Green City: Slow climate change U-turn


GREEN CITY It seems like most of the recent talk about global warming has been in terms of its apocalyptic potential in the distant future. Yet Bay Area heat waves and soaring temperatures in the Central Valley of late could certainly cause me to wonder whether it’s already begun. What has happened to our legendary cold summers and heavy rainy seasons? Sure, we’ve gotten patches of fog and wind, but for the most part this summer has felt, well, summery.

And apparently I’m not the only one thinking about climate change and what we need to be doing today to minimize it. Let me tell you, it’s going to take a lot more than driving a Prius and using energy-efficient lightbulbs to get the job done. That’s why the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Department of the Environment published the city’s Climate Action Plan in 2004. The plan evolved from the Board of Supervisors’ 2002 resolution to reduce the city’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to 20 percent below their 1990 levels and included a series of recommendations on how to achieve this goal.

In 1990, San Francisco emitted 9.1 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but by 2004 it was pumping out an extra 600,000 tons per year and counting. In order to get down to the ideal of 7.3 million tons by 2012, things need to make a major U-turn. Last month the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury released a report on how successful the Climate Action Plan has been so far, and while the city has made some progress in reducing its annual greenhouse gas emissions, the report noted that if the board’s goals are to be met, the entire city needs to step it up.

According to the grand jury report, the reduction of emissions in 2005 (the most recently available local emissions inventory) was "500,000 metric tons, only half the amount hoped," and "to achieve the reductions to 7.3 million tons by 2012 will require a tripling of the reduction rate."

The Department of the Environment remains optimistic. "We haven’t fallen behind," Mark Westlund, the department’s public outreach program manager, told the Guardian. "But we need to do more. We are currently at 1990 levels. At this point we’ve made the U-turn and are lined up to reach 7 percent [below] our 1990 levels, which would put us up to pace with the Kyoto Protocol’s goals, but we just need to ramp it up to reach our 20 percent."

City government can do a lot to control emissions. There are already regulations in place regarding the city’s vehicle fleets and setting green standards for municipal buildings. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Green Building Task Force on July 11 announced a proposal to create incentives for private-sector buildings to adopt green building standards over the next five years.

Other city efforts include 2001’s Proposition B, which expanded solar power possibilities, and Community Choice Aggregation, which recently received preliminary approval from the Board of Supervisors; the latter program will allow the city to develop renewable energy projects on behalf of its citizens. But when it comes to making San Francisco a truly green city, much of the dirty work will fall to private citizens.

Nonmunicipal sources are responsible for 90 percent of San Francisco’s emissions, with a whopping 50 percent coming from private transportation, mostly cars. While the Climate Action Plan and the Civil Grand Jury report both give suggestions on how government agencies can motivate the public to reduce emissions, these suggestions can also be read as a map for how we can help ourselves. Simple changes in transportation habits — more walking, bicycling, and public transit — could cut 963,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year. And those who must use cars could carpool more often and switch to more-efficient vehicles.

The Climate Action Plan also indicates we can reduce emissions by an estimated 328,000 tons by changing how we live at home, including better energy efficiency and waste management.

Westlund told us, "Twenty percent is not just a municipal target, it’s citywide. Residences can help. Businesses can help. We’re all in this together. Getting the message out is half of it."*

The grand jury report is available at

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