San Francisco Knows How to Stop Global Warming — Will It?

The gauntlet of necessary emissions goals has been thrown down. Can San Francisco rise to the occasion?

Humans have 12 years to drastically change all of their habits or the Earth will bake into an unlivable hellscape.

The consequences of ignoring what scientists have been warning us about with increasing alarm have been well-chronicled (but, as a quick refresher: literally fatal temperatures, famine, plagues, unbreathable air, flooding, poisonous water, etc.). But now that everyone has some concrete examples to work with — extreme heat waves and wildfires, in particular — a sense of urgency has crept into discourse and, finally, politics.

In March, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring climate change an emergency for the city, joining 10 other Bay Area cities, including Oakland, Berkeley, and Hayward, which have made similar declarations over the past few years.

In fact, more Bay Area cities (11) have declared climate change an emergency than countries (7): Argentina, Canada, France, Ireland, Portugal, Scotland, and the United Kingdom.

Experts say increased local interest in climate change is a direct result of California’s recent surge in wildfires.

“The fires really changed things here,” says Bruce Riordan, program director for the Climate Readiness Institute at UC Berkeley. “So did the drought. Those were big, aggressive fires that everyone could see… We’re getting a much better audience now for people saying, ‘This is a crisis, this is an emergency.’”

As part of their resolution, the city supervisors tasked S.F.’s Department of the Environment with compiling a report on how the city can reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as part of a global effort to arrest the global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The report, submitted in July, has imposing benchmarks San Francisco has to meet if it wants to get to net zero emissions. The strategy — the “0-80-100-Roots Climate Action Framework” — calls for a 15 percent reduction in trash, for 80 percent of trips taken in San Francisco to be via sustainable methods, and 100 percent renewable electricity supply by 2030 (the “Roots” part of the plan calls for an unspecified but significant commitment to goals like increasing the number of trees).

Those years aren’t arbitrary. They’re based on a separate report issued by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change late last year, which says humans have until 2030 to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Achieving the 0-80-100 marks by 2030 will indicate San Francisco is on pace to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

Reaching the milestones will require everyone, but especially those with money and power, to do as much as they possibly can in a very short amount of time. Reports like this, of course,  don’t guarantee anything. They’re just information.

“It’s good that San Francisco and others are doing this because they’re saying publicly that we have to have bold but reachable goals,” Riordan says. “San Francisco’s taking a good stand here to let their residents and key players know that this is going to take big action and not a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Slow and steady progress is not good enough in this case.”

The report outlines goals in four key areas: waste, transit, power, and plants.

The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history has provided tangible evidence to Bay Area lawmakers about the urgency of addressing climate change. // Photo by Kevin N. Hume



For waste, this means San Francisco — already a leader in terms of recycling and waste management — needs to reduce the total amount of refuse it generates by 15 percent over the next 12 years. That means less trash, less compost, and less landfill waste, all while the population continues to increase.

An even larger piece of the puzzle will be the carbon emissions made by people getting around. Private transportation (read: cars) makes up the vast majority (71 percent) of San Francisco’s transit-related carbon emissions. Consequently, the report recommends that by 2030, 80 percent of all trips in the city need to be via biking, walking, or public transit. The current proportion of sustainable trips is about 54 percent, according to the Department of the Environment.

That’s a big goal, but attainable, says Rachel Hyden, executive director of San Francisco Transit Riders, a public transit advocacy group. Her organization wants to help develop a network of rapid transit lines that could tie San Francisco together with end-to-end service in 30 minutes by 2030.

The issue with both is finding politicians who will commit to big, audacious changes.

“What’s in the way here is that we don’t have the political will to prioritize our streets,” Hyden tells SF Weekly. “We could get there. It’s a little daunting, but not that daunting.”

In addition to changing people’s attitudes and instincts when it comes to getting around town, San Francisco will have to change the fabric of the city if it wants to meet its sustainable power goals in time.

While more and more buildings have been built to higher environmental standards, most building emissions in San Francisco still come from older buildings that use of natural gas for heating. To meet a goal of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, “existing buildings must be retrofitted with efficient, all-electric systems at an average annual rate of 3 percent per year,” according to the report.

Finally, the report recommends planting more trees, gardens, and general greenery to maximize the city’s carbon sequestering potential.

San Francisco has almost 125,000 trees planted on streets. In 2015, the city adopted the Urban Forest Plan, which calls for the planting of an additional 50,000 trees by 2034. 

Reaching the 2030 goals outlined by the Department of the Environment will reduce overall emissions by 68 percent from 1990 levels.

The report is blunt in its assessment that even meeting the lofty goals is not a guarantee: “Even assuming a steadfast commitment, the city is unlikely to reach net zero emissions without new innovations, partnerships and collaborations as the findings of this report estimates there will be some emissions that cannot be eliminated by San Francisco alone.”

Reports like this one are helpful — they give parameters for what needs to happen for continued human survival — but do not constitute actual action or even political direction.

“The only downside to a pledge like this is if people misinterpret a pledge to mean action,” says Rob Jackson, an earth science professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project. “It does not mean the city will meet these goals. The city needs to talk about this every city council meeting. Every planning decision will need to include recycling and green energy. They have to be embedded in the city’s operations.”

By the numbers

  • 12 — Years humanity has to reduce global greenhouse emissions by at least 45 percent to avoid catastrophe. 
  • 32 — Years humanity has to get to net zero carbon emissions. 
  • 0 — Ordinances passed by San Francisco Supervisors that directly reduce carbon emissions. 
  • 2% — Current proportion of cars and trucks in San Francisco that are electric.
  • 100 percent% — Proportion of cars and trucks in San Francisco that need to be electric by 2040.

Scientists like Jackson and the Climate Readiness Institute’s Bruce Riordan are working to help that happen. Riordan estimates that over the past few years, he’s met with or helped train over 100 Bay Area public officials about climate change. In addition to his current role at the head of CRI, Riordan has served as the climate strategist for the Bay Area Joint Policy Committee and consulted with BART.

The institute brings UC Berkeley researchers and policymakers together so they can learn from each other. For instance, county officials from San Mateo, Marin, and San Francisco have met with the institute to learn from the work of Mark Stacey, an environmental engineering professor at Berkeley who has worked with his students to model sea level rise flooding and its effect on Bay Area roads. Communicating with scientists is good, but local governments will have to coordinate with each other as well.

“Cities doing this one by one is not a great idea,” Riordan says. “Working together… is really required.”

The San Francisco supervisors brought their resolution to bear at the urging of eight different local organizations. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who introduced the resolution, said that climate change had been a big issue to him for years.

“It’s undeniable that the world is changing around us in alarming ways,” he says. “You’d have to be living under a rock, or the president of the United States, not to recognize that.”

Mandelman notes that this is an interim step that the supervisors hope to follow with more action in the form of legislation in the coming year, especially in relation to transportation and increasing electrification of buildings. He’s also interested in how San Franciscans can reduce their carbon footprint as consumers.

“You wouldn’t necessarily measure the hamburger you eat in San Francisco as part of the city’s carbon emissions, but maybe you should,” he says.

If San Francisco can get every local politician and major stakeholder — as in, businesses, as in, The Money — motivated to reach the emissions requirements put forth in the Department of the Environment’s report, it has a chance of getting to net zero emissions by 2030. In doing so, it will have done its part in setting an example for other cities to follow. But that will have to be replicated across the world in order to arrest global warming at a 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius increase. As in, every other city would need to make similar efforts. It’s a tall order, and one that some argue needs shorter-term goals to really work.

“Let’s be blunt: ‘progressive,’ pro-enviro San Francisco and Los Angeles are not taking any major actions to address climate change that would cause any political downside to current officeholders,” wrote Tenderloin Housing Clinic Executive Director Randy Shaw in July. “All of these local deadlines can be revised and delayed by future politicians.”

Shaw’s words, from an op-ed published by Beyond Chron in response to a press release from Mandelman’s office echo what the scientists and activists said when interviewed for this article.

In 2019 so far, the supervisors have passed no ordinances that directly reduce carbon emissions.

“[These goals] are technically feasible,” Riordan says. “It’s politics and money, basically.”

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