Courtesy of CalTrans
Humboldt County and local cities are crafting a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030.
If an irresistible force meets an immovable object, one possible outcome is a stalled Climate Action Plan. Caught between the realities of an ever-warming climate and a culture that is embedded in fossil fuels, city, state and county planners have been trying for years to come up with some acceptable and realistic ways of staving off disaster. It is a daunting task and, perhaps not surprisingly, has taken years of effort with little to show for it.
In 2006, under the leadership of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California passed Assembly Bill 32, a law requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This goal was met, largely through the implementation of the cap-and-trade program, which basically placed a market value on the right to pollute. Companies by and large found it was cheaper to clean up their technologies than to pay pollution fees to the state.
Ten years later, under the leadership of Gov. Jerry Brown, the state passed Senate Bill 32, which required further cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of their 1990 levels by 2030. This deadline is now less than eight years away.
A variety of similar state laws and executive orders have since been issued. To hurry the process along, the state altered the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to make greenhouse gas emissions a pollutant that had to be measured, reported and mitigated. The resulting amendments to the CEQA guidelines were finalized in 2018.
Calculating greenhouse gas emissions is a difficult and expensive task. To simplify matters, the state now allows an entity — such as a city or a county — to create a Climate Action Plan (CAP), in which the emissions for a whole community are calculated, and ways to reduce them identified and, eventually, codified. It is similar to the logic behind a building code: Everybody must go by the same set of standards, rather than each individual builder creating his or her own standards, and then convincing the buyer that the walls will not collapse or the electrical system catch fire. Once the CAP is approved and adopted, any project that the city or county approves must conform to the plan’s goals.
Some recommended ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions are to substitute electrical energy for oil or natural gas, to situate new buildings in areas that do not require a lot of driving (infilling), to encourage people to bike or take buses rather than drive and, of course, to encourage the substitution of electric vehicles for gasoline-powered cars.
A draft Climate Action Plan was written in 2012, said County Long-Range Planner Michael Richardson, but it was not acceptable to the Board of Supervisors at that time.
Several local cities had already begun — or completed — their own versions of these plans, emphasizing those aspects of climate change that most affected them. These documents were often folded into the city’s General Plan, or its Local Coastal Plan (a document required by the California Coastal Commission for entities that border the ocean). Eureka, for example, has an extensive “Sea Level Rise Adaptation” plan dealing with the effects of flooding on its many low-lying areas.
The Karuk Tribe currently has its own Climate Action Plan.
Arcata has been working on its Climate Action Plan for more than 20 years. However, it is not clear if the document has ever been updated, or if any of the criteria in the plan were ever actually met. The document on the city’s web page calls for updates in 2010.
The county had also made some preliminary efforts. In 2007, the Board of Supervisors joined the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives, which recommended a five-step process to reduce local carbon emissions. These steps included measuring existing emissions levels, forecasting their growth, setting a target for reductions, creating a plan to reduce them, and monitoring and verifying the results. At that time, the county decided that increasing carbon storage on timber and agricultural lands might be its most effective means to combat global warming.
But by 2017, when the county’s newest General Plan was adopted, the county inserted a section on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in its Air Quality Element. By then, local scientist Aldaron Laird had publicized his extensive studies of the dangers of sea level rise along Humboldt Bay, and county officials were well aware that something needed to be done. So two years later, a planner, Connor McGuignan, was borrowed from AmeriCorps, to put together a preliminary CAP.
McGuignan held several workshops throughout the county, complete with PowerPoint presentations, and big sheets of paper on which people could write their own ideas. The underlying mathematical studies of greenhouse gas emissions were done by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. Staff members from all six incorporated cities joined the county in producing a draft CAP, which was posted on the county’s website last year. It has since been removed. McGuignan has moved on, although his name is still erroneously listed as the contact person on the county’s website
The draft plan aroused a lot of criticism, especially from environmental groups that felt that it was unrealistic. While supporting the goals of the plan, one local environmentalist thought the time-frame could not be met.
“The plan’s goal is for 30 percent of all vehicles to be electric by 2030,” said Wendy Ring, the author of the radio program Cool Solutions, which is broadcast on public radio stations throughout the nation, and is herself an electric vehicle owner. “But for that to happen, half of all the people in Humboldt would have to buy electric vehicles, starting now.”
She noted that many people shy away from electric vehicles because of their high upfront cost, their limited range and the lack of adequate charging stations. Moreover, in rural areas, trucks are a necessity for many homeowners.
The massive electrification that the plan calls for would require PG&E to replace its transformers, she said, and, in some cases, individual homeowners might be held responsible for part of the cost.
She also criticized the assumption that electrifying a home will necessarily result in less fossil fuel use. “That depends on the time of day when you’re using the grid,” she said. “Solar is fine — but it’s only available in the daytime. Most electrical use at home happens at night, when the grid is powered by natural gas.”
A coalition of environmental groups — RCCER, 350 Humboldt, the Northcoast Environmental Center, the Center for Responsible Transportation Priorities and EPIC — sent a joint 15-page, footnote-studded letter to county Planner Michael Richardson containing numerous criticisms of the plan’s methodology and conclusions.
One recurring theme was the lack of hard commitments by the cities and county to reach the goals of the plan. Another was a seeming disconnect from reality that occasionally surfaced. For example, “The CAP’s target of a 25-percent increase in parking price is difficult to apply uniformly. In particular, most parking in the county, even in downtown areas, is currently free, so it is unclear what a 25-percent increase in price would mean.”
Even more to the point: “The expectation that local municipalities that are
often struggling to fund services will be able to commit staff time to this is unrealistic. Likewise, expecting one person (the CAP coordinator) to find funding sources and track, facilitate and administer those funds, in addition to facilitating public outreach, assisting cities in implementing plans and monitoring progress ... is setting that person, and this plan, up for failure.”
Energy is only as clean as the source from which it is derived, and many environmentalists have criticized the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, which provided the background calculations for the plan, for its inclusion of biomass, which is wood-based energy, as a renewable fuel source.
“Wood is more polluting than coal,” said Nancy Ihara, a member of 11th Hour, a local climate activist group. “You put all that carbon into the atmosphere when you burn it but, to replace it, you need 40 or 50 years for a tree to grow. We don’t have that much time.”
The draft plan was supposed to go for environmental review but that did not happen. The county has been working in conjunction with the six incorporated cities and the various entities may not have been able to reach consensus on everything in the plan. Or they may have simply had too much else to do.
Richardson said that the revised plan would be published on March 17, but that date has come and gone. When contacted, he said that the county hoped to release the document March 28 but that they were still basically waiting for additional comments from the city of Arcata.
As of March 30, the draft plan had not appeared on the county’s website and Richardson had not responded to numerous inquiries seeking an update.
We’ll keep you posted.