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Public health and climate change are the primary concerns of the Bay Area’s new Clean Air Plan. Photo by Vivien Kim Thorp.

The challenge guiding the Bay Area’s new Clean Air Plan is clearly stated: “to protect public health and stabilize the climate, we must take aggressive action to eliminate fossil fuel combustion and transition to a post-carbon economy.” Entitled Spare the Air, Cool the Climate, this 623-page document represents a cutting-edge approach to planning from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The regulatory agency has articulated an innovative vision of the region in 2050: efficient buildings completely heated, cooled, and powered by renewable energy; widespread use of electric-powered vehicles; myriad opportunities for residents to travel by bicycle, foot, or transit; a sustainable economy supplying consumers with low-carbon goods and services; and pervasive reuse or recycling of waste products.

Far-reaching, complex, and quite technical in some areas, Spare the Air, Cool the Climate has taken over three years to complete. Although the average Bay Area resident might see this undertaking as intimidating, many stepped up and engaged in the plan’s development. The Air District held stakeholder meetings and open houses, convened working groups on each of the major topics in the plan, and added an online “Open Air Forum” for public discussion. As the agency’s Christy Riviere remarked, “We found it effective to scoop in everyone we could, especially experts.”

Like a building — constructed with many meetings between architect, designers, workers, and owners — the form of the final product was anticipated in most respects. At the same time, not everyone’s expectations could be met, as demonstrated by the public comments. For some, the cutting edge is not sharp enough, while for others, it’s alarming and dangerous.

For example, eliminating fossil-fuel combustion is seen as an unrealistic goal by the Western States Petroleum Association, a nonprofit industry interest group which submitted the comment that “WSPA does not believe it is warranted or within the authority of the District to use its Clean Air Plan policies to seek elimination of fossil fuel usage considering the improvements to air quality and the public demand for energy.”

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District adopted its new Clean Air Plan on April 19, 2017. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

This sentiment was echoed by an anonymous online forum post that cautioned, “Our economy runs on petroleum, the food we eat comes in by vehicles running on petroleum, our daily lives are surrounded by petroleum products… It is naive of those who think that shooting down refineries will truly help our environment and our economy.”

However, most online forum posts, as well as cards submitted at informational open houses, focused on doing more or moving faster toward a post-carbon future. “More tall buildings with green roofs,” wrote one San Francisco participant. “Soil management and carbon sequestration should include suburban and urban spaces,” another suggested. A Los Altos resident deplored pollution from leaf-blowers and woodburning outdoor pizza ovens, while several Napa residents wanted to end all agricultural burning. “Dial back air conditioning,” was the plea from an Oakland participant.

Members of environmental and sustainability groups across the region chimed in on improving diesel engine idling regulations, increasing woodland preservation and community gardens, and using clotheslines instead of dryers. The environmental activism nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment proposed a “Just Transition” program to assist “workers and disparately affected communities.”

The most detailed comments were provided by 350 Bay Area. The climate advocacy group has been sharply critical of the Air District in previous years — primarily over the pace of greenhouse gas reductions — but is impressed by the plan. Comment co-author Jed Holtzman told the Monitor, “We saw that our general narrative and things we had been pushing for were being integrated into the overall vision in a longer-term way.”

An e-mail campaign coordinated by 350 Bay Area generated more than 200 comments. These generally supported the plan, encouraged the agency to include more enforceable regulations (particularly for refineries), and urged caution in moving from fossil fuels to biofuels. As an El Sobrante resident explained, “I am a fan of biofuels… to a point. A decentralized solar, wind, and tidal electrical generating system sited primarily upon the existing massive collection capacity of the current built environment should be emphasized, however. Use your authority to bring this on more strongly. As you know, the combustion of even carbon-neutral biofuels will produce additional air pollution in a region which already has plenty.”

Air District staff responded to each comment, sometimes simply with “comment noted,” but often accepting suggestions, correcting errors, or adding information and explaining the agency’s role and capabilities. “In some areas, we don’t have regulatory authority — such as dealing with pollution from ships or regulating lawn equipment — or we’re not the experts, but we have other tools,” Riviere explained.

Spare the Air, Cool the Climate is well-integrated with Plan Bay Area 2040, the region’s forthcoming land use and transportation blueprint. The Air District also intends to work with state agencies, counties, and cities to advance mutual goals. Holtzman noted that groups with supportive constituencies can push cities and counties to pass implementing measures. “Where the Air District can’t mandate, it will require the support of groups in other sectors. Without their involvement from the beginning, implementation won’t be as robust,” he said.

Holtzman thinks that with the plan’s 85 measures (requiring 282 separate implementation actions, some with multiple components), the Air District could benefit from continued public engagement as it sets priorities and develops an action plan. He would like to see ongoing stakeholder involvement in sectors dealing with stationary sources, energy, transportation, and buildings.

Riviere observed that many of the measures involve new regulations, noting that “for every one of our rules there is a public process.” For those that are not rule-based, “We probably will do some version of stakeholder groups as part of implementation, or we may participate in meetings they already hold. For some sectors, there’s already a lot going on, and we’re working on developing solid relationships.”

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.