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State, Federal Politics Cloud San Diego’s Climate Goals

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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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Up next in the show. We're bringing you a few stories from the KPBS climate change desk. Greenhouse gas emissions in California are going down, and that's good news for San Diego, which is committed to cutting its carbon footprint aide half by 2035 but climate hawks see some troubling trends. KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen says, forces outside San Diego's control could disrupt the city's efforts to fight climate change.

Speaker 2: 00:28 So we'll just do glass and one and cans and the other.

Speaker 3: 00:35 I'm standing with Ian Monahan at the Miramar recycling center. We're dumping bags of recyclables into sorting bins. Could have brought to the clubs myself.

Speaker 2: 00:43 I've got some for Ya. Oh really?

Speaker 4: 00:47 Okay.

Speaker 3: 00:50 Monahan works for, I love a clean San Diego. The nonprofit collected these bottles and cans at a weekend. Cleanup in mission bay. We take the bins to a scale, then staff give Monaghan a receipt worth

Speaker 4: 01:02 26 58 I bet. I bet.

Speaker 3: 01:05 Just a few months ago, the Mirror Mar recycling center was on the verge of closing. China used to be a major market for America's recyclables, but last year, the country started restricting the types of materials that accepts. This has been a huge blow to the operators of Miramar and to the city's climate action plan. That plan counts on keeping more waste out of landfills to reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The center stayed open only because of a bailout approved by the city council in June. Now it's being subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Monahan says, China's decision has disrupted the global recycling economy.

Speaker 2: 01:43 When we have disruptions like this, it really begs the question as to how are we conserving? We need to look at our behavior and what we're doing here at home to conserve, um, and quite honestly reduce.

Speaker 5: 01:57 That's a perfect example of outside factors and market dynamics and international politics that's influencing what we're trying to do locally.

Speaker 3: 02:06 Cody Huvane is San Diego Sustainability Director. It's not just a Beijing that's impacting San Diego's climate goals. It's also Washington and Sacramento. As we flipped through a copy of the city's climate action plan, we land on a page with some pie charts. They show more than two thirds of the city's emissions reductions are expected to come from state and federal policies like electric vehicle incentives or tougher fuel efficiency standards. But those things aren't a slam dunk facing challenges from the Trump administration who've been says the city is watching

Speaker 5: 02:39 when stuff like that changes. When the federal administration tries to reverse the state action and then the state files a lawsuit against the federal action. Those are years processes. So we track them and we, we try to understand what would our position be or how we can um, influence them. I guess we try to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Speaker 3: 02:58 But here's a very important point

Speaker 6: 03:00 about San Diego's climate action plan. The city can and will get outside help with cutting emissions, but if that outside help falls short, the city is still on the hook for cutting in half its carbon footprint. Nicole Camper, it's at the nonprofit climate action campaign says state policies have helped with renewable energy, but they're failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. A report earlier this month, found car travel in California is going up, which means that we'll blow the opportunity and the ability for us to reach state climate goals. 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 and figure out what can they do locally and regionally to um, make us climate safe and climate ready.

Speaker 3: 03:47 Cafritz says all the data and science is showing the climate crisis is accelerating and that the city and state need to go completely carbon neutral by 2045.

Speaker 6: 03:56 And that means a really fundamental radical shift and how we do almost everything. And so we're going to want to see us taking it to that next level because again, it's all about protecting public health, achieving clean air, and making sure we're doing right by the next generation. Right

Speaker 3: 04:15 back at the Miramar recycling center, Ian Monaghan says, San Diego has promised to fight climate change with or without help from the state or federal governments, but simply

Speaker 1: 04:25 we have an aggressive climate action plan. We're going to have to find a way to meet those goals. Jeremy has KPBS, Metro reporter Andrew Bowen and Andrew, welcome. Thanks Maureen. Nick, can you explain a bit more about how San Diego's climate action goals are linked to greenhouse gas reduction goals set by the state? Sure. In 2006, the state legislature passed a B 32, which is kind of one of the, one of the most important state laws related to climate change. It set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. So over all that time while they went up and peaked it around 2000, I think, um, they have to go back down. There was a further reduction of, uh, 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. So we've got that goal for 2020. We've got a longterm goal for 2050. And the city's climate action plan was basically an interpolation of those two goals.

Speaker 1: 05:21 So, um, and also the cap, the climate action plan was made enforceable. So if the city fails to reduce to the extent that's required under the climate action plan, the city can get sued and then forced by a court to actually meet those goals. So the city doesn't have any option of scaling back its climate action goals. No, absolutely not. The city is planning a, an update to its climate action plan that will take place sometime next year and they may tweak some of the goals or some of the assumptions that the original climate action plan made based on the new information that we have now. But the overall goal of the 50% reduction by 2035 cannot change the numbers. Say that vehicle travel is going up in California but are in cars also getting more fuel efficient. They are. Um, the increasing fuel efficiency is definitely happening.

Speaker 1: 06:10 There are more electric vehicles on the road now than there ever were before. The question that's relevant to San Diego and its climate action plan is not our cars getting more fuel efficient because they are and of course they will continue to do so. The question is our emissions going up or down? And so far they're either flat-lining or going up. But at last check, San Diego's carbon footprint has been going down. That's right. So how much does the city really have to worry about these uncertainties in the years into the future? Yeah, but the cap is a long range plans. So the city has to pay attention to the longterm trends that are happening. The further you get into the future, the more important it will be for the city to keep up with its goals in each of the different, uh, sectors like electricity, transportation, waste reduction, things like that.

Speaker 1: 06:59 Um, it's important to remember looking ahead to 20, 35, the city is already counting on having zero emissions from electricity. Uh, that's the assumption that's made. So we can't count on reducing electricity emissions even more. That means that if, let's say we fall short on transportation, more people are driving or they're not adopting the electric vehicles as as much as we had hoped. Where else can we reduce emissions that options get smaller and smaller the further that you go into 20, 35. And also it's important to note that many of our goals under the climate action plan take years to actually implement construction takes a really long time. If we're building new transit infrastructure, personal behaviors are influenced by, you know, many different things. People buy a house and might want to live in that house for a really long time. So a lot of the policies that we're talking about now are not necessarily for the immediate future.

Speaker 1: 07:53 They are for that 20, 35 goal. So if state and federal policies do fall short and the city has to work somehow harder to reduce emissions through local actions, what would that even look like? Yeah, it's, it's a hypothetical question that I asked, uh, to a couple of people for this story. And they mostly declined to speculate, but your imagination can take you to some pretty strange places. So I'll use the example of Sao Paolo where my husband comes from. That city has a policy now where you can only drive your car, uh, every other day based on the license plate number that you have. So the evens can drive one day. The odds can drive another day. And so, you know, that's a policy that may be San Diego might actually have to contemplate to, to really kind of get more authoritarian about restricting how much people can drive.

Speaker 1: 08:41 You know, SANDAG the regional transportation planning agency is already talking about congestion pricing. So turning our highways into toll roads and then charging people to use them at at peak hours. You know, the city could start charging more for parking to disincentivize driving. Um, we could have a local tax on gas and all these things are pretty, um, hypothetical, like I said, but, um, you know, this is really the, the scale of the climate crisis that I think we're hearing from scientists right now. We're going to have to start really rethinking how we do almost everything. Okay. But what about new technologies, new technologies being created? We here right now in the private sector, could they come to our rescue? Absolutely. Yes. And that is a consideration that's taken into account in the climate action plan. One example that, uh, Cody [inaudible] of this city's sustainability director mentioned to me was electric scooters.

Speaker 1: 09:33 This is a new technology that people are using with their phones around the city, that the, that the city was not contemplating in 2015 and now there are people who are taking scooters to their meetings downtown rather than actually driving their cars or taking an Uber or Lyft. A the tricky thing with technology though is that it's unpredictable and it's really hard to quantify. Uh, some tech may never materialize in the future. And when we're talking about really enforceable goals and the, the stakes, you know, with climate change are so high, you know, we, we can't necessarily count on things that we're not really sure about. Um, but there is definitely a debate going on right now about how much we as a city and as a region should be counting on an unproven technologies versus things that we know work right now. And how much flexibility do we really build into our climate action plan so that we can adapt to those new technologies and also adjust if they don't, if they don't come to fruition. I've been speaking with KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Andrew. Thank you. My pleasure. Maureen.

Speaker 4: 10:36 Uh.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.