Business or climate?
City staff worked for years on a plan to fight climate change. But environmentalists say it will fail because the city council ultimately chose to stand up for Realtors and builders.
Last month, hidden within agendas that included backyard chicken rights and Oak Park remap wrongs, the city council quietly but unanimously approved a years-in-the-making strategy to significantly reduce Sacramento’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Called the Climate Action Plan, it’s a bold, multidimensional approach to fighting climate change that will impact each and every resident.
Yet environmentalists argue it’s not bold enough. And, while they praise the city staffers’ excellent and eco-conscious work on the plan, they also concede that Realtors, builders and developers have watered it down—and so much so that the city likely won’t even hit its initial emissions-reduction benchmark in 2020.
“The city climate plan has some great ideas,” offered Jonathan Ellison, president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, “but, at the risk of being pessimistic, I don’t think it will be effective.”
His ECOS colleague Keith Roberts agrees—and attributes the plan’s lack of teeth to simple numbers. “It is disconcerting, but I fully understand the pressure the city went through from the building industry and the Realtors,” Roberts explained. “If there had been as many enviro folks as business folks [lobbying the city], it might have been different.”
A lot of what concerns activists dates back to 2008, when the Sacramento—in partnership with the county, SMUD, SACOG and SMAQMD—decided to figure out exactly how much greenhouses gas it was spewing into the atmosphere. The city used 2005 as a sample year and forecasted emissions levels based on “business-as-usual” growth.
It wasn’t a pretty picture: City staff predicted nearly 6.5 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent would be emitted in 2050—environmentalists say this estimate is conservative—which amounts to more than a 50 percent increase over projected 2020 levels.
Meanwhile, the city’s General Plan, passed in 2009, and the state of California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, or Assembly Bill 32, both recommend an 80 percent decrease below 1990 greenhouse-gas emission levels by 2050.
City planning manager Tom Pace, who along with Erik de Kok and other staffers had been charged with crafting Sacramento’s Climate Action Plan, quickly realized that they would need “every bit of greenhouse-gas reduction we can get,” Pace said, to make such a dramatic turnaround.
“We needed to cobble together all the good ideas that we could,” Pace explained of the nearly two-year process.
The end result, a draft Climate Action Plan based on emissions-reductions goals that the city council approved on August 16, applies to all pollution sources within the city—everything and all residents—not just city-owned cars and buildings or employees.
To achieve the goal of 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, staff zeroed in on five areas, which include improved energy conservation and renewables use, sustainable land investment and increased mass transit, waste reduction and recycling, and water conservation. Each category includes a variety of small ways to curb fractions of percentiles of emissions, which hopefully will all add up to achieving the 2020 goal.
“If we knew there were a few silver bullet items, we would have highlighted them and put them at the top of the list,” city planner de Kok said of the staff’s piecemeal approach.
Specifically, the Climate Action Plan considers everything from rental housing energy audits and SMUD’s smart grid to traffic-signal optimization, new bike facilities, solid-waste reductions and even a 50 percent cut in non-potable outdoor water use.
As ECOS president Ellison praises, “The staff put a whole lot of time into this plan.”
Unfortunately for environmentalists, so did builders, Realtors and developers, who lobbied the city heavily and rebuffed multiple emissions-reductions goals as controversial and bad for the economy.
In particular, all three groups balked at mandatory energy-conservation requirements for commercial and residential properties. Erik Rasmusson, of the Sacramento Association of Realtors, told the city council that an “aggressive voluntary program” was the way to go, because obligatory conservation would further cripple the already struggling building, development and real-estate industries.
The city council agreed.
Realtors also rejected the staff’s proposal to conduct commercial and residential energy audits at point-of-sale. Again, the city council agreed—and now said audits will only take place during less-frequent major remodel permit processes.
Additionally, the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange balked at a mandatory Green Building Program standard for new construction. The city council agreed with the builders and postponed all new green requirements until 2014—and possibly beyond.
As Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy noted at the August 16 meeting, “Hopefully in 2014 we’ll be able to do this. If not, we’ll have to talk about it again.”
Activists say these concessions doom any chance for the city to hit its emissions goals.
“ECOS does not believe that the 2020 and subsequent targets can be met by strictly voluntary fashions,” said Roberts, ECOS’ expert on transportation issues.
Yet despite this bad news on big picture emissions, there remain fine-print silver linings for those who actually want to see Sacramento become the leader in Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Emerald Valley.
City planners Pace and de Kok, for instance, are now working on updating the city’s “Green Development Code” so as to streamline green-friendly infrastructure.
“We don’t have a lot of money,” Pace reminded, “but one of the things we can do … is make it easier on the permitting side.”
Specifically, he explains that the code will encourage more mixed-use housing and retail, all hopefully within walking distance to jobs and transit, such as the La Valentina project currently under construction on 12th Street in downtown’s Alkali Flat neighborhood. Or it will make it easier for entrepreneurs to reuse old warehouses and revitalize old downtown buildings for new retail or office spaces.
It will take about three years to update the code, Pace reminds, and emphasizes that it will be a challenge.
“It’s hard to get people to think about taking action now, but that’s what we’re trying to do—get people’s attention to do the right thing now,” Pace said.
Ellison thinks the city will soon invest in greener manufacturing, both to create jobs and also to facilitate a new era of building and development.
“What I’d love to see,” he explained, “is for the city to actually manufacture some of the things that would be needed to retrofit the structures right here in town.”
This is of course increasingly feasible; solar panels and their components, for instance, are getting cheaper, Ellison notes. It just takes a different kind of motivation.
“I don’t know if climate change really is a big issue out there or not,” ECOS’ Roberts pondered. “But it’s always been a big issue to me.”