When San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced his support for a government-run alternative to San Diego Gas & Electric this week, many political insiders were somewhat stunned that the momentous decision had come to pass.
Many in the know had long guessed that the investor-owned utility and its powerful parent company Sempra Energy would somehow prevent the mayor from siding with a small band of environmentalists led by local advocate Nicole Capretz.
Green groups had argued that having the city purchase energy for its residents under a so-called community choice aggregation was the only way to meet its Climate Action Plan goal of using 100 percent clean energy by 2035. But for nearly a year, the mayor had also considered letting SDG&E craft a plan to run the city on all renewable power.
“This is unquestionably the most striking David vs. Goliath stories in recent SD history,” Rachel Laing wrote on Twitter. The longtime political strategist is married to the mayor’s chief spokesman Greg Block, and has worked for everyone in town from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce to Sempra to former Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Since Faulconer approved the city’s Climate Action Plan in 2015, he has repeatedly touted progress on the blueprint as far ahead of schedule, claiming the city has made bold moves to reign in greenhouse gases.
“I for one am very proud of our city’s leadership on climate action and believe that it should be the source of pride for all San Diegans,” he said at a press event on Thursday to announce his support for community choice.
However, on the same day as Faulconer’s big announcement, his staff also quietly released this year’s annual climate plan progress report.
The report shows that since the plan was approved in 2015, the city has made only marginal progress on reducing greenhouse gases — thanks largely to California’s recent drought restrictions on water use, its low-carbon fuel standard and requirements on utilities to buy increasingly more renewable power over time.
In fact, more than 80 percent of all greenhouse gas reductions envisioned through 2020 in the climate plan come from state and federal actions.
The rest of the emissions cuts come from a small suite of local programs, such as efforts to boost recycling and composting, expanding the urban tree canopy and, most notably, getting commuters onto transit, bikes and sidewalks in lieu of driving.
According the city’s 2018 progress report such programs are lagging considerably.
The climate plan, for example, calls for roughly 20 percent of commuters to bike, walk or ride transit by 2020. Today, that number is roughly 12 percent, according to the update. On its current track, the city isn’t projected to get to 19 percent until 2035.
“We’ve asked for a transportation master plan,” said Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign. “We have no idea how we’re going to get to the transportation goals. This is not a top priority for the city.”
Complicating the issue, transit ridership is down all over the country, including in the city of San Diego. But the mayor has also not delivered a long-promised transportation master plan, as well as millions of dollars of bike lanes throughout the city.
Recently, Faulconer acknowledged the challenge and importance of limiting tailpipe emissions from driving.
“We’re going to quickly turn our attention to transportation, knowing that’s the big next hill that we have to tackle,” he said, “and we are going to make sure that we have a plan and strategy for that.”
The city has also called for diverting 75 percent of all the solid waste from its landfills by 2020 by ramping up recycling and introducing a compositing program.
In 2015, San Diegans sent about 1.6 million tons of garbage to the landfill, diverting about 64 percent of total refuse. With a composting program yet to be introduced, the city still tosses about 1.6 million tons into the landfill, with a diversion rate last year of 66 percent, according to the progress report.
The tree canopy program has also yet to bloom, although efforts to catalog the city’s inventory of trees have started.
The climate plan calls for 15 percent of the city to be covered in trees, up from 13 percent today. However, to meet that target the city would need to plant roughly 150,000 new trees. Last year, it planted 307, according to the progress report.
“Nothing’s changed really,” said Anne Fege, chair of the Community Forest Advisory Board. “They have a small staff, and I’m working to try to make sure we have some funding. It continues, but it’s awfully slow. Really slow.”
Since approving the climate plan in 2015, the city has cut annual emissions by about 5 percent from about 10.8 million to 10.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gas.
The city’s progress report does not outline how many of these reductions came from local as opposed to state and federal programs, but it acknowledges that most of the heavy lifting has come from programs outside of its jurisdiction.
Despite limited progress, the city has already met its greenhouse gas reduction goals through the end of Mayor Faulconer’s term in 2020.
In fact, the city met that benchmark before the plan was approved three years ago.
Specifically, the plan calls for a 15 percent reduction in climate emissions below 2010 levels by 2020 — a metric similar to the state’s target of reducing emissions to 1990 level by 2020.
When the climate plan was inked, the city had already experienced a 19 percent reduction in emissions below the 2010 benchmark, according to calculations in the document.
While that’s due in part to California’s tough environmental laws, it’s also because of inaccurate projections from the San Diego Association of Governments that were used in the climate plan.
As a result the city has taken credit for what appears on paper to be a massive reduction in driving, while in fact the number of cars and trucks on the road have actually increased dramatically.
Faulconer’s team said the city relied on the best available data when it adopted the plan, and they don’t plan to change the accounting flaw.
Still, this may not matter for Faulconer, once considered as a possible Republican candidate for governor.
The recently called for creation of a community choice program could help refurbish his image as environmentally conscious conservative in the vein of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, Faulconer joined the famous Hollywood actor in Los Angeles on Thursday for a discussion of efforts to combat climate change before returning to San Diego to announce his support for the government-run energy program.
“Mayor Faulconer has put this plan into action by adopting it, making it legally enforceable and keeping San Diego at the forefront of global climate action leadership,” said Assemblyman and former City Councilman Todd Gloria at the mayor’s press event on Thursday.
San Diego Failed To Reduce Carbon Footprint In 2017, by Joshua Emerson Smith, The San Diego Union-Tribune, October 27, 2018.