Matthew Vasilakis, co-director of the Climate Action Campaign, speaks at a press conference against AB 1139. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The group that championed San Diego’s first plan to cut down on planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions is now urging the City Council to reject the city’s updated vision for neutralizing carbon emissions by 2035. 

The City Council’s Environment Committee meets Thursday to vote on Mayor Todd Gloria’s Climate Action Plan 2.0, released in 2021. And Nicole Capretz, who helped create the city’s first Climate Action Plan and founded the advocacy group Climate Action Campaign, wants the committee to bail on it.

The plan outlines over 100 things the city can do by 2035 to reach “net zero,” defined as reaching a balance between the emissions the region generates, and the amount of emissions absorbed either by the natural environment or through new technological means. But Capretz now recognizes a significant flaw in the previous climate plan that she helped write and championed after it passed. It didn’t have a clear timeline and cost breakdown – making it difficult to hold the city accountable for getting it done.

What Capretz is looking for is called an implementation plan and she says San Diegans shouldn’t be satisfied with the version the city put out already.

“We did not insist on an implementation plan for the first Climate Action Plan,” she said. “We’re not going to make that mistake again.” 

Capretz said many of the goals of the first Climate Action Plan – passed in 2015, to national fanfare – remain unfulfilled seven years later, because it didn’t set hard deadlines and cost estimates. The city just now, in its latest budget, dedicated money for a comprehensive plan for tackling transportation emissions by converting streets to be more transit and biking friendly, after committing to such a shift in that first plan.

City staff released what it calls a draft implementation matrix for the council’s Environment Committee to consider. It lays out each climate strategy the city proposes in CAP 2.0, from actions as small as switching all city street lights to LED bulbs to converting all city buildings to run on electricity only instead of natural gas.

Capretz and her organization aren’t satisfied. That matrix doesn’t include the true costs of any of those actions, Capretz said. Instead the matrix provides a range, one dollar sign to four, indicating a cost range of $100,000 to over $1 million. 

“You cannot apply for any kind of funding with dollar signs. That matrix is literally meaningless,” Capretz said, adding the city could miss out on competitive grants from the state and federal government as they distribute plenty infrastructure funding.

A firm deadline, she said, could ensure future City Councils keep the city on track by specifying what needs to be done in each year to reach the city’s 2035 net zero goal.

“If you’re elected in the year 2026 … the implementation plan for 2026 would spell out for new electeds what you’re supposed to be doing this year on climate,” Capretz said. 

La Mesa, for instance, has since 2019 published implementation plans that spell out the actions the city will take in the next two years as well as the costs to the city, the necessary staff time and grants or funding opportunities the city would pursue. It shows, for instance, that the city needs to pursue $4 million in grants for budget year 2022-23 to fund energy efficiency projects in city buildings and where it might get those funds. 

Randy Wilde, a senior policy advisor to Mayor Todd Gloria, said it’s important to have the Climate Action Plan adopted first so the city can then argue to future state or federal funders that the city is really committed to moving forward on aggressive climate action. The city, for instance, has a plan to start studying how to get natural gas fossil fuels out of municipal buildings as an energy source. But city staff argue they need council approval of building electrification as a policy before pursuing funding to do it.

“We are very confident and proud of the plan we’ve developed and we think we’re going about it in the right way,” Wilde said. “We really need to move this through Council. We’re certainly not waiting for an implementation plan.” 

Councilman Joe LaCava, chair of the council’s environment committee who represents San Diego from Carmel Valley to La Jolla, will be a critical voice on whether the Climate Action Plan will move forward without the roadmap climate activists are calling for.

He seems to follow Wilde’s reasoning.

“You have to set a goal in order to reach it,” he said in a statement. 

“We need to achieve net zero emissions in the City of San Diego and this plan can get us there,” wrote LaCava. “That being said, this Council and the public need assurances that we will implement the CAP, hitting each milestone and securing the appropriate funding. I look forward to hearing that commitment from staff on Thursday.”

Alyssa Muto, who heads the city’s sustainability and mobility department, said the city is working on a full implementation plan that would be ready within six to nine months before the next budget cycle.

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