The long-awaited draft Climate Action Plan (CAP) was released on April 21. Technically, this is a second draft: The first was released in 2021 but quickly rescinded for additional work. Unfortunately, this 2022 edition cannot be considered complete either, since most of the calculations are in the appendices, which are still being worked on.
Nonetheless, environmentalists are hopeful the document will come to serve as a sort of to-do list for local governments in the effort to fight the climate crisis.
Created jointly by the county and its seven incorporated cities, the plan's purpose is to combat climate change by finding realistic ways to limit the production of greenhouse gases. While by far the biggest culprit is carbon dioxide, other gases such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons (refrigerant gases) also contribute to global warming. Carbon dioxide is the product of combustion — primarily from the gasoline engines that run traditional cars and trucks; but also natural gas or propane in home furnaces, water heaters and cookstoves; oil and gas that power industry; woodstoves that heat homes; and a variety of combustible products used to power electrical plants and keep Humboldt County's lights on.
Methane comes from both decaying organic matter and the digestive emissions of cattle. Refrigerant gases are only a small portion of the mix but also retain atmospheric heat thousands of times more efficiently than carbon dioxide. Interestingly, these gases were invented by chemical companies as a replacement for earlier ozone-eating gases, which had threatened to wreak havoc with the atmosphere.
Electricity produced by renewable sources — such as solar, wind, and moving water — is considered "clean energy." The basic idea is to replace combustion, whatever its source, with electrical energy wherever possible. (Wood waste is also considered a form of clean energy by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, but many environmentalists question this designation, as it does involve combustion.) Closely allied with this idea is city planning that reduces the amount of driving that people need to do on a daily basis to get to work, school, services and recreation. Driving can be reduced if people have what they need within walking distance of their homes, or if good transit services are available and streets are designed to be safe and friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians.
All plants, but especially trees, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when they grow, and give it back to the atmosphere when they burn or rot. Therefore, one of the most efficient ways of taming greenhouse gas emissions is to encourage the growth of forests, which Humboldt County has plenty of.
The state now considers greenhouse gases to be a pollutant that must be identified during environmental review and mitigated wherever possible. Every time a project is proposed, it must go through an environmental review process. Rather than calculate the amount of greenhouse gases that each individual project would produce, the state instead allows local governments to come up with calculations for the whole community, decide what steps will limit the formation of the greenhouse gases, and then codify these limits. Then, moving forward, a project must demonstrate that it will conform to these measures to be approved.
As it is easier to build efficiency into new projects than to retrofit old ones, the plan emphasizes the future and sets target dates that correspond to those already built into state law.
Since transportation is the biggest offender, a major goal of the CAP is replacement of gas-powered vehicles with battery-powered or hydrogen fuel cell powered electric vehicles (known as Zero Emission Vehicles or ZEVs). One of the CAP's goals is that 34 percent of all Humboldt's passenger vehicles be ZEVs by 2030.
To encourage this switch, a lot more public charging stations must be built and new building construction must have electrical systems robust enough to support charging stations at home or at the workplace — or even on streetlight poles. (The idea is to replace the traditional streetlights with LED lights, which would leave enough excess energy to support chargers.)
The state is already requiring truck manufacturers to increase their sales of ZEVs each year between 2024 and 2030. This necessitates the installation of various types of charging stations suitable for trucks that use fuel cells or batteries.
Humboldt Transit Authority will also be encouraged to purchase more electric buses.
As a side effect to this transition, pollutants such as carbon monoxide, engine oil, antifreeze and other hazardous substances will be reduced, resulting in a cleaner environment and improved health.
Infill development would also be highly valued under the draft plan. The cities and the county are expected to encourage mixed-use zoning, which would see workplaces and housing co-existing in the same neighborhoods. Eureka's Old Town is often cited as a good example of this type of mix, with commercial spaces on the ground floor and apartments above. The cities and the county are also expected to increase the density of buildings in urban areas, while adding many new miles of bike lanes to streets and roads.
Newer forms of transportation, such as e-bikes and scooters, are also encouraged in the plan, as are ride-sharing and car-sharing apps to reduce single-passenger car trips. Remote work, popularized during the COVID-19 pandemic, is also encouraged. Employers and schools can offer free transit passes to reduce the number of car trips. More park-and-ride lots would allow commuters to drive to a centralized bus stop and leave their cars parked while they take the bus.
New buildings would have to be "electrification ready" with a minimum 200-amp service and wiring in place to support electric water heaters and stoves. Everything possible would be done to encourage home and business owners to swap out old polluting appliances for clean electrical ones, and cities and the county are encouraged to require all-electric construction for new homes.
The CAP also supports the Redwood Coast Offshore Wind Project, as well as the installation of home solar electrical systems. This corresponds to state law, which now requires all new homes to install solar panels. Diesel generators, which serve as back-up for municipal facilities, such as water and sewage treatment plants, should be replaced by paired solar and battery storage systems, according to the plan. (The city of Rio Dell is already doing this.)
To reduce methane, the CAP encourages zero-waste programs, as well as installing composting facilities for food waste and green waste as now required by Senate Bill 1383, and improving recycling opportunities.
The CAP also supports land use policies that protect forests, farms and watersheds, as well as the "urban forests" on streets, in yards and parks.
"Measures that incentivize keeping forests as forests can be the most effective measure to maintain and increase carbon storage in Humboldt County forests," the plan states.
Restoring the wetlands around Humboldt Bay is highly recommended under the plan, for both reducing the effects of sea level rise and because wetlands are excellent at keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.
The CAP, of course, is a work in progress. To be successful, it must get buy-in from the public, and must actively find ways to reduce the front-end costs of residents' going carbon-free. While a great many people may want solar panels, electric cars or heat pumps, the cost may be prohibitive, even with rebates and tax credits.
One local resident, who asked not to be identified, said they "wanted to do the right thing for the climate" and planned to replace their home gas-powered heating system with an electric heat pump. The resident quickly changed their mind after getting a bid of $23,000 from a local contractor.
The mathematically-minded look forward to seeing the numerous appendices to the CAP, in which all the calculations are laid out.
Nonetheless, the environmental community seems supportive of the plan.
"Once the CAP is finalized, it is imperative that the board of supervisors, city councils and other decision-making bodies implement its recommendations," said Environmental Protection Information Center Executive Director Tom Wheeler. "We cannot let this plan sit on a shelf and collect dust. With important elections coming up for supervisorial and city council seats, we need to elect climate leaders who understand the urgency of this moment. The CAP can serve as a to-do list for our local governments. Environmental voters will hold elected leaders accountable."
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.