The city’s plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next 20 years is that rare city policy that’s brought together Republicans, Democrats, unions, business groups and the building industry under one tent.
All of them are urging the City Council to pass the plan Tuesday afternoon. After watching liberal and conservative groups go head to head in recent years over low-income housing funding, a minimum wage increase and a plan to remake development restrictions in Barrio Logan, it’s worth marking the occasion. Indeed, the Council is expected to pass the plan – overwhelmingly.
The plan unquestionably marks a major commitment, but it doesn’t in itself do anything to lower the city’s carbon footprint. City staff in charge of the plan acknowledged as much.
“While I know this feels like a finish line we’re crossing, this is really just the beginning of implementation, and achieving our goals,” said Cody Hooven, the city’s sustainability manager, who is tasked with ensuring the plan’s various elements are put in place.
In that process, you can see the lines along which the grand compromise currently driving the plan could break down.
Even while the plan commits the city to measures that are themselves significant among the actions of other cities around the world, it also includes a series of landmines that could undermine its bipartisan support.
It includes a new requirement that the city conduct a cost/benefit analysis each time it implements a policy in the plan. There’s still a lot to sort out – and a lot of opposition – to the plan’s idea for how we’ll get all of our energy in 20 years. And it’s unclear just how much money the city will put into hiring staff to handle the whole process.
Those are questions that’ll get a lot less abstract once the city adopts the plan.
The city’s Climate Action Plan commits the city to cutting its carbon emissions in half from 2010 levels by 2035, empowering third parties to file a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act if it fails to do so.
Half of residents who live near a transit station will walk, bike or take transit to work and all of the city’s energy will come from renewable sources in the climate plan’s view of the future 20 years out.
There are dozens of specific actions the city would have to take to make those goals a reality. And each of them would need to be adopted through a specific Council action.
Yet the plan the Council’s set to adopt Tuesday includes an element that hadn’t been part of the document over its “Schoolhouse Rock”-esque five-year march to this point. It adds one more hurdle to each opportunity for the Council to implement part of the plan.
“A cost/benefits analysis will be prepared as each implementation measure is presented to City Council for consideration,” the latest version of the plan reads.
And who could argue with that? Making sure the benefits outweigh the costs of a given action is the sort of commonsense policymaking that features heavily in debates each election season.
For instance, one of the dozens of specific actions called for in the plan is for the Council to consider an ordinance that would make property owners disclose how much energy their home tends to use in a given month any time they sell the property. The new buyer could ignore the information, but they’d need to have a chance to know how energy-efficient the home is before buying it (just like you know a car’s gas mileage before you buy one).
The new language in the plan would make city staff conduct a full analysis of the costs and benefits associated with the policy before the Council could adopt it. The plan doesn’t specifically say what that would entail, just that city staff will conduct the analysis. When the Council’s environmental committee last month sent the plan to the full Council, support for that last-minute insertion came from business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, while environmentalists warned against it.
Sean Karafin, executive director of policy and economic research at the Chamber, said the thing he heard about most from his members was the need for repeated cost/benefit analyses with the plan.
“We have to make sure we invest in the real strategies that have real reductions locally,” he said.
Molly Kirkland, with the San Diego County Apartment Association, made a similar case.
“This will allow the City Council, if the costs of a particular measure outweigh the benefits, to come together and find a more effective and efficient solution,” she said.
It’s going to be tough to argue that, yes, the city should adopt policies that cost more than they’re worth.
Nicole Capretz, a long-time sherpa for the plan when she worked in the city and who now has a nonprofit group dedicated to pushing it, fears a traditional economic analysis might not share her definition of a benefit. Maybe there isn’t a short-term benefit associated with a policy that makes an infinitesimal contribution to the earth not becoming uninhabitable by humans.
At the committee hearing, she cautioned that it’s easy to imagine an analysis that doesn’t include everything that the environmental community would count as a benefit. Or that there are competing studies over a given element.
The city should instead resolve when it adopts the plan that there’s support for it, and it’s time to act, she said.
“I think unfortunately, we are susceptible to everyone going back to their corners again,” Capretz said. “But the only tool we have in our belt here is that these are legal mandates.”
In other words, she hopes the threat of a lawsuit will compel the city to actually do something.
Her concerns with implementing the plan aren’t entirely tied up in its new requirement for cost/benefit analysis.
There’s also the plan’s provision calling for the city to look into “community choice aggregation,” or CCA, a program that would let the city, rather than SDG&E, choose the types of energy residents use in their homes. It’s intended to ensure the city can make good on its pledge to get to 100 percent clean energy by 2035; again, that’s all energy in the city. Not just city buildings. Everything.
But SDG&E has begun taking steps to formally lobby against that effort, as KPBS reported, and submitted a legal comment on the climate plan’s environmental study saying the emissions reductions attributed to the CCA provision were overstated.
Even the plan as written gives the plan an escape hatch, committing it only to pursue a CCA “or another program that increases the renewable energy supply.”
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Marti Emerald pushed during the committee hearing to speed up the city’s timeline for exploring such a program. The Chamber of Commerce issued a press release almost instantly ridiculing the idea of rushing into such a major policy decision.
The issues with putting each element of the plan into action haven’t escaped Council notice.
Councilman David Alvarez is working with the city attorney to structure a group that would monitor how well the plan is being implemented in the future. The environmental committee also asked that city staff bring forward a full implementation plan by April, which would include funding additional staff to work on each item.
Faulconer’s budget this year included money for Hooven’s position, sustainability manager, then seen as a commitment to getting the plan passed this year. Mike Hansen, the mayor’s point person on environmental policy, has reiterated the office’s commitment to fully implementing the plan.