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S.F. Seeks New, Aggressive Game Plan to Tackle Climate Change

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When Rep. Alexandria OcasioCortez introduced the Green New Deal as a resolution in February, mere weeks after taking office, it took the country by storm. Critics, like the city’s own Sen. Dianne Feinstein — and to a group of children at her district office, no less — said there was no way to pay for it.

But San Francisco is not a city that shies away from a challenge, and last week, supervisors brought forward a call for local solutions before the planet runs out of time to prevent the worst of climate change. In their current form, the proposals aim to figure out the exact steps needed to accelerate emission-reduction targets by 2030, the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates is a point of no return for catastrophic climate impacts.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced the San Francisco resolution in late February at the behest of environmental groups like 350 Bay Area, which have already convinced Berkeley, Hayward, Richmond, and Oakland to declare climate change to be an emergency. Another six of Mandelman’s board colleagues are co-sponsors, all but ensuring it will pass.

Unlike President Donald Trump’s state of emergency at the border, which automatically released special funds, these resolutions seek to implement a climate change response at every possible level of government, through the proper legislative process.

“The Green New Deal is a national program of environmental and social justice that I support, but here in San Francisco we have to figure out tangibly what we can do in a realistic time frame to actually move the needle,” Mandelman says. “The money that would get unlocked would ideally be our $12 billion budget.”

The local resolution directs the Department of the Environment, the Mayor’s Office, and other relevant agencies to report back in 100 days about what steps the city can take to meet emissions goals more quickly. At the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit, held in San Francisco last September, the city committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, a 50-percent reduction in landfill disposal, and a 15-percent cut in waste generation by 2030. S.F. will transition to all-renewable electricity sources by 2030, and any buildings constructed by 2050 will be carbon-neutral.

San Francisco should be proud of the environmental strides it’s made in the past couple decades. City data shows that greenhouse gas emissions have declined 30 percent from 1990 levels, even as the economy grew 111 percent and the population increased 20 percent. But as Department of Environment spokesperson Peter Gallotta points out, business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it any longer.

“We do know that we need to make significant strides in reducing emissions in the next 10 years,” Gallotta says. “The real question is not necessarily the what or the when, it’s the how.”

For example, transportation accounts for 46 percent of the city’s emissions, while buildings are responsible for another 45 percent. That means that the most effective way to reduce emissions will likely involve the SFMTA and PG&E, both of which are experiencing crises of trust.

Muni’s fleet already runs on clean power, but it’s experiencing a severe operator shortage that has contributed to overcrowded buses, poor on-time performance, and a general slowdown in service that diverts riders from the transit system. In turn, a stunning 94 percent of San Francisco’s transportation emissions come from private cars and trucks, Gallotta says.

Roughly half of the 300 Chariot drivers laid off by the private shuttle company’s January closure have already signed up for an accelerated training program to become Muni operators. If upcoming contract negotiations fare well for worker compensation, it could attract even more drivers and improve public transportation service critical to reducing emissions. (For those scratching their heads at the Green New Deal’s courting of labor unions, this is partly why.)

Still, the habitual use of transportation network services, or TNCs, is already ingrained. Supervisors have long struggled to address the influx of rideshare services like Lyft or Uber, which are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. One solution is congestion pricing that charges a fee for private vehicles to enter downtown, but a poll from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce found that about 65 percent of residents oppose it on some level.

The city is also already grappling with whether or not to buy up PG&E infrastructure amid the utility’s bankruptcy proceedings, in order to power the city via renewable energy on a larger scale than CleanPowerSF can. Mayor London Breed asked the San Francisco Public Utility Commission to study the possibility, and at the same time, supervisors approved $14.5 million to further environmentally friendly public-power projects.

More than 80,000 households have opted in to CleanPowerSF since it launched in 2016. If it applied to all of San Francisco, the city would be powered by at least 43 percent renewable energy, with the option to upgrade to 100-percent renewables.

The fight against climate change is going to take a citywide effort, even among departments not outwardly focused on emissions. The Department of Public Works, for example, is seeking sufficient funds to plant 6,000 street trees — which trades our carbon dioxide for oxygen — each year for the next two decades.

These are lofty goals, but Gallotta is optimistic that new technologies will make the goals a reality, as they have in the past. And they could provide a hefty boost for the economy: Mandelman hopes that the resolution could spur a new environmentally conscious series of jobs.

Moving forward, part of the climate conversation will no doubt include impacts along class and racial lines, which is why Mandelman’s office brought in folks from the Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates. In a 2016 report by the Port of San Francisco, it was stated that the sea level could rise 12 to 24 inches by 2050, affecting lower-lying areas like Bayview and the Ferry building.

“San Francisco is like the rest of the world — the poorest communities tend to be in the lowest lying areas and are most likely to be impacted by sea level rise,” Mandelman says. Plus, “extreme weather is very hard on people living outside.”

Part of the work the climate emergency resolution calls for dovetails with the city’s updated Climate Action Strategy, which will be released in 2020 before it can be incorporated into budget talks leading up to June. The Board of Supervisors will first discuss it at length at Monday’s Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting before eventually holding a hearing.

“In a lot of ways, there’s more that we can do than what we’re seeing on a national level,” Gallotta says of local action. “There’s really a sense that it’s up to all of us to take action.”

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly. Imojadad@sfweekly.com | @idamoj

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Ida Mojadad

Ida Mojadad is the Staff Writer at SF Weekly. You can reach her at (415)-359-2728 or imojadad@sfweekly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @idamoj.

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