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Cars drive on the 580 freeway in Oakland at dusk.

New climate action plan details city action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

on November 12, 2019

On a Saturday in early November, Oaklanders gathered at the Rainbow Recreational Center on International Boulevard to weigh in on an ambitious plan to drastically reduce Oakland’s greenhouse gas emissions. The draft plan, known as the Equitable Climate Action Plan (ECAP), lists free public transit, car-free zones, and the elimination of natural gas from buildings as possible ways to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

The ECAP outlines actions city officials can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 56 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. The Oakland City Council confirmed those targets in 2018, soon after councilmembers declared a climate emergency. Their resolution acknowledged the need to limit global warming’s effects through an “emergency mobilization” away from fossil fuels, towards renewable energy sources. Over the summer, staff held workshops in each council district to find out how Oaklanders thought their city should make that rapid transformation.

At the recreation center, Oakland’s acting sustainability manager Shayna Hirshfield-Gold walked attendees through the draft. Its scope was enormous, from establishing a neighborhood electric vehicle carshare to de-carbonizing the Port of Oakland.

Roughly 400 people came to eight workshops held across Oakland over the summer, Hirshfield-Gold said, and another 700 responded to an online community survey about the plan. Neighborhood leaders, representing each of Oakland’s seven districts, conducted outreach within their districts, encouraging community members to comment on the plan. An equity facilitation team led by Marybelle Tobias, Colin Miller, and David Jaber—professionals with backgrounds in environmental justice, law, and planning—asked attendees what about their neighborhoods they wanted to protect, and what they wanted to change.

Now it was time to get to the work of revising the draft into something realistic, doable, and reflective of the needs of Oakland residents. “We’re all here to work, to really roll up our sleeves and talk about what is in this plan, and how can it be approved,” Hirschfield-Gold said.

Over 60 people gathered on the recreational center’s basketball court to hear Hirshfield-Gold and members of the equity facilitation team discuss the draft policy. They snacked on sandwiches and cookies and read printouts of the plan.

As she stood before the crowd, Hirshfield-Gold laid out the plan’s parameters. It had to be realistic, equitable, ambitious, and balanced all at once, she said. And it would have to be adaptable. “The first climate action plan that the city wrote,” Hirshfield-Gold said, referring to a plan written in 2012, “there was no way we could have envisioned the world of Uber, and Lyft, and bike share. There was nothing in that plan that said, how will we adapt to these new technologies? We’re trying to do that in this plan. We’re trying to create a plan that’s going to be adaptive over the next ten years, so that as new things come down the pipe, we will be able to react to those in a way that’s effective and equitable.”

Much of the plan came down to addressing two problems, Hirshfield-Gold said: slowing down climate change, and adapting to it. “How can we be a community that is resilient to those impacts—heat, drought, fires, flooding?” she asked. “How can we build a more resilient infrastructure and have more resilient communities?”

Jimmy O’Hare, a consultant with engineering firm Integral Group, explained some of the plan’s specifics. Integral Group staff wrote the draft ECAP with members of the City of Oakland’s sustainability program. One way to reduce Oakland’s emissions related to transportation and land use, O’Hare said, was to “invest in sensible, low-cost transit and active transportation.”

“This also includes having affordable housing near transit so that people are incentivized to use it,” O’Hare added. “We’re also talking about de-subsidizing single-occupancy vehicles.” Other priorities included introducing electric vehicles to city fleets and “eliminating natural gas in buildings … without additional cost burden to the owner, renter, or tenant.” 

Equity facilitators Tobias and Miller ran through a list of questions participants could consider as they read the draft: “Is this strategy likely to create healthy, high-opportunity neighborhoods?” 

Or: “Would actions be reduce transportation costs? Would they be accessible?”

Some of the discussion participants had questions of their own. “How are we going to know that everything that folks said here about needing transparency, needing accountability, needing report-backs—what’s going to happen so we know that in fact happens?” asked attendee Margie Lewis.

Hirshfield-Gold said staffers plan to track responses to the plan and note any suggestions that don’t make it to the final draft. 

Other attendees asked if the plan would have any citizen oversight, whether it would address racial equity, and how the plan would be implemented.

Answers to that last question wouldn’t be determined yet, it seemed. The ECAP “doesn’t establish specific implementation,” Hirshfield-Gold said. “There are a number of things that are envisioned to happen—this plan doesn’t say how they will happen.” First, she said, the team will conduct a funding analysis and a racial equity analysis.

Following the presentation, the crowd split into six small groups to read and discuss each chapter of the 63-page plan. One table focused on material consumption and waste. Nearby, at the transportation and land use table, the discussion touched on parking policy and road pricing.

Over at the carbon removal table, a group dug into a proposal to impose fees on carbon-emitting businesses, and to invest those fees in projects like building electrification or creek restoration.   

“To me, it justifies polluting,” said Leanne Grossman, an Oakland resident. “I really don’t agree with this as part of the plan.” 

Another attendee, Leana Rosetti, politely countered. “Right now, you can pollute for free,” she said. “Now, there’s a price to pay for those companies. It will incentivize them to pollute less.”

The discussion shifted to a debate over trees. Certainly, they agreed, planting trees would be a great way to mitigate urban heat islands—pockets of the city that are markedly hotter than other areas—and remove carbon from the atmosphere. But how should it be done? Who would care for the trees? Who would trim them and maintain permits?

“I don’t feel like we all need to agree today,” Grossman said.

This is Oakland’s second ECAP. The first, written in 2012, set a citywide goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 36 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2020. (As of 2017, Oakland’s emissions had been cut by 23.5 percent, said Hirshfield-Gold.)

Speaking by phone before the event, Tobias explained the plan’s emphasis on frontline communities, the groups who experience the brunt of climate change effects like food shortages or urban heat islands. “Years of neglect and disinvestment and ignoring the plight of certain communities have led us to a point where as climate disasters get worse, these communities will be hard hit,” she said.

“And since climate change requires us to take a thorough look at every component of our economy and system and make transformational changes—and there’s money behind these changes, investments to be made—it seems it is a perfect opportunity to center equity and avoid repeating mistakes of the past,” Tobias continued. 

For Lil Milagro Henriquez, a neighborhood leader, organizing her East Oakland neighborhood for the ECAP was an antidote to isolation and fear in face of the climate crisis. Henriquez knocked on doors, emailed churches, and talked to neighbors, urging them to participate in drafting the ECAP.

“I get really nervous about the future,” Henriquez said in a phone interview. “I have two small kids—I have a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old.” Working closely with members of her community gives her hope, she said. “It actually makes me excited about what can things look like in 10 or 20 years. And I think we’re at a crucial moment in human history, where what we do now will define what kind of society we become, and if we survive it,” Henriquez said.

“We need affordable housing. We need to have access to healthy food. We need to be able to have transportation that’s free and accessible. We need regenerative jobs,” Henriquez said. “And I want to see it as a tangible, real plan that actually has financial and legal fees.” 

City staff will hold another town hall meeting at Lincoln Square Recreation Center on November 13 for Oakland residents continue to respond to the initial draft plan. Oaklanders can also comment on the digital version of the plan until December 8, when revision begins. City council will review the plan in March, 2020.

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