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As San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria makes his debut on the world stage of climate change negotiations this week, his administration dropped the gutsiest plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to date.
The city released the draft 2021 Climate Action Plan Wednesday which details ways San Diego will reach a new climate target: net zero emissions by 2035.
It’s “doubling our efforts,” said Ashley Rosia-Tremonti, the city’s sustainability program manager, because the city’s former climate plan adopted in 2015 called for just a 50 percent emission cut by that same year.
One big way San Diego says it’s going to do it: transition most buildings in town to run on electricity instead of natural gas.
That was a big sticking point with local unionized gas workers who were concerned about losing jobs as more California cities started to ban gas infrastructure in new buildings, like the city of Encinitas most recently. But San Diego’s draft plan sets a dramatic target: phase-out gas from 45 percent of existing buildings, not just new ones, by 2030 and then 90 percent by 2035.
Banning gas in new buildings has a much more incremental effect on reducing the need for natural gas consumption in the city. New construction is about 1 percent of the total building stock each year, experts said. The big kahuna in climate policy is tackling existing buildings, ones that are already standing with old gas pipelines running through, and desire some kind of retrofit or changes to run all-electric.
How would San Diego make that jump from 45 percent to 90 percent electrified buildings in just five years? Alyssa Muto, the city’s director of sustainability and mobility, said the state is already moving in that direction by approving new building codes that encourage electrification and the technologies will follow.
“We know the long game of overall building decarbonization will be a lot about creating programs to support workers and residents,” Muto said. “Once those are in place it will create the momentum that we need for the actual turnover (to 90 percent).”
Sean Ellis, an organizer for San Diego’s Local 230 pipefitters union, said he’s “disappointed” the city is going in this direction with natural gas. Pipefitters and plumbers, unionized or not, rely on natural gas pipeline construction and maintenance work. But Ellis said he’s been in talks with the city about transitioning gas workers to work on water projects similar to those in San Francisco County, where policymakers agreed to push water-recycling requirements in buildings in concert with electrification of buildings.
“That’s one way to transition workers and that’s all we want to see,” Ellis said.
Gloria spoke to Voice of San Diego from Glasgow, Scotland Wednesday during the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference (the same body that formed the Paris Climate Agreements, the world’s first voluntary greenhouse gas reduction targets by whole nations, back in 2016). He used his debut on the world stage to drop other climate-related announcements like a proposal to ban city investments in fossil fuel companies, of which San Diego currently holds millions of dollars in stock.
“I ran for mayor to implement (the Climate Action Plan). I don’t believe we can faithfully do that when our deeds don’t match our words,” Gloria said over a Zoom call on Wednesday.
In October, San Diego’s City Council OK’d investments in Chevron and Exxon stock despite the fact that the city is supposed to be operating under a “climate emergency” via a resolution passed back in March of 2020. That document links fossil fuel degradation to environmental injustices borne by “frontline communities” who should be benefitting instead from a sustainable and equitable economy.
Gloria said the City Council will consider a proposal to update the city’s investment policy prohibiting investments in fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas. However, Gloria since taking office approved a potential 20-year deal with the city’s main energy provider and grid builder — San Diego Gas and Electric, which is owned by Sempra, a huge natural gas exporter.
The deal placed new demands on the company to benefit ratepayers and it prolonged the city’s relationship with a gas company for at least another decade.
“That’s why the (new) Climate Action Plan is envisioning deeper commitments to building electrification, so the investment policy is not the only place to make a change on this issue,” Gloria said.
Just like every administration or company that claims net zero emissions as a goal, net zero by 2035 doesn’t mean San Diego will just stop creating planet-warming emissions altogether by that date. It means the city is committing to cutting as much emissions as it generates. The city estimated that even if it did all the things it set out to do in this draft plan, it will still have to find a way to cut about 2 million metric tons of emissions leftover. San Diego would have to find other ways to offset those emissions at some point.
San Diego did not rule out exploring the use of buying carbon offsets, which are credits that can be purchased on a marketplace that allow the buyer to produce pollution while the credits go toward green projects like planting trees. It’s becoming a prolific practice in the climate change policy space, but it got the County of San Diego in trouble because its Climate Action Plan relied too heavily on offsets to meet its targets.
The city also highlighted capturing the potential for San Diego’s natural landscapes to capture and bury carbon as a way to reach its net zero goals. A new target under the proposed plan seeks to restore just under 700 acres of salt marsh, a choice the city is facing right now in Mission Bay at the Kendall Frost marsh.
Climate advocates like Climate Action Campaign, instrumental in pushing the first Climate Action Plan toward adoption, said they’d like to see movement on other fronts left behind from the first plan.
“There’s still no money that’s been invested into this climate plan which is why we’re so far behind,” said Nicole Capretz, Climate Action Campaign founder.
Mat Vasilakis, co-director of policy at the Climate Action Campaign, said a masterplan for walking, biking and transit is “years delayed and woefully underfunded.”
Other than buildings, transportation is a top source of emissions in the city.