Haps on the CAP
The city hasn’t forgotten about its Climate Action Plan
In November 2012, the Chico City Council put its official stamp on sustainability by adopting a municipal Climate Action Plan. The blueprint, honed by the city’s Sustainability Task Force, laid out a two-stage approach for addressing the impacts of climate change and meeting greenhouse-gas standards established by the state.
In Phase I, the city would aim to reduce emissions by 10 percent from 2005 levels by 2015. In Phase II, the city would assess Phase I and enact more measures to achieve an additional reduction of 15 percent by 2020—thereby hitting the state’s target of 25 percent.
Flash forward six months and …
Budget woes led to restructuring of city staff. At the same time, the council opted to reconfigure the Sustainability Task Force; the STF wouldn’t meet again until December 2013.
So, with Phase I in its final stretch and Phase II looming large, where does the CAP stand? Moving along, but lagging behind schedule—anywhere from months to years, depending on who you ask. Months, counting just the time it spent on the back burner; years, factoring in opportunity cost.
“The Phase I actions, a lot of them were already underway as the CAP was being developed,” said Brendan Vieg, principal planner at City Hall. “So I think we’ve made strides in almost all the actions in Phase I, though I wouldn’t consider us complete in any of them because a lot of them are ongoing. I’d say we’re on schedule to start moving into the Phase II actions.”
Mark Stemen, chair of the reincarnated STF, says the city is “on the right track now, and we are making progress” but, in a broader sense, sees the process as “a good five years behind. We lost some momentum; we also lost the opportunity when there was more staff to get things done. But that’s water under the bridge—or carbon in the air, unfortunately.”
STF and CAP have become nearly synonymous acronyms at the direction of City Council, which cut the size of the task force in half—to seven members, officially appointed—and focused the panel on implementing the plan, versus exploring sustainability in general.
“When it came to the ‘action’ part of the ‘action plan’ we had been stalled,” Councilman Randall Stone said. “To the city’s credit, it has been an extraordinary year, but it’s time to get to work. We are definitely expecting more action from the Sustainability Task Force.”
A tangible display of that impetus is a joint session of the Planning Commission and the STF next month. Uniting the committees means the STF “is getting more integrated into city processes,” Stemen said, and also “is getting the Climate Action Plan in front of the people who implement the  General Plan.” That is particularly significant for Phase II, which has a series of goals related to construction.
“On the Sustainability Task Force, they often talk about ‘the low-hanging fruit’—how do we go after the things that will make the biggest difference with the least amount of effort,” said Councilwoman Tami Ritter, a member of the inaugural STF. “By partnering with the Planning Commission, I think they’re going to more easily be able to implement those things.”
Easy, of course, is a relative term. The council’s recent vote on plastic bags (see “Getting personal,” Newslines, April 3) underscores the passion stoked by sustainability on both ends of the spectrum.
“It [the plastic-bag debate] mirrors the same political arguments, only the changes within the Climate Action Plan are far more difficult to quantify success … especially when the benefits of change are not immediately recognizable or are more nuanced,” Stone said. “If there’s recognition of that value, then we’ll really be able to effectuate change and the political battle becomes sort of moot.”
A spreadsheet presented to the STF at its December meeting quantifies Phase I benefits (see accompanying note). November capped the ninth year of solar panels on city structures, which produced 2.2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity in the preceding 12 months and 16 million kwh total. Three years ago, aided by grants, the city installed 1,200 LED streetlights that have translated into annual savings of approximately $67,800 in electrical costs plus $6,000 to $7,000 in maintenance costs, according to city staff.
Crunching data from Phase I represents a significant step of Phase II; city staff and the STF will assess CAP actions with a more streamlined study than originally planned. Instead of commissioning another full inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, the city will extrapolate numbers based on readily available information: natural gas usage, electricity usage, waste diversion and vehicle fuel usage.
“Those four large areas capture 99 percent of what we’re trying to assess,” Vieg said—and Stemen, a Chico State professor, agrees. “The absolute numbers are important,” Stemen said, “but indicators are just that: They indicate how well we’re doing…. Are we going up, going down or staying level? That’s what we need to know.”
In conjunction with the university, city staff will use computer models to analyze the indicators. The procedure is so much less intensive than collecting greenhouse gas statistics that the city can afford to produce this report annually, as opposed to every five years.
“Considering the fact we have a ‘time certain’—we’re supposed to see a certain reduction by 2020—I think those who say we are six months behind aren’t looking at that deadline,” Ritter said. “There’s not going to be a big penalty if we don’t meet those numbers, but the cost of that is going to be steep … we’re going to have an environment that’s polluted, where our greenhouse gases are above the sustainable level.
“If we’re not moving in the direction of reducing those emissions, then we’re directly working against our own interests.”