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In-Depth Report: Sonoma County Climate Action 2020

Posted on September 21, 2016 by Fred Allebach

By Fred Allebach | Special to The Sun

The County of Sonoma and it’s nine cities together are formulating a plan to collectively decrease greenhouse gas emissions. This plan is called Sonoma County Climate Action 2020, and until a lawsuit was recently filed challenging some of its underlying assumptions, the cities were prepared to sign onto the plan. This report provides background information about the plan, and where things stand today.

In 1850 the Industrial Revolution kicked off an era of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that began to accumulate in the earth’s atmosphere. As the world’s population grew by the billions, human-caused GHG emissions environmental impacts became greater and greater, especially since the 1950s.

By the mid 1980s, human-caused climate change was acknowledged as a serious problem. and precipitated the first articulation of sustainability principles. These include concepts such as the triple bottom line, full cost accounting and systems literacy.

California, being a vanguard state, in 2006 the Schwarzenegger administration began a series of measures and bills that put the state on track to reducing GHG emissions to 15% below 1990 levels by the year 2020.

Sonoma County and Individual Cities Take Local Action

Sonoma County took the ball and ran with it, each jurisdiction setting even deeper reduction goals (25% below 1990) and creating the nation’s first Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA) in 2009.  This was seen as cutting edge throughout the entire United States. The RCPA then worked to create a Climate Action 2020 plan for Sonoma County, finalized in July of 2016.

Each Sonoma County municipality was included in the Climate Action Plan (CAP), and able to choose from among a slate of possible voluntary local GHG emissions reduction measures that would be their contribution to the overall plan. A combination of the number of local measures chosen from the RCPA list, plus the overall amount of carbon reduced, added up to the percent of a city’s contribution to the CAP.

The City of Sonoma initially proposed to contribute 900 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCO2e), which was 2% of the 100% total of regional, state and local measures, to get to 25% below 1990 levels of GHG emissions. Sonoma’s 2% and 900 MTE contribution was dead last when compared with comparable small cities in the county.

The Community Services and Environmental Commission (CSEC) was tasked to review the CAP and make a recommendation to the city council. Among the CSEC findings: The City of Sonoma has among the highest per capita GHG emissions in the county while doing the least about it. The CSEC recommended that the city increase its contribution upwards to 10% local measures, and that it make some of these measures mandatory.

Upon receiving the CSEC’s recommendation, city staff responded that the city did not have enough money to do more than 2%, and that more measures would not be “business friendly”. At the council hearing to review this matter, council member Hundley and Mayor Gallian requested staff to look into eight additional measures having to do with grey water, solar energy and the offroad equipment sector, i.e. construction and landscape equipment.

Staff did their homework and came back with the eight additional measures, which increased Sonoma’s local contribution to 1,350 MTCO2e from 900, basically an increase from 2% to 4% local measures contribution, but still leaving Sonoma in last place in the county in GHG emissions reduction measures.

To equal Sebastopol and Healdsburg, similarly sized cities with similar demographics, Sonoma needs to achieve over 3,000 MTCO2e and at 10% local measures.  For a wealthy city like Sonoma, the low level of climate action appears to be more a matter of political will and resource allocation rather than lack of resources. For the Sonoma citizenry, affluence is an indicator that correlates closely with high GHG emissions.

California River Watch Lawsuit

The CAP was touted as cutting edge by the county and RCPA, and things were moving along at a normal governmental pace until the plan’s EIR received a CEQA lawsuit filed by Jerry Bernhaut of California River Watch (CRW).  In mid-September there will be a mandatory settlement conference and in early October a case management conference and the initial appearance before the judge, where various phases of the litigation will be discussed.

The basis of the suit? Essentially the suit claims that the CAP was not adequate for purposes of CEQA because it failed to count all local emissions and excluded a full cost accounting of the economic and social drivers that lead to such emissions, i.e. the CAP was not actually sustainable. As in many CAP EIR suits, the contention is that the project boundary, i.e. the county, has been artificially circumscribed and the actual aggregate effects diminished. The suit was filed just a few days prior to the Sonoma City Council having its local CAP measures on the agenda to approve. At this council meeting, on the advice of City Attorney Jeff Walter, the council pulled the CAP from the agenda.

All dates for cities in the county to approve the CAP have currently been removed from the RCPA website; this effectively pulls the CAP from the agenda of all county cities. However, as noted by Jerry Bernhaut and many others, the suit does not preclude local jurisdictions from adopting the voluntary local climate protection measures that city’s staff has already outlined.

If CRW wins the lawsuit, GHG emission inventory numbers will be adjusted by the RCPA and then cities and the county will adjust their numbers. If CRW loses, the inventory numbers at stake in the suit won’t be changed.

Transition Sonoma Valley

Concomitantly with the CRW lawsuit, the editorial team of Transition Sonoma Valley (TSV), including Climate Action 2020 Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG) member Tom Conlon, challenged the CAP’s 1990 backcast numbers. They asserted that the reconstructed 1990 emissions were insufficiently documented, and appeared to be too high. If true, this would skew future goals to be also too high, actually forestalling necessary reductions.

Both CRW and Transition, among others, have been critical that the CAP is not bold nor inclusive enough, that current patterns of consumption and lifestyles that generate high GHG emissions have not been sufficiently addressed.

The RCPA responded to TSV’s critique of the 1990 back cast numbers by putting up additional data on a blog of their own.  The RCPA believes the 1990 back cast numbers are accurate and representative of countywide trends because of sizable reductions in cattle and landfill-related (methane) emissions. TSV has sent additional questions back to RCPA and anticipates that once the math is shown, these questions will be easy to resolve. One question, for example, have cattle and landfill emissions simply been externalized to other locations and not actually mitigated?

For both CRW and TSV, getting the baseline numbers and context right is a common issue.

Where We Are Now

With Climate Action 2020 pulled from the agendas of county cities, and the CAP’s CEQA waiver process in limbo, the Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC) and Transition got together and made a joint statement to the city council on 9/7/16. They asked the council to re-agendize discussion of the CAP measures at the next meeting, and “to implement at least the initial measures proposed by staff, plus the eight additional measures proposed by Council”, in spite of the lawsuit. The SEC and Transition intend to work with other environmental and sustainability-focused groups throughout the county to try and reverse this delay and urge cities to begin work on their local measures ASAP.

Many citizens in Sonoma have indicated they support this and feel the same way, namely that human-caused climate change is serious problem that cannot wait to be solved any longer. If we are going to actually be cutting edge, proponents believe, we need to act now and get started. Mayor Gallian has asked the city manager to put Climate Action 2020 on the 10/3 city council agenda.

Citing a 4/16 conversation he had with Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, TSV’s Tom Conlon says that, “on average, every city, every business, and every household needs to reduce its emissions by 6% each year through 2020.”

For Sonoma in particular, says Conlon, “collective emissions since 1990 have grown more rapidly than the county average, so because we failed to live up to our commitments in the past, reductions now need to be even more aggressive.” Conlon’s reading of the CAP data confirm that our emissions were actually 21% above 1990 levels in 2015. This means we missed our original -25% goal (set in city Resolution 44 – 2005) by a whopping 46%.

TSV has posted a spreadsheet that shows that in order to reach the CAP goal of 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, Sonoma needs to reduce GHG emissions by 9% per year through 2020 to reach the goal.  It shows that if we make our 2020 goal, our slope down to 2030 will be much more manageable. The RCPA’s CAP makes it clear that these reductions remain possible, but only if we stick to the implementation timeline contained in the plan.

Some believe the stakes are a matter of the survival of civilization itself. A forecast 6th Great Extinction  and the science of 350.org https://350.org/about/science/ are compelling to many.  Says Conlon, “We’ve run out of time. We can’t afford to let elected officials and their staff members keep making empty promises and then fail to hold them accountable. Our kids are counting on us to start fixing these serious problems we’re dumping on them.”

Business As Usual (BAU) is Unsustainable

The Kaya identity, developed by energy economist Yoichi Kaya and Paul Ehrlich’s IPAT equation  , show that gross domestic product and affluence are top indicators of energy use and GHG emissions. The more affluent, the more consumption, the higher the climate impact.

The top billion plus of people in the world consume the bulk of energy and resources. The bottom 2 billion people are in serious poverty and their desperate state has many negative environmental, biological, economic, and social costs. If all at the bottom and middle were to aspire to the level of resource consumption and energy use at the top, it won’t work; there are not enough resources.

Hence the principle of sustainable development, which includes the planning ahead concept of upstream investment. Upstream investment is basically how we will try to manage a peak world population of 9 billion people in 2040, through increased education of women, reduced family size, sharing out resources and wealth, and slowing population growth at the bottom and out-of-balance resource consumption at the top.

According to Kaya, the BAU of carbon-intensive energy use over the last 166 years is the basic cause of climate change. The simplest way to address necessary changes to BAU is for people at the top to just not consume as much. A high quality of life can still be had with a lower carbon footprint and less material props.

It may be possible to have a world economic system where sustainable growth and consumption will allow for a reasonable quality of life for all humans. This will require more than just switching to low or no carbon energy sources.

A meaningful engagement of sustainability forces us to address climate change mitigation not only as a matter environmental factors, but also inclusive of social and economic systems that drive resource consumption demands and GHG emissions in the first place. Challenging BAU practices means shooting to create an equitable, functional economy that serves our material needs without destroying the rest of the world, or exploiting other people in the process.

Using Kaya’s analysis as a reference, maladaptive BAU for Sonoma is reflected in a multi-layered gratuitous consumption, socio-econ inequity, housing problems, level of water use, transportation emissions and building energy usage rates. These cumulatively represent significant climate and sustainability impacts, and indicate that if we are to be a cutting-edge example to the country, this kind of BAU cannot stand.

Possible Futures and Sustainability

It all gets back to sustainability and what kind of possible futures we imagine and construct for ourselves. The Transition movement outlines four possible future scenarios: technological salvation, green energy replacement, conservation/ simplification, and collapse. Most folks in positions of authority in government, business, and academia, including Jacobson at Stanford, and the RCPA, tend to go long on tech salvation and green energy replacement. Both tech salvation and green energy replacement postulate that we essentially keep on consuming at near the same levels as we do now. The only real sacrifice will be in switching our human systems to different types of technology and energy.

Practically speaking the future will be a combination of all four Transition possibilities. The RCPA and many other local players like Sonoma Clean Power will work on reducing emissions, green energy replacement and technological solutions like electric cars and energy efficient buildings. How then will we as Sonoma citizens work on conserving and simplifying so as to consume less and reduce our carbon footprint? As high-resource-consuming Americans, one way might be to look to the examples of Gandhi and John Woolman, which show a life of principled simplicity can drastically reduce consumption of high GHG impact resources. A sustainable future demands conscious engagement, from individual levels up to city, county, state, country and the world.

If Sonoma is to have a green economy focused on new tech, green energy and new climate adaptation business synergies where is the leading edge? Where is an emphasis on local goods and services that Valley workforce residents can afford without having to drive to Santa Rosa or Napa to buy them? For wealthy residents, what do you really need?

As members of local and world human culture, it appears we have to be the change, and define, adapt to and mitigate our own behavior as well as the environmental consequences therein. As many scientists, ecologists, and ordinary citizens now believe,  as a society and economy, the fourth possible future –  the collapse of civilization – is the impending alternative.

Recent News

Climate news continues to stay in the front burner with Governor Brown signing legislation calling for  GHG emissions to reach  40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The implications for the City of Sonoma are clear. Here then,  is the state-sanctioned policy necessary for the city, elected officials and staff, to develop the will to get the necessary measures enacted and in place.

The SEC’s focus on climate adaptation and its Sustainable Sonoma initiative, which includes the local Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Bureau (and by extension the Tourism Improvement District), may result in the development of economic models that include a triple bottom line and start to account for over-consumption of resources. The possibility exists that the SEC can accomplish systemic change from the inside out, as groups like the NapaVision 2050, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, and Wine Water Watch continue to try from the outside.



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