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By Sherry Listgarten

This blog will be carbon-free by 2030!

Uploaded: Jul 26, 2020

Yes, I’ve taken the courageous step to set this bold goal: This blog will be carbon-free by 2030! Are you impressed? Inspired? Relieved? Confused? Curious? Rolling your eyes?

I’m not entirely sure what it would mean for this blog to be carbon-free. Well, it would be carbon-neutral, since there would surely be some trading going on. The electricity I use would need to be carbon-neutral. Probably also the devices. I could stick with Apple, which is going carbon-neutral by 2030. I’m not sure what to do about your (readers’) devices — maybe they don’t need to be included? I would bike or use an EV to meet with people, which might even be allowed again by 2030. Maybe I should eat vegetarian on the days when I write? I would definitely need to talk with Bill about how the papers’ websites work… (Bill, is Embarcadero Media going to be carbon-neutral by 2030?)

Anyway, the point is, these claims are more complicated than they appear, and sometimes the goal-setter has less influence over their emissions than you might guess. Entities as diverse as Norway, the Church of England, Apple, Hoboken NJ, the UC system, and the city of Los Angeles all have goals (plans?) to be carbon-neutral by 2030. Melbourne, Australia has even promised 2020 — I should probably check in on that one…

So when I saw that Menlo Park recently adopted a Climate Action Plan to be carbon-neutral in 2030, including a steep 90% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels, I had to follow up on it. There are a lot of smart, capable people in Menlo Park, but a 90% emission reduction in ten years is a near-impossible task. What have they got in mind? I read over the Climate Action Plan (pages 13–28 of this city document), and sat down to talk with Menlo Park’s Environmental Quality Commissioners Josie Gaillard, Tom Kabat, and James Payne, who did most of the work on this. There is lots to like about what they write, but my first question was “Is this a plan or an aspiration?” It’s called a Climate Action Plan, but it looked for all the world to me like an aspiration. I’ve been schooled on this by folks in Palo Alto, so I wanted to know if Menlo Park is taking a different approach.

To my surprise, I got pretty different answers. One responded with a clear “This is a plan. We have numbers, at least for the first phase, and I think we will hit those numbers.” Another said “Well, this is the start of a conversation to make it a more active conversation.” Councilwoman Betsy Nash insists the goals are aspirational. Carbon Free Palo Alto founder Bruce Hodge, who has been around the block a few times on this, scoffed when I relayed my confusion to him. “Climate plans are never actionable plans. Even when you have a set of proposed policies, when you look at what has to happen to implement a policy, it’s just huge.” (1)

Putting aside the political and financial obstacles for the moment, I want you to understand how difficult this task is. Menlo Park’s Climate Action Plan has a table showing the emissions reductions needed in each of the four main categories (vehicles, natural gas, electricity, and waste), along with this diagram.

Emissions reductions needed to hit Menlo Park’s goal (Source: Climate Action Plan, 7/14/2020)

It looks hard but perhaps doable. The thing is, the diagram is not to scale. It under-represents the change needed (an 88% decrease from 2017–2030) while over-representing the change already made (a 19% decrease from 2005–2017, largely from moving to cleaner electricity, but also from capturing methane at the landfill).

It is easiest to compare the reductions needed on this bar chart.

Emissions reductions needed to hit Menlo Park’s goal, shown at scale (2)

That is a tectonic shift in emissions. The rate at which we reduce emissions has to be 4-5x what it was in the past ten years. This is a massive effort, a sea change in how Menlo Park operates. (3) And pre-coronavirus trends were not promising. Vehicle emissions were up 15% from 2005–2017 and waste emissions were up 51% in the last four years measured (2013–2017). Buildings showed good progress from cleaner electricity, but natural gas emissions were down just 6% in the 12-year period. With only 10 years left, how do we get a further 88% reduction?

This is where the Menlo Park commissioners speak very clearly with one voice. “Mandates. If there is anything we have learned from Palo Alto’s experience, it is that incentives and rebates are not enough.” We unhappily contemplated Palo Altans’ adoption of heat pump water heaters over the past few years.

Heat pump water heater adoption in Palo Alto (Source: Update to City Council, 4/13/2020)

David Coale of Carbon Free Palo Alto agrees with Menlo Park’s approach. “Yes. We spent years trying to make this work and it didn’t. We are running out of time. We need to have mandates.” Bret Andersen, also of Carbon Free Palo Alto, added “The time is right. Prices are coming down, you’ve got off-the-shelf availability of many options, more tradesmen with appropriate skills, and funding at all levels — state, county, and utility. There are six different heat-pump water heater rebate programs now just in the Bay Area. You didn’t see that years ago. The stars are aligning to make real reductions more feasible.”

Kabat is excited to do the work needed to design an electrification mandate for Menlo Park that is equitable and affordable. He will be assisting city staff in their effort to draft a “burnout ordinance” that requires new appliances to be electric. He believes that this is not only the smart thing to do (“Why buy long-lived assets that are sure to be stranded within a few years?”) but the responsible thing to do. “In order to make progress on climate change, cities have to take a bite at the apple, not just a nibble. This is our bite.” He hopes that other cities will lead in complementary areas, and all can share each other’s work. The Menlo Park commissioners believe an important part of their job is sharing what they are doing so that other cities can take a look and use what they like. Palo Alto’s contribution on the building side of things may be on-bill financing. The Carbon Free Palo Alto folks realized years ago that this type of financing is essential for widespread adoption of building electrification, and have designed a BE Smart program to enable that. The City has slowly come around to it, and it is now seriously being considered by the city’s utility. Kabat is also running this concept by local energy providers Peninsula Clean Energy and Silicon Valley Clean Energy.

Palo Alto has learned a lot on the vehicle side of things as well. While its high 8% (est) penetration rate of EVs has only been possible because of the tremendous wealth in the city, it is also high in part because Palo Alto has been encouraging adoption of electric vehicles for years through education, test-drive programs, incentives for chargers and electric panels, and deployment of chargers throughout the city. Recently the city mandated EV readiness in new construction, another big step.

If you ask Hiromi Kelty, Palo Alto’s Utility Marketing Program Administrator, about something "simple" like EV charger deployment, you will get an earful. Her work deserves an entire blog post on its own, but you can see below that the rebate program is gaining momentum, with 107 chargers installed to date at schools, non-profits, and multi-family homes, three-fourths of which happened in just the first five months of 2020:

Palo Alto’s rebated chargers to date (Source: Update to Utilities Advisory Commission, 7/1/2020)

Curious to know how many more chargers we need? Kelty has an answer for that:

How many chargers do we need? (Source: Presentation to Utilities Advisory Commission, 7/1/2020)

Wondering where the funding will come from? Because of the city’s early focus on climate change and clean electricity, the utility has amassed millions of dollars worth of credits from the state, to be used for promoting EV infrastructure:

Draft budget for promoting EV infrastructure (Source: Update to Utilities Advisory Commission, 9/4/2019)

This is the level of planning we need to move the needle, and it represents another “bite” that Palo Alto is taking in its emissions reductions. EV infrastructure on its own isn’t going to drive adoption. Market momentum and decreasing prices (e.g., for car batteries), along with state and federal fuel standards and incentives, will do most of the heavy lifting. But Palo Alto is doing its part to speed local adoption with clear priorities, consistent messaging, and careful planning that takes advantage of state and county programs.

Menlo Park has taken a step in that direction with their almost-all-electric building code for new construction, and now they are taking another by embarking on the difficult and important work of detailing a feasible burnout ordinance for gas appliances. While I may not agree that Menlo Park’s Climate Action Plan is a plan at this point, or that a 90% emissions reduction is feasible in ten years, that is mostly beside the point. Menlo Park is fortunate to have a highly motivated and positive group of people pushing the city ahead on emissions reductions. They have managed to make progress even in a pandemic. They emphasize teamwork across cities and organizations, and are smart to try to understand how their work can best complement that of the state, county, local utility (Peninsula Clean Energy), and neighbors such as Palo Alto. They are showing leadership on an urgent issue.

But at the end of the day, it will be up to the people of Menlo Park to demonstrate their own leadership when it comes to supporting the environmental policies that city staff and the commissioners come up with. Do Menlo Park residents want to slash their use of fossil fuels sooner rather than later? I hope that the people will respond in kind to the leadership that their City Council and Environmental Quality Commission are demonstrating.

Notes and References
1. Hodge also pointed out that Climate Action Plans have become a cash cow for consulting firms that "cut and paste boilerplate and change the city names. The Climate Action Plan usually consists of a report on current emissions (a SWAG in practice because of the lack of hard data), plus a long menu of things that the city ‘could’ do in theory, but with little to no guidance on the best way to approach things from a policy perspective." He worries that Palo Alto's recently-hired AECOM consultant will tell us what we already know (basic ways to reduce our transportation and building emissions), but with little guidance on how best to achieve those goals.

2. If you are curious about how Menlo Park’s goals compare with California’s, take a look at the chart below. California’s emissions reduction pledge of 40% below 1990 by 2030 amounts to a 47% reduction below 2005 by 2030. The state reduced emissions by only 13% between 2005 and 2017, so California also needs to steeply accelerate emissions reductions in the next ten years, by a factor of 3.

California to reduce emissions to 259 MMT CO2e in 2030 (Source: CARB)

The interesting thing is, California has a track record of hitting its goals. Prior to coronavirus, Axios estimated California to be heading towards 281 MMT CO2e, which isn’t too far off its goal of 259 MMT CO2e. That would represent a 42% reduction overall and a 34% drop from 2017. With some recent changes in behavior initiated by the coronavirus, and a possibly more climate-friendly administration in 2020, California’s goal looks plausible. The question is, can Menlo Park, with its many advantages over the state, do a whole lot better?

As another point of comparison, here is the same chart for Palo Alto, which has a goal to reduce emissions 80% from 1990 by 2030. As with Menlo Park, the city needs to quickly address both vehicle emissions and natural gas use. EVs, telecommuting, and heat pumps need to see rapid, widespread adoption.

Palo Alto aims to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2030 (Source: Palo Alto’s 2019 Earth Day Report, ignoring the natural gas offsets)

3. Yes, a sea change to limit the sea change…

4. City emissions do not reflect emissions from residents’ air travel, diet, or general consumption.

Current Climate Data (June 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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