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San Diego, Other California Cities Top List Ranking Climate Action Plans

San Diego's skyline is shown in this undated photo.

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: San Diego's skyline is shown in this undated photo.

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San Diego is a leader among the 49 large U.S. cities taking action to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. A study released today by the Brookings Institution examines what these pioneering cities are doing in the absence of direction from the federal government.

Aired: October 22, 2020 | Transcript

A report released Thursday with research from UC San Diego evaluating the efficacy of climate action plans of the United States' 100 largest cities found that San Diego and other California cities are leading the fight, but are still short of overall goals.

The report, published by the Brookings Institution, finds the leadership of these municipalities "stands as an important counter to the federal government's rollback of climate policies and departure from the Paris Agreement."

Yet, despite genuine achievements by some, roughly two-thirds of cities are currently lagging in their targeted emissions levels, and on average, all cities in the report need to cut their annual emissions by 64% by 2050 in order to reach their respective goals.

David G. Victor, professor of international relations at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego and an author of the report, told KPBS Midday Edition's Mark Sauer that the role cities like San Diego play in taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is crucial, but much more needs to be done.

“When you add up all the efforts of the pioneers over the next decade or so, they’re going to be cutting US emission maybe four percent. So that’s a contribution," Victor said. "But we cannot stop the climate problem without much bigger cuts across the nation and ultimately across the whole globe.”

Of the 100 most populous cities in the U.S. as of 2017, just 45 had climate action plans. Those plans include an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, the establishment of reduction targets and reduction strategies as well as monitoring efforts. California contains the most activity with 11 climate action plans. Half of the top six cities achieving the biggest emission cuts are in the state.

Los Angeles experienced the largest decrease in emissions — about 47% — as of the time of analysis, followed by Greensboro, North Carolina, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Durham, North Carolina, and San Diego.

Cities in California are also the only ones in the report with binding reduction targets, as the state has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2045. The state is also unique in that its cities have chief sustainability officers.

The findings reveal that the total annual reduction in emissions that would be achieved by the 45 cities with climate action plans would equate to approximately 365 million metric tons of cuts — about the same as removing 79 million passenger vehicles from the road.

"These actions city by city could add up to a powerful approach to climate mitigation," Victor said.

"Cities make great laboratories for combating climate change because some of the hardest tasks in cutting emissions involve activities such as urban planning and rebuilding transportation infrastructures — areas where cities are on the front lines. What's needed is for these leaders, like San Diego, to make their successes more visible — so that more cities here and abroad follow," he said.

The report finds that CAPs across the U.S. tend to align with the 80% decrease by 2050 to which the U.S. previously committed under the Paris Climate Agreement. However, these plans also are likely to fall short of strategies to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius modeled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"It's important to take the pulse of what the country has been actually saying and doing on climate change and this requires looking far beyond the gridlock of Washington," the report said. "Cities' Climate Action Plans have been celebrated as an important counterpoint to national drift. However, U.S. cities' pledge-setting is sub-optimal in its coverage and design, with less than half of large cities setting targets, and most targets remaining non-binding."

In all, 12 cities met their targeted level of emissions for the year of their most recent inventory, while 20 cities had higher emissions levels than what the target level should have been for their most recent inventory.

The authors found that the places that were committed to action on climate before the pandemic are likely to remain committed, while places that were reluctant to put much priority on climate earlier will be even more reluctant in the midst of economic uncertainty and uncertain priorities.

To make the nation's climate commitments more effective, the authors recommend creating a system for improving the quality of pledging, new incentives for emphasizing implementation, and stronger systems to encourage learning and review with an eye toward enhancing "followership."

Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

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