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San Diego Report Emphasizes Local Efforts on Climate Action

The county’s Regional Decarbonization Framework report not only outlines the county’s goals of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2035 but also puts local governments as the driving force behind climate response.

(TNS) — A San Diego County, Calif., plan for reaching net zero carbon emissions highlights the role local governments must play in slowing the pace of climate change.

On Wednesday county officials released a report called the San Diego Regional Decarbonization Framework, which lays out choices this region faces as it transitions from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The report, which officials said is the first of its kind in California, tallies the efforts San Diego has made in reducing carbon emissions already and details the steps it needs to take to eliminate the emissions completely.

The county has set a goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2035, but the report also references a statewide goal of eliminating carbon emissions by 2045.

"There's only so much that big, global goal-setting can do," said Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who is discussing the county's plan Monday at a virtual panel for the global climate conference called COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

She said local governments, like the county, have to also take the initiative on the environment.

"The rubber hits the road where the rubber hits the road — where cars are on the streets and where we do land use planning," she said.

Joyce Lane, board vice president for the environmental nonprofit San Diego 350, agreed, saying global leaders have been in a stalemate on climate response, so the onus falls on cities and counties to act swiftly.

"We're really on the brink of failure when it comes to addressing climate change," she said. "It looks like very little is going to be getting done at the federal level. And the state of California is moving much too slowly with their goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2045. So it's imperative that we take action at a local level."

Getting to net zero in time to curb the worst climate effects boils down to a complex equation. The decarbonization framework is intended to be handbook to help solve that equation, officials said.

"The idea is not to provide the 'plan' but to provide a list of options for local debate, and a shared vision for how the system needs to evolve," said Gordon McCord, an associate dean at the U.C. San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy who is coordinating analysis and research for the framework.

The report describes strategies for slashing carbon emissions in energy production, transportation and buildings, along with ways to capture and store carbon in natural systems. Each alternative has benefits as well as trade-offs.

For instance, the report concludes that San Diego can meet most of its energy needs through solar and wind power, but costs will vary depending on where those resources are located.

Large-scale solar and wind farms located in East County would be cost effective, but the report acknowledges that other environmental and economic priorities will play a role in the decisions of where to locate solar and wind farms.

The county already is embroiled in a dispute over a solar project. In September residents of the desert town Jacumba Hot Springs sued the county Board of Supervisors and the JVR Energy Park, a 600-acre solar and battery storage facility that the board approved in August.

The suit alleges that the project is unnecessarily large, will dwarf the small town, harm wildlife and turn Jacumba "into an ugly, foreboding, industrial eyesore."

The report analyzes some renewable energy scenarios that exclude land that is valuable for wildlife or farming and land with the potential to capture and store carbon in soil and plant material.

Avoiding those areas would require placing solar arrays in developed areas, which would be much more expensive.

"If we decide to put less solar in East County and more in the urban west, then that's going to be rooftop solar and urban infill, and that's going to be more expensive," McCord said.

Despite the challenges of balancing those concerns, the report shows that switching off fossil fuels is not just a theoretical goal, said Murtaza Baxamusa, the county's program manager for regional sustainability and climate action.

"When we're talking about renewable energy production it's not just a pie-in-the-sky target, but it is real and achievable," he said.

Lawson-Remer said the board of supervisors is likely to consider a combination of large-scale, renewable energy production and smaller projects.

"I think what we're all looking at is doing some large projects immediately," she said. "That's just to get us jump-started. Then we'll look at how we can do more distributed energy production on people's roofs."

She said the supervisors will also focus on job development and training, to help workers who are displaced by that transition, "in a way that creates good, green jobs for workers and takes care of people whose livelihoods are threatened and make sure they're made whole."

The report also found that the county is making progress toward reducing vehicle emissions, but it must step that up by converting public fleets to electric vehicles.

It also must offer incentives for drivers to get out of gasoline-powered cars and reduce the miles people drive. It also should promote or require charging stations in new developments, the report said.

"The analysis is showing that the county has a pretty good and strong policy foundation for reducing emissions from transportation, but it's showing that the emissions reductions are not fast enough," McCord said.

The report also looked at how to reduce carbon emissions from buildings by switching from natural gas to electric.

Composed primarily of methane, a potent but short-lived climate pollutant, natural gas is commonly used to run space heaters and water heaters. Converting buildings to electric heat pumps could help quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the report found.

The low-hanging fruit in that effort is persuading property owners to make the switch when they are shopping for new heating systems, McCord said.

"Because the life of things like boilers is so long, we want to focus on new buildings or buildings that have equipment reaching the end of its lifespan," he said. "The most expensive thing you can do is take capital offline before the end of its lifespan. The best thing you can do is provide incentives to people who are about to invest in new capital."

The report also explored the possibility of capturing carbon in "carbon sinks," which are natural systems that sequester and store carbon, such as wetlands and woodlands.

Restoring these areas has numerous benefits beyond carbon reduction, such as protecting biodiversity and improving open space.

It's expensive to rehabilitate degraded natural habitat, the report noted, so the best way to protect those resources is to simply leave existing natural space alone; "not expanding the urban footprint, not converting undeveloped land to human use," McCord said.

None of those strategies alone can solve the equation, he said. Instead the county will have to take action on multiple fronts to address the threat of climate change.

"We need to do all of the above in the categories above to get us into deep decarbonization," McCord said. "You can do more or less of some, because there are trade-offs. But as a system we need to get to zero."

Matthew Vasilakis, co-director of policy for the Climate Action Campaign, said the decarbonization framework could serve as a model for other areas in California and throughout the country.

"Cities are ground zero for climate innovation," he said. "What the county is doing is really creating a pathway for other regions to develop frameworks and plans to help their communities decarbonize. We're in this living laboratory right now, where we're figuring out the things we need to do to turn away from fossil fuel and towards a climate-ready future."

The County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the report Nov. 17 and expects to approve a final plan around February.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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