By Dave Schwab
San Diego has adopted an ambitious climate-action plan (CAP) to eliminate half of all greenhouse gas emissions — and to require all electricity used in the city to be from renewable sources — by 2035.
Just 16 years away, the big question is, will we make it?
“We’re really just scratching the surface right now,” admitted Sophie Wolfram, director of programs for the Climate Action Campaign (CAC), an environmental nonprofit advocating energy sustainability. “San Diego must make a real commitment to actually hit that 100% clean-energy target. We have a long way to go.”
Warns Wolfram, “The region is not on track to hit our state and regional climate targets, and cities are still working independently of one another.”
More importantly, the goals set by San Diego’s CAP don’t just set the bar high. They’re also legally binding.
If San Diego fails in cutting its greenhouse emissions in half by 2035, environmental groups or the state attorney general could file lawsuits against the city to force compliance by its elected officials.
The city is expected to ramp up the “baseline” funding levels for its CAP in future years, as it nears its targets in 2020 and 2035. Much of that initial funding focuses on improving streets and sidewalks to make walking and biking safe transit options, particularly in Downtown and other dense areas like North Park and Hillcrest.
Funding in the city’s budget will be devoted to a number of infrastructure improvements including: new road-improvement funding for pedestrians, such as restriping crosswalks and making them highly visible; and installing 10,000 feet of new sidewalks and pedestrian countdown timers for at least 50 intersections per year.
More than $1 million is also being dedicated toward improvements for bicyclists with 50 miles of new and improved bike lanes, including high-priority lanes near San Diego State University and dense urban neighborhoods.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer brought together local environmental, business and community leaders to endorse the CAP, which was approved by the City Council in December 2015.
The CAP is a package of policies designed to benefit San Diego’s environment and economy by: helping create new jobs in the renewable energy industry; improving public health and air quality; conserving water more efficiently; and using existing resources to increase clean-energy production, improve quality of life and save taxpayer money.
Steps the city can take to achieve the 2035 CAP targets include: creating a renewable energy program; implementing a zero-waste plan; and changing policy to have a majority of the city’s fleet be electric vehicles.
The CAC and other environmental groups are calling for a “Green New Deal” to develop a regional vision to fight climate change and build economic sustainability. The goal is to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while shepherding the economy and energy sectors away from fossil fuels and toward carbon neutrality by 2030.
“What the CAP sets out to do is very much about climate change: It’s an urgent threat,” cautioned Wolfram. “We’ve got to set a new vision to get our greenhouse gas-emission targets aligned with our climate-action goals.”
Wolfram said the objective now is to “close the gap between where we are — and where we need to be. The idea is we need a bigger, broader regional vision to fight climate change.”
Achieving ambitious environmental goals in the city’s CAP however is running into political blowback. One example is Transit Priority Areas. TPAs are defined as any area sitting within a half-mile of one or more planned or existing transit stops.
This year, the City Council voted 8-1 to reduce parking requirements to a zero minimum at new multifamily residential developments within TPAs. That’s been criticized by some as a sellout to developers.
But Wolfram countered that TPAs are an integral part of weaning people from their emission-belching autos.
“The TPAs are in urban core neighborhoods, and the targeted goal is to have 50% of commuters taking mass transit, 18% biking and 7% walking in TPAs by 2035,” Wolfram said. “That’s where we are not seeing the progress we need to make to meet these targets.”
Though San Diego’s CAP goals are ambitious, and the time horizon to achieve them is short, Wolfram is nonetheless optimistic.
“They’re doable,” she said. “But we need to reshape the way people move around the city. It’s not going to happen on its own, or by tinkering with a bus schedule here, or painting a bike lane there.”
In the final analysis, Wolfram said it will ultimately be up to local government to ensure that the city’s greenhouse gas emission targets are met — or not.
“Whether the city will be able to reach its climate-action goals will depend on the level of commitment we see in the coming months and years,” she said. “The city needs to make a real investment in implementing the climate-action plan. If we do that, if we muster up the political courage, we can hit those targets.”
Failure is not an option, said Wolfram.
“This is really about the health, safety and survival of future generations,” she concluded.
— Dave Schwab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org