstart many of the earlier plans (like Berkeley’s) with a round of grant funding in 2007, and has been guiding local governments through their drafting process.
“We’re really excited and proud that the Bay Area has so many climate action plans,” she remarked of the region’s progress. “Pretty much every single city and county in the Bay Area, if they don’t have one, they’re developing one. So that’s pretty impressive.”
Given the diversity inherent to the region, the evolution of each local government’s plan unfolds differently. Berkeley’s electorate backed Measure G’s reduction targets with 81 percent of the vote, an incredibly forceful public endorsement, even for a city with such a strong reputation for favoring environmentalism. Few other cities begin their climate action planning from such an advantageous position.
Take Pleasanton, for instance. Daniel Smith, the city’s public works director, took the lead on drafting its plan. “I went out and did some research, and looked at other cities, and thought, ‘Well, this couldn’t be that hard to do,’” he recalled. At the time, he imagined the community would freely accept a slate of ordinances, but “that was definitely a little bit naïve.”
After encountering significant stakeholder resistance, he said, “We stepped back and took a different approach.” The city tried to show flexibility and not come across as overbearing regulators, reaching out to business interests in particular. As a result, when the city council adopted the plan in 2012, those parties who had initially raised objection turned out to testify on its behalf.
For example, Smith pointed out how the plan won over the local realtors association by eschewing a residential energy conservation ordinance. Commonly referred to as RECO, this kind of measure typically requires that a home meet certain energy efficiency standards before it can change ownership. Attaining these standards can mean costly renovations, bumping up the price of a home and theoretically driving away buyers. Realtors balked at this, so the city forged an alternative: after a home sale, it would offer the new owners assistance with boosting energy efficiency, familiarizing them with a range of upgrades, rebates, and tax credits for that purpose. The city hammered out similar arrangements regarding commercial properties as well.
“The proactive, collaborative approach so far has done very well for Pleasanton,” Smith attested. The city released an update to the plan 15 months after its adoption, and “we were on track to meet our milestones and reach our 2020 goal.” If future updates indicate slippage, however, he said the city has the discretion to incorporate more regulation into the plan.
Hardline environmentalists might argue for stricter upfront controls, especially when those controls have successful precedent (Berkeley implemented RECO way back in 1987, and its real estate market continues to hum along just fine). However, pragmatic climate action planning accommodates local realities.
“There are a lot of people out there that want to do the right thing for the environment and help us become more sustainable, but there’s also the other side of it where they feel like you’re infringing on their freedoms,” Smith noted about Pleasanton.
Alex Porteshawver, who serves as the city of Benicia’s consulting climate action plan coordinator, understands the value of bridging ideological divides. When attempting to move forward with policies, she suggested jurisdictions should “focus on co-benefits as a way to avoid polarizing the different groups who may have different viewpoints.”
Safeguarding public health represents one objective that few people would oppose. Benicia’s climate action plan underscores authorities’ expectations that harsher heat waves and degrading air quality will exacerbate a range of maladies. The potential for an uptick in asthma rates poses special urgency, since the disease is already alarmingly prevalent among children in the vicinity and across Solano County.
Porteshawver listed financial concerns as another big motivator, and spoke of how Benicia launched a program that allows businesses to trim their bills while reining in emissions. Under the program, the city provides businesses with energy use assessments, along with recommendations for improving efficiency. Such improvements might include lower-wattage lighting, solar installations, or fleet conversion to electric vehicles — upgrades the city can then help pay for with loans or grants. If these weren’t already enticing enough reasons to participate, hundreds of businesses who operate in the bustling Benicia Industrial Park can find extra incentive simply by looking out the window; the park’s shoreline location makes it vulnerable to sea level rise.
Benicia’s program aligns closely to what Pleasanton has been doing in this sector, and on the whole, their climate action plans share much in common with each other’s and with Berkeley’s. For although the Bay Area is certainly diverse, its jurisdictions can still draw on many of the same policy solutions for reducing emissions and confronting the unifying threat of climate change.
“No city can do this on their own,” Porteshawver concluded. “There are so many ways in which we don’t have to recreate the wheel, and we can work together.”
Alec MacDonald is the editor of the Bay Area Monitor.