Policy & Regulation

24 Dec 2019

San Diego Reaches 2020 Climate Goals Two Years Early

24 Dec 2019  by Andrew Bowen   
San Diego reached its 2020 goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions two years ahead of schedule, according to a city report set to be released Monday.

The city managed to cut its carbon footprint by 3% in 2018 from the previous year — the largest drop since officials began tracking the city's annual greenhouse gas inventory in 2015. But despite the overall progress, some of the goals in the climate plan remain elusive. Other areas have so little reliable data that short-term progress cannot be accurately measured.

"The investments we're making now to protect the environment will pay huge dividends going forward," Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement. "We're making solid progress on slashing emissions, but we know there is much more work to be done."

San Diego's 2015 Climate Action Plan requires the city to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, using 2010 emissions as a baseline. It also requires a 15% reduction by 2020 to reflect statewide targets, which the city managed to achieve before the plan was even signed into law. The city set a higher bar for itself, however, aiming for a 25% cut to emissions by 2020. That goal was not achieved until last year.

Much of the city's carbon cutting came from industrial businesses using less natural gas than in previous years. And while water conservation efforts are ahead of schedule, meager rainfall in recent years meant the city had to pump in more outside water. This led to a 19% spike in water-related emissions.

Transportation still accounts for 55% of the city's carbon emissions, the largest share by far. Yet the city had scant new transportation data to report from 2018, meaning it had to rely on trends from recent years to estimate how much San Diegans are driving their cars versus walking, biking and riding public transit.

Cody Hooven, the city's sustainability director who oversees the climate plan's implementation, acknowledged transportation emissions are difficult to measure. But she said many of the actions the city is undertaking now, such as approving plans to build more housing near jobs and public transit, were long-term strategies that will not trigger immediate changes in behavior.

"You won't see the impacts of those policy changes for several years, because you now have to build things under that new policy directive," she said. "It'll take some time, but I think we're going to see huge benefits from those policies that we've been moving forward lately."

Hooven added that next year the city will put out an updated Climate Action Plan that takes into account the latest climate science, new legislation and changes in technology. It will also include climate targets stretching all the way to 2050.

"We want to set our sights even further and align with state and national and even international goals, and really stretch ourselves," she said.

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the watchdog nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said there was much to be celebrated in the city report. San Diego has established a "Climate Equity Index" to show which communities should be first to receive investments in sustainability. And the city co-founded San Diego Community Power — a new public agency tasked with transitioning to a 100% clean electricity supply.

Yet she added the cascade of dire scientific studies that have come out since the climate plan's adoption four years ago meant the city cannot rest on its laurels.

"We're in a climate emergency, and this is becoming more evident almost every day," Capretz said. "While our climate plan gets us to a 50% reduction in emissions (by 2035), we need to get to carbon zero."

Perhaps the worst bit of news in the report relates to the city's "Zero Waste" goals. The climate plan calls on the city to keep 75% of its waste out of landfills by 2020 through increased recycling, composting and waste reduction efforts. Landfills emit methane — a gas with roughly 30 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide — so limiting their growth reduces the city's carbon footprint.

San Diego achieved a diversion rate of only 65% in 2018, down from 66% in 2017 and 2016. The city is now seeking to expand its Miramar Landfill by allowing garbage to pile up 25 feet higher than previously planned. Also, officials are drafting a new Zero Waste plan to adapt to changes in the recycling industry.

City leaders blame the lack of progress on China's decision to stop accepting most recyclables from the United States, which has led to a crash in the price of those materials. While the city used to earn revenue from its recycling activities, taxpayers are now paying to keep those programs afloat.


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