Even before California declared its goal in 2018 to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, cities and counties throughout the state brainstormed plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions on a local level.
Many have responded by creating climate action plans, which are strategies to reduce greenhouse gases and eventually achieve net-zero carbon emissions — otherwise known as carbon neutrality.
In Sacramento County, government officials aspire to an even more ambitious goal: 2030.
The final draft of Sacramento County’s community-wide Climate Action Plan (CAP), which officials say is a first step toward this goal, has been in the works since 2016.
But it hasn’t been an easy road: The plan has often faced criticism from local environmental groups who fear that it doesn’t push hard enough for reduced emissions. Now, after years of process and conversation, it’s close to approval and open for public comment.
John Lundgren, a senior planner with the county, said that publishing the plan is the first step toward the 2030 goal. Subsequent updates to the plan will be the second step in a “process that will definitely lock us down and meet that 2030 carbon neutrality goal.”
“It demonstrates that we meet the state targets currently, and then it sets a pathway where we're going to be updating the CAP over time,” Lundgren said.
Todd Smith, the county’s principal planner, said that the first step came in 2011 when Sacramento County committed to completing a CAP during the course of general plan updates. It was then that the county adopted an overall framework for their approach, joining dozens of other local governments in California to do so.
In 2012, a CAP was adopted for government operations. More specifically, that meant looking at how the county could reduce emissions internally, like in government buildings and county-owned vehicles.
Now, the county is considering the final phase of its CAP and looking at county-wide emissions.
“It combines the first two efforts into one comprehensive document,” Smith said. He described the step as adding “layers on the community-wide emission approach” on top of the work that’s been done in previous phases.
Lundgren said that the county aims to have final approval by early 2022. But that won’t happen without criticism from local environmental groups.
Getting to 2030
Critics of the plan argue that it doesn’t push for greenhouse gas reductions hard enough.
“There are always differences of opinion about what the worst thing is and how environmentalists should respond to it,” said Oscar Balaguer, co-chair of local environmental advocacy group 350 Sacramento’s CAP team. “But everyone agrees it's an inadequate plan… that will not achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions.”
Chris Brown, coordinator of the Sacramento Climate Coalition, echoed these concerns.
“Many of our comments are, ‘this document is not going to be enough,’” Brown said. “The county has to really commit to a climate emergency plan and to do more than the state basically requires them to.”
While Sacramento County’s CAP does not currently commit to carbon neutrality by 2030, Lundgren said that will change. In subsequent updates, he said that they plan on adding more detail that will eventually ensure that they reach carbon neutrality in the next 8 years.
He added that regular reports back to the county’s board of supervisors, among other measures, will hold their “feet to the fire” in keeping these commitments.
The plan puts special emphasis on reducing emissions in transportation, which Lundgren said accounts for about 34% of emissions produced in the county. Priority would also go toward existing building stock, which he said account for about 33% of emissions in the county.
Certain measures articulated in the plan, like building out infrastructure for electric vehicles or providing aid to residents by offering electric alternatives to gas-reliant home appliances, could help in addressing these problem areas.
“The existing building and the transportation sector are really key to addressing climate change at the local level,” Smith said.
Supriya Patel, founder of Fridays for the Future Sacramento, said that she’s doubtful of the county’s assurance that it will provide sufficient updates later to reach the 2030 goal. It’s an issue Patel has had with previous announcements touting this goal, like the county’s climate emergency declaration, which she said has uplifted a 2030 goal without much backup as to how they will achieve the ambitious date.
“[It’s] something that kind of felt like it was just stuck in there to appease climate organizers,” Patel said. In reality, she said they aren’t “actually making any substantial commitment by 2030.”
Meanwhile, Balaguer said that electric vehicle infrastructure is important but won’t address emissions from transportation happening right now. He’s worried that the county’s current plans for housing developments on previously undeveloped land will encourage longer commutes.
“Long driving commutes are the largest source of our current greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “And given the future plans that are in the works, will be the largest source of growth in those emissions.”
Lundgren said that under the CAP, these housing developments would be subject to fines if they don’t meet requirements laid out in the plan. They would also see increased mitigation from the county in order to reduce the impacts of emissions from transportation that would come as a result of new developments, impacts measured by vehicle miles traveled.
But Balaguer explained that his problem lies in the lack of specificity; he said that the plan’s language leaves him unsure as to what that mitigation would look like.
“Basically they say nothing that you can hang your hat on as far as what they’re going to do,” Balaguer said. “Where is the substantial evidence that this will work? It’s just a promise.”
Faye Wilson Kennedy, an organizer for Sacramento’s Poor People’s Campaign and for the Red, Black and Green Environmental Justice Coalition, echoed those concerns. She noted that the draft often refers to “disadvantaged communities” without going into detail as to who that involves and how they will reach out to them.
Specifically, she pointed to the draft’s plans around unhoused people, who she said are often the most directly impacted by symptoms of climate change, like heat waves. While language in the draft shows agreement with this assessment of their vulnerability, Wilson Kennedy said that she saw no area within it that illustrated exactly how the county would reach out to this community and wants to see more detail about community engagement.
“That has been the problem not only with the climate plan, but just plans in general,” she said. “Governmental entities or those organizations working on behalf of the government are going to have to do a better job of community outreach to disadvantaged communities.”
Taking steps toward carbon neutrality
Smith, the county’s principal planner, agreed that the plan is incomplete.
He said that the county awaits further guidance from the state — like in its forthcoming 2022 Climate Change Scoping Plan — but that the plan as it currently stands is a “reasonable first step toward carbon neutrality by 2030.”
He expects to update the document continuously after it publishes, adapting to new information and state mandates as needed.
“I think delaying it really puts us on an even more difficult trajectory to achieve those reductions that are necessary, not just for Sacramento County, but for the population at large,” Smith said. “What we tried to achieve is something that’s balanced and implementable, that everyone can play a part in making a better future.”
Balaguer also expected that the plan would continue to be updated in years to come, but said that it’s missing key components that could be addressed with information the county has right now.
“The CAP should be a living document — things will change. New information will develop. New threats will emerge,” he said. “However, there's a tendency for the county to, by default, defer decisions to a future time.”
He said that some of those decisions, like adding more specificity about enforcement, can be made now: “The current CAP defers many decisions which should be made, can be made.”
There are only a couple more steps before the plan reaches completion: First, the plan will be presented for approval to the county’s planning commission, where public comment will be available. After that, any changes addressing concerns brought up during public comment will be made and it will await final approval from the county board.
The county’s CAP draft can be read on their website and public comments, which can be sent to [email protected], will be accepted through October 8.
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