Oakland’s climate action plan relies on a partner: You

Rising sea level would put parts of Oakland at risk.  The light blue area is currently at risk during an extreme flood while the dark blue area would become vulnerable to flood damage as sea level rises.  Graphic courtesy of the Pacific Institute.

Rising sea level would put parts of Oakland at risk. The light blue area is currently at risk during an extreme flood while the dark blue area would become vulnerable to flood damage as sea level rises. Graphic courtesy of the Pacific Institute.

The city of Oakland wants to put its energy and climate action plan into practice, and you’re part of it.

The plan aims to reduce Oakland’s greenhouse gas emissions 36 percent by 2020 and requires individuals’ help to get the job done. The city is asking Oakland residents to take carbon-conscious steps by driving less and outfitting their homes to consume less energy. This includes asking residents to retrofit and weatherize their homes to help reduce city-wide electricity use by 36 percent and natural gas consumption by 14 percent. The plan suggests Oaklanders consider installing solar panels, switching to a fuel-efficient vehicle, buying locally grown food, and other small actions to do their part.

Sustainability Coordinator Garret Fitzgerald, who spearheads the plan for the Department of Public Works, recognizes he’s asking for personal sacrifice, especially when it comes to changing transportation habits. “We’re hoping that Oakland residents, one out of every five times they were going to drive a car, they’ll choose not to,” Fitzgerald said. “Driving 20 percent less is a huge change for everybody.”

City staff worked with community members to create the tough benchmarks as part of the Energy and Climate Action Plan. The plan has been in development since 2008, when the city held public workshops to gather input. Oakland City Council adopted the plan and sent it on to environmental review in March. Scientists say that without significant action to combat climate change, Oakland will see decreasing air quality, worsening floods, more frequent wildfires and reduced water supply over the next hundred years.

The city has already taken several administrative actions to support reducing greenhouse emissions, including launching a downtown shuttle to encourage public transit, adopting a green building ordinance that mandates energy efficiency standards for new construction, and expanding weatherization efforts to retrofit existing Oakland homes for energy efficiency. But even with the plan’s 61 actions in effect, Fitzgerald said it won’t be enough to reach the benchmark of a 36 percent reduction in emissions without community support.

“Hitting the targets will require a lot more than the city accomplishing its to-do list,” Fitzgerald said. “It’ll require a lot of complimentary, voluntary action by everybody in the community.”

While the city asks residents to contribute to a global good, some effects will be felt locally. Oakland’s carbon emissions affect local air quality. Hot days and high emissions combine to create concentrations of ground level ozone, says Abby Young, a principal environmental planner at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “Another common term for it is smog,” Young said.

“That [smog] can exacerbate any type of lung ailment,” Young said, like “chronic respiratory problems, which are usually felt by older people or younger folks.”

Young said that plans like Oakland’s, which calls for reducing energy and water use in addition to cutting back on carbon emissions from cars, have a direct impact on Bay Area air quality, because of the linear relationship between fossil fuels burned and the amount of smog in the air. “Even though this isn’t a local air pollution plan, it creates local air pollution solutions,” Young said.

When it comes to most other local impacts of climate change, scientists don’t completely understand how quickly they could be reversed by lowering greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Scientists are not sure how quickly sea level rise will progress, nor how much it could be stemmed by reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Bruce Riordan, a consultant for local governments looking to reduce transit-related emissions, said we do know that carbon dioxide will stay in the atmosphere for potentially hundreds of years. These gases will determine weather for centuries, Riordan said, adding that by putting more greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, “You’re setting the thermostat.”

Fitzgerald hopes Oakland’s emissions reduction target encourages other cities to follow suit. “The goal is that, as Oakland hits the target, we also lead by example, inspire other cities and states and governments to do the same,” Fitzgerald said. “If Oakland hits the target and no one else does anything, the effect on global climate change will be negligible.”

Oakland is in good company, as New York City, Chicago, and the Washington state county that includes Seattle have each adopted climate plans. Thousands of mayors across the country have signed a climate protection agreement, pledging greenhouse gas reductions.

But Oakland’s plan is unique in its scope. The plan lists 61 priority actions to meet—including hosting community climate forums and replacing old city vehicles with fuel efficient ones—and sets what Fitzgerald called “one of the most aggressive” targets in the country. “36 percent: I don’t know of any city that has adopted a stronger target than that,” Fitzgerald said.

Oakland’s City Council will decide whether to fund 32 of the actions laid out in the plan. Fitzgerald said some actions—like negotiating green power options with utility company PG&E and facilitating community solar programs—will require new city staff positions and additional expenditures costing approximately $12 million per year, a number that may be a tough sell for a council currently facing a $58 million budget deficit.

“It’s not cheap to change the world,” Fitzgerald said.

The council has not shown unanimity on every action presented in the plan. For example, before adopting the plan at the March 1 city council meeting, the council debated an action that called for the city to reserve land for local food production. The council ultimately voted to approve an action that didn’t dedicate a set amount of land after councilmembers Libby Schaaf of District 4 and Jane Brunner of District 1 voiced concerns that the measure could cost the city too much and was not guaranteed to yield benefits.

Additionally, one source of funding currently hangs in the balance—since January Governor Jerry Brown, Oakland’s former mayor, has waged a campaign to dismantle local redevelopment agencies and use their funding to help fill gaps in the state budget, but so far has not convinced legislators. While discussing the city’s climate plan at the March 1 city council meeting, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said, “Redevelopment funding is one of the most powerful sources of support for many of the things we’re talking about here tonight.”

The next challenge will be to bring Oakland residents on board. “It takes a huge amount of resource just to help folks understand why it’s such a good idea and to motivate them to take that action that is in their best interest for a lot of different reasons,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re all that way.”

Fitzgerald said climate solutions will require a concerted effort, not just for today, but for the foreseeable future. “It’s inconceivable that we’ll solve the climate problem in the next few years,” Fitzgerald said. “Hopefully we’ll do an awful lot in the next few years, but we’ll have to keep doing an awful lot for a couple decades.”

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