Climate choice

Sacramento talks a good game on climate plan, but will it follow through?

The top line shows the growth of Sacramento carbon-dioxide emissions (in metric tons) if no changes are made. The middle line shows CO2 emissions under the draft Climate Action Plan. The bottom line shows possible long-term reductions.

The top line shows the growth of Sacramento carbon-dioxide emissions (in metric tons) if no changes are made. The middle line shows CO2 emissions under the draft Climate Action Plan. The bottom line shows possible long-term reductions.

For more information about the proposal to cut Sacramento greenhouse-gas emissions go to and search for Climate Action Plan.

The city’s Climate Action Plan certainly has the potential to do good. The ambitious looking proposal—expected to be adopted by the Sacramento City Council next month—could cut Sacramento’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent by the end of this decade, with much deeper reductions in carbon pollution thereafter.

But there’s no guarantee that much of the plan will be implemented, and city leaders are a long way from committing to many of its policies. Without more political support, the Climate Action Plan is likely to fall short of its promise.

In some ways, the city’s plan mirrors the state of California’s aggressive global-warming law, Assembly Bill 32; that law aims to reduce the state’s GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Similarly, the city’s goal is to cut its own emissions by 38 percent (compared to 2005) by 2030 and by a whopping 83 percent by 2050.

According to an inventory put together by the city and Sacramento County a couple of years ago, the city of Sacramento is responsible for putting about 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. If the city doesn’t take action to rein in emissions, it’s likely that greenhouse-gas levels will hit about 6.5 million metric tons by mid-century.

By comparison, Sacramento County, which includes the city, weighs in at 14 million metric tons, while the state of California is believed to have pumped 487 million metric tons of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere in 2004.

Like the state law, Sacramento’s climate-change strategy includes a whole suite of policies, both carrots and sticks, that the city can use to chip away at its own carbon footprint. (The plan includes 184 proposed measures in all. Read it at

But about half of the carbon reductions that the city is counting on are already part of the state’s global-warming law, A.B. 32. For example, the state’s “low-carbon fuel standard,” requiring gas sold in the state to be less polluting, will obviously account for a small reduction in Sacramento’s carbon footprint, too. As will the state’s renewable-energy standards for power generators, tighter rules on home appliances and so on. The city’s plan, to some extent, takes a bit of credit for all of those.

There are some other freebies. For example, the CAP includes reductions in carbon pollution from energy efficiency and renewable energy programs that are run by the SMUD, even though those would happen regardless of the city’s efforts.

“There is a good-faith effort to give credit where credit it due,” explained senior planner Erik de Kok, the city’s main man on the CAP.

The city’s plan also differs from A.B. 32 in that many of the rules and regulations that could help the city get to its goal aren’t yet on the books.

For example, the city could cut about 71,000 tons of greenhouse-gas emissions, if it adopted new rules requiring new apartment complexes with more than 10 units to install solar panels.

Such a policy will likely be recommended as part of the city’s “green development code” being developed by city planners over the next year or so. But there’s no guarantee the city council would adopt a rule requiring installation of solar panels at new developments.

In fact, the council has already proven quite willing to nix greenhouse-gas rules when business groups object.

For example, in the early stages of the CAP, city staff recommended that commercial and residential properties ought to be subject to an energy audit whenever a sale happens.

The local real-estate industry thought the rule was a terrible idea, and therefore so did many city council members. Even though there’s no support on the council for such “point of sale” inspections, the idea is still included in the plan, just in case.

“The numbers are there, in terms of what it possible,” said de Kok. “But we heard loud and clear there’s no political support for that.”

Likewise, builders have objected to a proposal to require new construction to meet green-building standards starting in 2014.

The weakening of the CAP has been frustrating to watch for Keith Roberts with the Environmental Council of Sacramento. “I was disappointed, but surprised, that the realtor and development sectors were successful in having some of the most effective programs in the CAP shelved.”

Not surprised, perhaps, because Roberts is himself a former city employee, having once served as Sacramento energy manager and one of the folks behind Sacramento Sustainability Master Plan.

“My concern is that the city will deem the CAP to be optional guidelines as opposed to required mitigation,” Roberts added.

And even where there’s a political will, there’s not always a way to pay for parts of the CAP. For example, the CAP anticipates reducing CO2 by about 50,000 metric tons by “increasing the city’s transit” share. De Kok says this boils down to spending more money on our public-transit system. “It depends on finding a funding source.”

Here are just a few more examples of the elements of the plan:

• A proposal to require each new development within the city to show that it would reduce vehicle miles traveled for residents by 35 percent compared to the state average. If the city follows through on this proposal, we could save about 50,000 metric tons of CO2 every year.

• About half of the city’s streetlights are synchronized to keep traffic flowing efficiently. Tuning up the streetlight system would save about 2,000 metric tons of CO2 every year.

• Have city workers stay home: The cruddy economy has led to furloughs of city workers. But that’s meant about a half-million fewer miles commuting by the city workforce over the past three years. The CAP recommends continuing this reduction by “ongoing furloughs, or telecommuting, or alternate schedules,” for another 223 tons of greenhouse-gas savings every year.

• Green building: The city would require all new buildings to meet stronger energy-efficiency codes. That’s worth about 30,000 metric tons of CO2. Higher development density also cuts down on energy use. Anticipating a drop in single-family development and greater share of apartments, planners figure the city can save about 8,000 metric tons a years in greenhouse pollution.

Despite concerns about its implementation, there’s a lot to cheer environmentalists in the plan. Roberts said he thinks the CAP is “more substantive” than what many cities have come up with. And Kristi Perry, with the local climate-action group 350 Sacramento (, says she’s impressed. “We thought it was all great,” Perry said, especially the proposals to expand bike travel and public transportation. She wished the plan said more about supporting a “local and low-waste economy.”

In the end, it’s perhaps best to think of the plan not as a solution, by itself, but as a potential way out, if we choose to take it. “The city has some difficult decisions to make,” de Kok noted.