Oakland has taken a lead role in local climate initiatives

Tim Donaghy, Senior Research Specialist at Greenpeace, sits on the steps of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Downtown Oakland

Tim Donaghy, Senior Research Specialist at Greenpeace, sits on the steps of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Downtown Oakland

The United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change reported last week that the world will start seeing consequences of climate change much earlier than expected. The report said it is technically possible to achieve target emission goals necessary to avoid catastrophe—and that it is politically unlikely that the United States will be able to make this happen.

Oakland, meanwhile, has taken a lead role in local climate initiatives. The city has set its own emissions reduction goal, continued to expand public housing, switched to locally-sourced renewable energy, and increased composting and recycling programs. And last Tuesday, the city council voted to apply for a $23 to $33 million-dollar grant from the state to fund a community-driven climate action plan.

At a time when the federal government does not support climate action, climate experts say local city efforts can mitigate warming and help the nation—and world—prepare for a 2.7 degree or more rise in temperature. “I think sometimes you might think that these things are small, but they’re actually really important,” said Greenpeace senior research specialist Tim Donaghy.

“Cities are places where investing in better public transportation, bikes, making sure that we can reduce people’s commutes, things like that, are actually very important and have to be part of the long-term solution,” Donaghy said.

For the last ten years in California, local initiatives have been supported by the Strategic Growth Council, a committee that coordinates with cities and other state agencies to improve air and water quality, create more affordable housing, and adapt to climate change. The Council’s Transformative Climate Communities program, which is funded by cap-and-trade programs, gives grants to cities—like the one Oakland City Council just voted to apply for.

“These grants bring together housing, urban greening, clean transportation and walking and biking infrastructure components, as well as workforce development and other programs to create a holistic project that will have a real impact on the community,” Strategic Growth Council executive director Louise Bedsworth wrote in an email.

Collin Miller, coordinator for the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, one of the organizations partnering with the city on the new grant application, said Oakland would use the funds to support a “green streets” plan for the Elmhurst neighborhood, a community bike share program, restoration activities at San Leandro Creek, and a 55-unit public housing project on International Boulevard and 95th Avenue, among other projects.

“Building more affordable housing can help with carbon emissions because it makes cities denser and will help reduce emissions from transportation,” Donaghy said.

Oakland’s first Climate Action Plan, drafted in 2012, set an overall goal of reducing emissions in the city by 36 percent—below 2005 levels—by the year 2020.

A third of the city’s emissions come from the energy consumed by buildings. To reduce those emissions, the city launched the Oakland Shines program in 2012, which offers nearly 200 free energy efficiency upgrades, such as LED lighting and more efficient heating and air conditioning systems, to commercial buildings downtown.

This year, city officials opted to switch all Oakland businesses from PG&E to East Bay Clean Energy (EBCE), which offers carbon-free hydropower energy along with solar, wind, biomass, biowaste and geothermal energy. The clean energy will soon be offered to every Alameda County resident this fall.

Next, city officials hope to conduct energy retrofits on some of Oakland’s biggest electricity consumers, according to Oakland’s Climate Action Plan.  As part of the process, the city would develop an electricity benchmark for commercial buildings and expand the availability of zero-interest energy retrofitting loans to help low and moderate-income residents save money on energy costs.

Waste, meanwhile, accounts for just three percent of Oakland’s greenhouse gas emissions, but the city has already invested $1 million to revamp its trash, compost and recycling collection services to tackle those emissions, too. In 2015, the city launched new trash, compost and recycling services under a new contract with Waste Management of Alameda County (WMAC) and California Waste Solutions, to make sure businesses and multi-family properties have the services they need to meet current and future recycling requirements. Under the new contract, the city also replaced all of its diesel-run garbage collection trucks with natural gas-powered trucks, which run on fuel produced from landfill methane.

The first local composting facility, which processes all of Alameda County’s curbside compost, was built in Livermore in 2017.

“The one surprising thing about cities is how much they rely on waste in their climate plans because, overall, waste is a pretty small percentage of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that can be made globally,” said Kate O’Neill, a UC Berkeley associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

O’Neill, whose research focuses on the politics of waste, said waste management is an area over which cities have more control when compared to other sources of greenhouse gasses, like vehicle emissions.

Oakland city officials did not return requests for comment on the progress of these emissions reductions goal to date.

But Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter chair Igor Tregub said, “cities are the first and last line of defense when it comes to combating the climate change crisis.”

“We are in a very good position to not just acknowledge that climate change exists,” he said, “but to actually do something about it.”

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