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State, Federal Politics Cloud San Diego's Climate Goals

Plastic bottles pile up at the Miramar Recycling Center, Aug. 26, 2019.
Andrew Bowen
Plastic bottles pile up at the Miramar Recycling Center, Aug. 26, 2019.
San Diego's promise to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035 is facing challenges from outside forces. Meanwhile the city is behind on efforts to reduce waste and car travel.

Ian Monahan waits patiently in line at the Miramar Recycling Center for his turn to redeem bottles and cans collected during a clean-up at Mission Bay. He receives a voucher worth $26.58 that will go to I Love A Clean San Diego, the nonprofit he works for.

Transactions like this, which take place countless times every day, have been a mainstay of conservation efforts for decades and are important to San Diego meeting the goals of its Climate Action Plan.

But just two months ago, the city-owned recycling center was on the verge of closing. Its private operator, Allen Co., had been struggling to sell its recyclable materials since China tightened restrictions last year on what types of materials it will accept.


The center stayed open thanks to a city taxpayer-funded bailout approved by the San Diego City Council in June. The private recycling center chain RePlanet wasn't so lucky — the struggling company closed all of its California facilities earlier this month.

Beijing's policy shift is just one example of how factors far outside San Diego's control are impacting the city's ability to keep its promises of reducing waste and fighting climate change.

VIDEO: State, Federal Politics Cloud San Diego's Climate Goals

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"When we have disruptions like this, it really begs the question as to how are we conserving," Monahan said. "We need to look at our behavior and what we're doing here at home to conserve, and quite honestly, reduce."

The city's "Zero Waste Plan" is one of five strategies included in the climate plan, which requires the city to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Landfills emit methane — a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide — so diverting waste from landfills helps reduce San Diego's carbon footprint.


To stay on track to meet the zero waste goal, the city planned on diverting 75% of its waste out of landfills by 2020. Last year the city achieved only 65% diversion, down from 66% in 2017 and 2016.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that more than two-thirds of San Diego's emissions reductions depend not on local actions but policies at the state and federal level. And even those policies, such as electric vehicle incentives and tougher fuel efficiency standards, are at risk.

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The Trump administration wants to roll back California's stricter fuel efficiency standards, and recent data suggest the state is nowhere near its goal of getting 5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030.

A report released earlier this month by the California Air Resources Board had more bad news: While the state's overall emissions have gone down, emissions from the transportation sector are going up.

Cody Hooven, San Diego's sustainability director, said city officials are paying attention to changes in federal and state policy and disputes between California and the Trump administration — but that those disputes can take years to get resolved.

"We track them and we try to understand what would our position be or how we can influence them," Hooven said. "I guess we try to cross that bridge when we come to it."

She added that the city monitors its greenhouse gas emissions every year to determine what areas are making progress and what are falling short. The most recent monitoring report found the city failed to reduce its emissions in 2017.

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"We have this big bubble of emissions we're trying to reduce, and if one area is proving to be more difficult to reduce, we're going to work in other areas to do better,” Hooven said.

Still, the options for how the city could feasibly reduce its carbon footprint get more limited as 2035 approaches. The climate plan already assumes zero emissions from electricity in 2035, and close to zero emissions from the city's landfills.

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said the upward trend of vehicle travel should be alarming to city officials.

"That will blow the opportunity and the ability for us to reach state climate goals," Capretz said. "So it's really going to be imperative that the mayor and the council and all local governments sort of take matters into their own hands."

Equally alarming, she said, are the increasingly dire projections from scientists on the severity of climate change. Capretz said the city should set a new goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.

"We're going to have to up our game 10 times what we're doing right now," she said. "And even what we're doing right now is not sufficient."

State, Federal Politics Cloud San Diego's Climate Goals
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.