Mayor Gavin Newsom made history in late 2007 when he triumphantly declared that his city's departments would be the first in the nation to pay a local carbon tax for all official air travel. The levy, set two years later at 13 percent of the price of a fare, would finance a city-run “carbon fund,” Newsom said. The fund would help cool the planet by investing in local green initiatives that sucked some of the jets' greenhouse gas emissions back out of the air.
The gesture was always token: No effort was made to offset the carbon burped into the atmosphere by city officials when they drove cars or trucks, for example, or to offset the loss of carbon-absorbing meadows drowned when Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley was turned into the city's main water reservoir.
Now, more than four years and one mayor later, that program has also done almost nothing to offset greenhouse gas emissions. The fund has reaped in $203,152 from city departments since 2009, plus a $14,000 donation and $1,129 from travelers who purchased carbon offsets from a kiosk at SFO.
But less than $15,000 has actually been spent.
Of the paltry chunk that has been invested, most was poured into a program that provides questionable planet-cooling benefits. In 2009, about $10,000 was used to subsidize the purchase of 40,000 gallons of biodiesel by Dogpatch Biofuels. The private filling station purchased the biodiesel from a Nevada-based company and sold it to customers in the city.
Eric Brooks, a local activist who serves as the San Francisco Green Party's sustainability chairman, says the city spent that money “in the worst way possible.”
That's because biodiesel is, at best, a “zero sum” fuel when it comes to climate change, Brooks said. Sure, the carbon in biodiesel was initially sucked out of the atmosphere by plants. But burning the fuel burps that carbon right back into the air. In that respect, burning biofuel is little different than burning fossil fuel.
The environment department has pledged to finally start doling out more of the carbon fund treasury this year, with $80,000 budgeted to be spent by June 2013.
Department spokesman Guillermo Rodriguez said proposals for drawing from the fund would be solicited in the fall. Some of the money will likely go toward an urban orchard program that helps residents grow fruit trees in their neighborhoods, he said. Other potential uses of the fund include replacing pavement with parks, providing solar hot water incentives, and installing electric vehicle charging stations.
Another leading contender to receive some of the carbon funds, according to Rodriguez? New biodiesel storage tanks for Muni.