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In the past several years, San Diego has managed to slash greenhouse gas emissions from electricity. But despite that progress, the city's carbon footprint actually increased slightly in 2021. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen says that's due to the city's biggest source of pollution: cars.

Cars are canceling out San Diego's progress on renewable energy

San Diego has made enormous strides toward getting more of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar in recent years. But according to the city's latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, that progress is being canceled out by the city's biggest source of pollution: cars and trucks.

The findings were buried in the appendix of a climate-monitoring report uploaded to the city's website in March. They underscore the need to decarbonize San Diego's transportation system and build dense, walkable neighborhoods where more residents can get around without a car.

The climate report found that emissions from the generation of electricity fell by an impressive 27% from 2020 through 2021. This was attributed to an increase in renewable energy purchases by both SDG&E and San Diego Community Power, a government-run nonprofit that began purchasing energy on behalf of homes and businesses in 2021.


"However, the emissions from on-road transportation in 2021 were 13% higher than the emissions in 2020, showing that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on driving may not be sustained long-term," the report concluded.

San Diego's total carbon footprint in 2021 increased by 0.4%. Data on the city's greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 will not be available until next year.

City officials have stressed that the long-term trend of declining emissions is more important than year-to-year fluctuations, and that many of the actions the city is taking now — such as allowing more high-density housing in communities that are already less car-dependent — will take years to translate into lower emissions.

"It does need to trend downward — it has to — but policies don’t manifest immediately," said Alyssa Muto, San Diego's director of sustainability and mobility. "We know that there's going to be some fluctuation. It's not a perfectly straight line."

But climate hawks argue that San Diego is still far behind on its goal of achieving net-zero emissions in the next 12 years, and that the city is digging itself into a deeper hole by continuing to pursue projects that lead to more driving, such as widening roads and freeways.


"Every year that you're not advancing towards achieving those goals, you are falling further and further behind," said Corinna Contreras, policy advocate for the nonprofit watchdog Climate Action Campaign. "You have this A+ vision, and you're kind of operating at a D- level."

Spending millions to save seconds

One prime example of the city's mixed priorities when it comes to sustainable transportation lies in Grantville. The neighborhood east of Mission Valley is rapidly densifying, and residents are feeling the strain as it takes longer and longer to drive through its congested streets.

But rather than working to make Grantville less car-centric by widening sidewalks, planting more trees and installing protected bike lanes, city traffic engineers are responding with a plan to widen a section of roads to accommodate more cars.

An aerial image of Grantville shows one option for widening some of the neighborhood's roads.
City of San Diego
An aerial image of Grantville shows one option for widening some of the neighborhood's roads.

The most recent cost estimate for the widening, which requires the city to seize private property, is $39.8 million. The project was allocated $4 million in previous budget years at the request of Councilmember Raul Campillo, whose district includes Grantville. Campillo recently requested that the city spend another $1 million to complete the project's design.

Jiwan Kohli lives only a half-mile from the project, which would widen Mission Gorge Road and Fairmount Avenue, and would reroute Alvarado Canyon Road through an industrial park. He said traffic had gotten a lot worse in recent years.

"It takes me 20 minutes to get to the highway sometimes when it used to be five," Kohli said.

Yet the city's plans would offer little if any relief. An engineering study estimated that the expanded intersection would save drivers 11.6 to 22.2 seconds. Even those time savings could be short-lived, as road widenings tend to induce more driving.

Kohli said the benefits didn't seem worth the price tag, and that he'd prefer that the city spend his tax dollars on improving pedestrian access to the Grantville trolley station. He can see the station from his apartment building, but accessing it on foot requires a long and unpleasant detour through noisy streets with poorly maintained sidewalks.

"As much as I would like to be in my car for less time, more than that, I would like to not have to drive my car at all," Kohli said.

Mallard ducks overlook a section of Alvarado Creek in Grantville that is littered with garbage, Oct. 27, 2023.
Andrew Bowen
Mallard ducks overlook a section of Alvarado Creek in Grantville that is littered with garbage, Oct. 27, 2023.

Years before the city started planning to widen Grantville's roads, it developed a plan with very different priorities.

The 2017 Alvarado Creek Revitalization Study calls for a bike and pedestrian trail under the trolley tracks and a new promenade that would provide hundreds of residents with a safer and more direct walk to the Grantville trolley station. City officials could not confirm by this story's deadline whether any of those improvements are included in the road-widening project.

A long-range vision

San Diego's latest attempt to plan for a less car-centric transportation system is its Mobility Master Plan, a draft of which was released earlier this month. Muto said the plan analyzed a host of data sources to identify projects and policies that would increase mobility while reducing emissions.

"We were able to identify a list of over 200 projects that, if the city invests in those more near-term, will help to move us to provide more options that are safe and sustainable for our residents and visitors and businesses alike," Muto said.

One concept that the plan promotes is parking districts, which can help neighborhoods manage the demand for street parking more efficiently and can provide revenue for things like sidewalk repair, street lighting or neighborhood shuttles. The city is working to establish two new parking districts in Kearny Mesa and San Ysidro.

A wheelchair user waits on the platform at the Grantville trolley station, Oct. 26, 2023.
Andrew Bowen
A wheelchair user waits on the platform at the Grantville trolley station, Oct. 26, 2023.

But something the Mobility Master Plan doesn't do is identify projects that will increase driving, making the city's climate goals harder to achieve. Two years ago, Mayor Todd Gloria told KPBS that he would direct his staff to review such projects and evaluate whether they should be abandoned.

Contreras said the city should stop widening roads and instead focus on repurposing its existing road space to reflect its goal of decreasing car travel and increasing walking, biking and riding public transit.

"That just hasn't been the strategy," Contreras said. "Instead we go to this car-centric way of thinking that has really caused a lot of divides in our community."

I cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.
What issues should San Diego's leaders be paying the most attention to?