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With time to act on climate change running out, San Franciscans get down to business
San Francisco District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman speaks at a city council meeting on Aug. 22, 2019. “Folks, climate change isn’t coming, it’s already here.” Mandelman said. “An emergency situation calls for an emergency response, and this hearing should help us better understand how our city can do its part to achieve the deep emissions [greenhouse gas] reductions without which humans will not survive.” Photo: Bhabna Banerjee

It was a busy afternoon at the San Francisco City Hall where roughly 100 people—including the Board of Supervisors, city officials, representatives of non-profit organizations and public—gathered for the city council meeting on Monday, July 22. Of all the items on the agenda, one was a pressing concern for all those in attendance: climate change.

In 2017, San Francisco experienced the hottest day in the city’s history. 2018 was even worse. With entire California towns destroyed by the wildfires, San Francisco was reported to have the worst air quality in the world in the aftermath. Earlier this year, massive rainfalls resulted in flooding along the Embarcadero and other low lying areas of the city.

“Folks, climate change isn’t coming, it’s already here,” San Francisco District Supervisor 8 Rafael Mandelman said. “An emergency situation calls for an emergency response, and this hearing should help us better understand how our city can do its part to achieve the deep emissions [greenhouse gas] reductions without which humans will not survive.”

Earlier in July, the San Francisco Department of Environment released Focus 2030, a detailed report on the pathway to net zero carbon dioxide emissions for the city. The report states that the city has already reduced its emissions by 36 percent, but as the SF Environment’s Director Debbie Raphael said in the meeting, while that is laudable, it is not enough.

“When we talk about equitable climate action, we’re talking about paying attention to public health, to affordability, to jobs for all,” Raphael said.

The Focus 2030 report is the answer to what it looks like to achieve net zero emissions in San Francisco. The good news in moving forward is that we know where our emissions come from—about half from buildings and about half from transportation.

“We know where we need to make those deep reductions,” said Wendy Goodfriend, Climate Program Manager at SF Environment. “And we have about 10 years to act.”

The Focus 2030 report is a strong foundation in the city’s agenda to address the climate crisis. The report quantifies the potential emission reductions based on the city’s ambitious climate goals.

The reason behind accelerating action over the next decade is to limit the increase in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest the Earth’s natural systems can withstand without severe and irreversible disintegration.

The report shows that if San Francisco commits to supplying 100 percent renewable electricity, prioritizes low carbon forms of transport such as transit, walking and biking, reduces automobile dependency and consumption of energy, and moves away from fossil fuels, the city could potentially see a 68 percent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

San Francisco aims to focus on seven strategic priorities for emissions reductions that target three main sectors—buildings, transportation and waste, according to the report.

For buildings, reductions can be made by increasing energy efficiency, electrifying all new and existing buildings, and making sure that the city is supplied by 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

For the transportation sector, between now and 2050, emissions reductions depend equally on transportation mode shift and the electrification of all cars and trucks.

Lowell Chu, Senior Energy Efficiency Specialist at SF Environment, presented some alarming numbers in the meeting. Currently, San Francisco hosts over 450,000 registered vehicles and sees over 135,000 commutes daily.

Sarah Jones, Planning Director at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) agrees that too much travel in San Francisco happens by car. “Whether it’s people driving themselves, people using ride hail or the growing use of delivery services, this is the most harmful transportation choice that people can make,” Jones said.

Lastly, the report states that reducing the amount of material sent to landfill and increasing the recovery of recyclable and compostable materials is key to reducing emissions in the waste sector.

Ultimately, the report’s key findings summarizes that for impactful global emissions reductions, San Francisco must significantly reduce consumption of goods and the amount of refuse—recyclables, compostables and trash bound for landfills—the city generates.

Raphael further said in the meeting that the SF Environment’s equitable strategy for effective climate action is summarized in the following words: zero, eighty, one hundred, roots.

The 0-80-100-Roots Climate Action Framework, explained in the report outlines four central goals: Zero Waste—By 2030, reduce refuse generated by 15 percent and disposal to landfill by 50 percent below 2015 levels; Mode Shift—By 2030, increase sustainable trips to 80 percent; Energy— Supply 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent renewable energy by 2050; Roots—Cut off carbon through ecosystems restoration, increased urban tree canopy, and compost application.

Once the discussion was opened to the public in the city council meeting, over 40 members of the audience from various environmental organizations and activist groups lined up to put forward their opinion on the city’s strategy.

Christopher Pederson, a resident of District 7, said that he felt the Focus 2030 report had one astonishing omission: land use. “San Francisco, by virtue of its mild climate, it’s walkability, by its extensive transit, that it really is one of the most appropriate places from a climate perspective to be providing more housing,” Pederson said.

Pederson explained that the exclusionary low density zoning that currently governs much of San Francisco forces people to locate in areas that have more extreme climates and are more automobile dependent. Increasing affordable housing in lower density areas of the city would bring people into areas which have good transit service.

Raphael said in her closing words that ultimately, San Francisco needs to follow a strategy which points us in the direction of equity, inclusiveness, and making sure that the most vulnerable among us are the first on our thought process and the first on our resource allocation.

Story by: Bhabna Banerjee