How Cities’ Climate-Change Promise Became an Afterthought

How Cities’ Climate-Change Promise Became an Afterthought

How Cities' Climate-Change Promise Became an Afterthought

Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008 | Since 2005, seven mayors from across the region have made a bold pledge on global warming: Their cities will do everything possible to meet or beat the goals outlined in the Kyoto Protocol.

They agreed to strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their cities to 7 percent below 1990 levels — a benchmark for climate goal-setting — by 2012.

The mayors joined more than 600 of their nationwide peers who have worked to convince state and federal lawmakers to get serious about combating climate change. The message from those who signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement was clear: If others won’t fight global warming, we’ll do it ourselves.

But in the time since local mayors made their pledges, few have followed through with concrete action that will guarantee their city’s residents will emit fewer greenhouse gases in 2012 than they did in 1990.

In San Diego and Chula Vista, government has cut its own emissions generated in city facilities and by municipal car fleets. But those represent a small fraction of the citywide total.

Other cities that have signed on to the pledge have taken concrete steps to reduce emissions. New York City required its cab fleet to use hybrid cars. San Francisco has proposed implementing a city-wide tax on carbon emissions. The Los Angeles Water and Power Department agreed to exceed state mandates and get 35 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

But in some local cities, signing the agreement has almost become an afterthought. Vista Mayor Morris Vance said he vaguely remembered signing it. He said he asked city staff to “come back with some recommendations,” though that hasn’t happened.

“I remember at the time I thought it was a good idea,” Vance said.

In Imperial Beach, Mayor Jim Janney said his city hadn’t followed up with any specific action, either. “It’s not like we’ve ignored it completely,” he said, “but we haven’t pushed real hard.”

If mankind is going to overcome the challenge that climate change presents, cities will play an important role. The federal government can require more efficient cars. The state government can mandate how much electricity will come from renewable sources. But cities have the power to set land-use policies. They decide whether energy efficient appliances will be required in new homes, whether green building standards will be employed and where development will occur.

“The biggest driver of emissions in California is transportation — how many miles people drive their vehicles. And how do you change that if it’s not done locally?” asked Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego. “It’s about land-use patterns. … Is the city of San Diego alone going to be able to come up with a framework to do it all? No way. But the federal government isn’t going to either.”

The seven local cities that signed the Conference of Mayors agreement have put themselves in a challenging position. They have agreed to lead the way in combating climate change. And they have pledged to do it quickly. But many have tiny municipal staffs, employ no climate specialists and say they are already stretched financially.

“It is a huge challenge for cities, make no mistake,” said Emily Young, the San Diego Foundation’s director of environmental analysis and strategy. “But there is a lot that they can do — some that will result in cost savings. If you revise your plans now, your ordinances, your building codes, in 30 years you reap the benefits.”

Some cities have already begun taking steps to address climate change. La Mesa added three hybrid cars to its fleet. Solana Beach replaced a gas guzzling pickup with an electric car. San Diego mandated recycling.

While officials in those cities laud their progress, many also admit they aren’t likely to meet the 2012 emissions reduction goals they agreed to. Mary Sessom, Lemon Grove’s mayor, said that’s why she has refused to sign on to the mayors’ accord.

“It doesn’t do anything,” she said. “Signing a piece of paper doesn’t mean we intend to do anything about climate change. Signing a piece of paper gives you political cover.”

Chula Vista had already pledged to cut its emissions before then-Mayor Steve Padilla signed the agreement. The city first inventoried its greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. Despite the efforts already underway, Michael Meacham, the city’s director of conservation and environmental services, said the agreement still had value there.

“Don’t we want vision? Don’t we want aspiration?” Meacham said. “If somebody doesn’t start, you don’t get to add up the pieces. That’s why I think it is important that these mayors signed it.”

The mayors who have signed say they intend to follow up on their commitment, even if they have little to show to date. Janney said he would raise the issue again this year in Imperial Beach. But he wouldn’t commit to developing an inventory of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions or establishing a reductions target by the year’s end. Both strategies are outlined in the resolution he signed.

La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid pledged to make significant progress this year. He said a committee had begun meeting to discuss the city’s next steps.

“I don’t believe in just going out there and embarrassing a community by just forgetting about it,” Madrid said. “I challenge you to call me at the end of the year (and ask) where are you now? It’s not going to be done in a year, but at least we will have a road map of where in the hell we’re going.”

Mayors of several smaller cities pointed to the city of San Diego as the municipality that stands the best chance of effecting tangible change. Mayor Jerry Sanders signed the climate agreement in 2006, but has never released a plan for achieving the emissions reductions goals he agreed to. The city is poised, though, to begin addressing climate change in its land-use planning, including some recommendations for green building standards in a pending update to its general plan, the city’s blueprint for growth over the next 20 years.

But just as smaller cities pleaded poverty, so did San Diego.

“In this financial environment, the incentives can’t all come from local government because we just don’t have the money,” said Linda Giannelli Pratt, program chief of San Diego’s energy, sustainability and environmental protection division. “We’re not living in a place where we can mandate everything. That’s not what people want. We trust with some incentives that we will be able to figure out a way that we can get people to make the changes they need to make.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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