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San Diego aims for 'net zero' carbon emissions by 2035

TODD GLORIA 02.jpg
Matthew Bowler
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria announces a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2035. Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego, Calif. Oct. 27, 2021.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria on Wednesday announced an update to the city's Climate Action Plan will feature a binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

The goal would mean all the emissions produced by powering vehicles and buildings with fossil fuels would be offset by removing the same amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

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"Our region faces severe threats from extreme heat, wildfires, drought, flooding and sea level rise. San Diegans see it around them every single day," Gloria said. "We experience it, we know it's happening and we have to take action to prevent it."

Gloria did not say precisely how the city would achieve net zero emissions, though he did provide details about the updated Climate Action Plan that were not known before.

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Transportation accounts for the city's largest share of emissions, and the city's existing climate plan aims to reduce the share of commuter trips made by car to 50%, with the remainder made by biking, walking and public transit. But while the current transportation goals only apply to those who live within a half-mile of a major public transit stop, the new goals will apply to all commuters citywide.

The updated climate plan also includes new targets for "building electrification" — switching buildings that are currently powered by burning natural gas, which produces carbon dioxide, over to electricity.

"We will work with stakeholders to develop policies and programs that will utilize renewable energy in newly constructed buildings, and transition 90% of existing buildings citywide to clean energy by 2035," Gloria said.

Building electrification has been a key sticking point in talks over local climate action, with labor unions often fearing those strategies will result in job losses for their members. But Brigette Browning, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, expressed confidence that Gloria would take those fears to heart.

"We hear all the time that people support a 'just transition,' but when you actually ask them what that means, it's meaningless," Browning said. "I'm really proud that this administration has taken a different approach to climate action. … We have a lot of really good jobs in the fossil fuel industry, and we need to ensure that those workers aren't thrown out on the street and unable to provide for their families."

Gloria said the goal of net zero emissions, like the city's existing emissions reduction goals, will be legally enforceable. That means if the city misses the mark, it can be sued and forced into compliance by a judge.

It's unclear whether Gloria plans to utilize "carbon offsets" to achieve net zero emissions, as do many corporations that claim to be carbon neutral. Programs that claim to offset carbon emissions are notoriously difficult to track and verify, and a state appellate court last year ruled it was unlawful for local governments to rely on such programs.

While activists have praised San Diego for adopting an ambitious climate plan, they have sharply criticized the city's implementation of that plan. Even as overall greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, San Diego is still nowhere near on track to achieve its biking, walking and transit goals.

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Climate Action Campaign, said without more details on how the city plans to achieve net zero emissions, her group would not endorse the mayor's proposal.

"We agree with the mayor that the climate crisis is deepening and we need to zero out our emissions with a focus on equity, but we also need to see a commitment to implementation and funding, or this plan will sit on a shelf as the last plan has," Capretz said. "We cannot support this initiative until we see that funding plan."

San Diego aims for 'net zero' carbon emissions by 2035