The heat is on

Sacramento races to plan for the onset of global warming

Photo By Larry Dalton

Frustrated by inaction at the federal and state level, Sacramento is joining other cities around the world by developing its own plan to locally curb the greenhouse emissions that contribute to global warming. The move comes as scientists, who once thought global warming would progress gradually, have become increasingly convinced that we are already in a state of crisis.

“Sacramento has a lot at risk,” said Sacramento Energy Manager Keith Roberts, who is spearheading the nascent effort to develop the city’s climate action plan. “Today, Sacramento averages approximately 18 days per year over 95 degrees,” he said. “By 2100, under the high-emissions scenario, Sacramento may have between 90 and 110 days per year over 95 degrees.”

Roberts particularly worries about the projected decline in the Sierra snow pack, which may be reduced up to 90 percent by 2100. The snow pack works as a water-storage system, providing water to the Sacramento area as it melts during spring and summer. Scientists predict that if temperatures increase, and more rain, instead of snow, falls in the winter, runoff will occur earlier, causing wetter winters and drier summers. Wetter winters mean increased flood risks, and drier summers mean more heat-related deaths, other health problems and forest fires.

To address these and other risks, Roberts recently began collecting data to develop a plan that will meet or exceed the goals set by the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty governing greenhouse emissions. The city joins the likes of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland in developing its own plan to reduce local emissions.

Beginning next fiscal year, Roberts and staff hope to produce a plan that initially focuses on internal city operations, such as the city’s buildings and its fleet of automobiles, trucks and buses. It’s a baby step toward the larger goal of developing a plan for the entire city and eventually the county.

Roberts estimates that the city’s internal operations produced 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2004, while Sacramento’s entire population produced 7 to 9 million tons. By starting with an internal operation action plan, Roberts hopes to create a foundation on which to build the larger, citywide plan.

Roberts said the plan will focus on reducing emissions in a number of ways.

A strengthened urban-forestry program will provide more trees, which will help consume excess carbon dioxide. An increased number of bio-friendly vehicles will cut down on emissions produced by the city’s fleet. The city will retrofit older buildings with energy-saving materials and build newer structures with energy-efficient methods, such as using Energy Star equipment whenever possible. Water-conservation programs will reduce the amount of energy the city’s water pumps consume. Increased recycling rates will both reduce the amount of waste going into landfills, a major producer of the greenhouse gas methane, and limit the amount of energy expended on producing virgin materials.

Concerned with federal and state foot-dragging on the issue and the risks associated with global warming, including rising sea levels, drastic weather changes and severe health problems, cities across the country have begun implementing their own climate action plans.

The United States was in step with most of the world after then-President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, joining more than 100 other countries. However, President George W. Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2001, and the federal government has done little to address the problem since.

At the state level, a team assembled by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger produced an action plan last December. But sources close to the governor have repeatedly said that the plan is simply an advisory draft that the governor has yet to adopt.

San Francisco became one of the first California cities to develop its own plan in 2004. The Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce greenhouse emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The San Francisco plan takes a more aggressive stance, seeking to reduce emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The citywide plan applies to local government agencies as well as the population at large.

Currently, 67 percent of San Francisco’s waste is diverted away from landfills. The city now has 700 alternative-fuel vehicles in its fleet and is looking to wean more of its vehicles off fossil fuels. Its school buses now burn cleaner diesel fuels, and the city plans to convert all of its Muni buses to alternative fuels. It is also creating a pilot program that will place a tidal power station beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The station’s hydroelectric generator will power approximately 1,000 homes. The city also hopes to develop wind and solar energy programs.

According to Melissa Capria, climate action coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, San Francisco hopes to achieve many of its goals by 2012. “It is a difficult target,” she said. “There’s six years and a very aggressive target.”

Ed Vine, staff scientist for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, believes the city’s plan is viable. “People will use this plan as a reference,” Vine told SN&R. “I think it’s a great first start.”

After reviewing several other action plans, including the state and San Francisco’s, Roberts is now working on a Sacramento-specific plan that will closely mirror the state-set goal of reducing emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. “San Francisco, L.A. and Portland, I would say, are leading the pack,” Roberts said. “And, well, we’re just starting.”

Vine thinks the biggest problems cities will face in implementing their plans will be coordinating a vast number of different interest groups. Although San Francisco’s action plan focuses on its entire population, instead of just government operations, it has yet to launch a significant community-outreach program.

Global warming is an enormous international problem, Vine said, adding that the federal government’s lack of interest in the issue is discouraging. The cities may have to lead the way. “Sometimes the feds follow the locals,” he said.

Many roadblocks remain in developing and implementing Sacramento’s climate action plan, Roberts said.

Roberts has asked the city council for over a million dollars to institute the plan next year, but nothing has been finalized. Roberts also said many city departments already have programs in place to address the problem. However, complications will arise when trying to unify those individual efforts.

“We’re doing many of the things a plan would include,” he said. “We’re just not sure if we’re doing enough.