California Cities Respond to Climate Change Crisis

Photo: Kevin Cortopassi/Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevincortopassi/14483258916/in/photostream/
Photo: Kevin Cortopassi/Flickr.

Climate change is global, but local governments are the first line of defense against carbon emissions and their effects. The United Nations Environment Program reports that 75 percent of the world’s carbon emissions come from urban areas. Now, more and more cities and counties are looking for ways to shrink their carbon footprints.

A report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions found that in 2010, some 1,000 U.S. cities had climate change programs, up from just 15 in 1995. As of 2014, about 250 California cities had such plans or were developing them, according to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research

In California, the state’s landmark climate change law, AB 32, is spurring local action with billions of dollars in state programs aimed at cutting greenhouse gases. The law requires the state to reduce carbon, methane and other planet warming emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a cut of about 15 percent. It recommends that cities follow suit, and now many of them have pledged to beat the state’s targets.

Last December, the city of San Diego adopted a plan to shift to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2035. Also last December, the city of Los Angeles released its own plan, saying it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The city’s municipal utility, the LA Department of Water and Power pledged to generate half of its energy from renewable sources. It’s cut back on coal as a power source and promises to divest itself completely of its coal-fired plant by 2025.

Michael Shank, who teaches sustainable development at the New York University Center for Global Affairs, said that California cities are especially motivated to act because of the drought.

“California’s historic drought was and is a constant reminder of global warming impacts and a dangerous, persistent motivator for municipalities to act,” Shank wrote in an email.

A 2014 report by Los Angeles County’s public health officer noted that wildfires driven by tinder-dry conditions are more common and more destructive than they’ve been in the past. Eleven of the state’s biggest blazes occurred between 2003 and 2013.

“We’re dealing with a four-year drought,” said LA County fire department spokesman, Randall Wright. “We’ve had fires throughout the year, not just summer.”

Heat waves are longer and more severe, and will worsen if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t reduced, the report noted, while rising sea levels could threaten coastal communities.

In Southern California, LA County has plans for green building development and greater energy efficiency, among other projects, while the state’s largest cities have drafted climate change plans that touch every aspect of municipal government.

San Diego’s plan, released last December, is particularly detailed, and includes goals like reducing energy consumption in residential buildings, as well as city-owned ones, converting trash trucks to low emission fuels, reducing the average commute by two miles with transit oriented communities and increasing walking and biking opportunities. The city says it will also re-time traffic lights and alter traffic patterns by building roundabouts to replace traditional intersections, among many other projects.

In LA, Chief Sustainability Officer Matt Petersen said that in the coming weeks, the city plans to announce a new car sharing operation for some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, eighty percent of whose fleet will be comprised of electric vehicles.

The city has converted about 60 percent of its streetlights to LED, a move that eliminates significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Cities are uniquely positioned to tackle climate change, Shank said. They can take quicker action than states or the federal government, and they can get citizens involved more easily.

Stephanie Pincetl, a professor in residence at the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability said cities also have a lot of authority in key areas, like land use policy and building codes. Buildings, for example, account for fully 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and many cities, like LA are using incentives to encourage private businesses to retrofit their structures for greater efficiency. Likewise, municipal governments are in the driver’s seat when it comes to getting cars off the road by encouraging housing construction and job creation near mass transit.

But, lack of funding is a huge problem, Pincetl said.

For example, cities rely on federal dollars for big transit projects that could shrink carbon footprints. Many other actions depend on local tax dollars, which give rich cities a leg up on climate change action.

For instance, Santa Monica was the first city in the nation to power its public facilities with 100 percent green energy.

But smaller poorer municipalities are less likely to be green, because they don’t have the resources.

“What about Bell?” Pincetl asked. “Or South Gate or Cudahy.”

Those Southeast LA County cities are both strapped for cash, and choked with a disproportionate share of both emissions from industry and traffic from the freeways that snake through them.

“We’re really thinking about it,” said Cudahy City Councilman Cristian Markovich, adding that city officials recently renovated one of the tiny municipality’s parks adding artificial turf and allowing the city to cut way back on water use. “But our budget is really stretched thin,” he said.

The state could come to the aid of cities like Cudahy. It has set aside 25 percent of its AB 32 funds for disadvantaged communities, which it identifies based on criteria like poverty and pollution. But it takes resources just to research funding opportunities. Markovich said his city has been unaware of those funds.

Last month, the California Air Resources Board reported to the Legislature that so far nearly a billion dollars in climate change funding has been awarded to specific projects, nearly 40 percent of which has gone to disadvantaged communities. Altogether, $2.6 billion has been appropriated.

Some municipal climate change projects are likely to show results sooner than later, like conversion to green energy or getting polluting city vehicles off the roads. It could take much longer to create walkable cities, even though trends are encouraging. Pincetl noted that driver’s license applications are down for millennials, who show interest in living near public transit.

“If you think about it, the urban fabric took a long time to build,” Pincetl said. Changing it also takes some time.

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