Region’s ‘Net Zero’ Ambitions Are Far Out of Reach – Voice of San Diego


County leaders are pushing San Diego to eliminate carbon emissions in less than two decades, but a new study shows the region isn’t close to that even if everything they’ve already committed to goes perfectly as planned.

When the County Board of Supervisors’ new Democratic majority took over last January, it began pursuing a climate change agenda far exceeding what any local government had ever considered. They said San Diego should gut greenhouse gases from its society in less than 15 years.  

That’s a full decade faster than the state promised under former Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.   

But a report released earlier this year sheds light on just how gargantuan a task it may be. Even if all the region’s cities do every single thing in their current plans to fight global warming, the region would be just over halfway to the county’s new plan to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2035, meaning that for any human-caused planet-warming gas the county puts into the atmosphere, it balances it by doing something that absorbs an equivalent amount of emissions. 

“The number one takeaway is that getting to net zero is going to be very hard,” said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego, which conducted the study for the county. 

That study was done as part of the county’s attempt to ramp up its climate change policy after Supervisors Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer last January proposed hiring scientists to analyze what it would take to reach a “zero carbon future.”  

The result was an over 600-page analysis called the Regional Decarbonization Framework, published in October.  

It’s supposed to help the region pick policies that squeeze out as much planet warming-gases from land use, buildings, transportation and the energy sector as possible. To do this, the researchers said it would take shifting all cars and trucks to electric versions of themselves and reducing the need for travel in the first place; protecting habitats that store carbon and transitioning all power demand to 100 percent renewably powered electricity.  

But in a presentation to the county board this month, the Energy Policy Initiatives Center described how the 16 existing Climate Action Plans that individual cities have already adopted aren’t sufficient to meet the new, more ambitious goal. In fact, even if cities did everything they said they would do in their plans, and the region accounts for all the greening of the economy both state and federal laws and orders will produce, San Diego will still only have eliminated about half of its emissions by 2035. 

Part of the reason city climate plans aren’t producing the reductions the county is now envisioning is that none of the cities promised to eliminate all their emissions in the first place. Most were crafted when California aimed to cut 40 percent of the emissions it produced in 1990. The state reached that target in 2016, according to the California Air Resources Board. 

“It isn’t an indictment of climate action plans, because cities are doing what they said they would do within their lane,” Anders said. “What we’re saying is, ‘if you look at the emissions reductions in aggregate, we’re really not on track to get to deep decarbonization.’”  

Another reason is that local governments only have so much power to dictate how San Diego burns energy.  

“I have no way to force any of these folks to stop driving, or get electric vehicles or put solar on their house,” said Graham Mitchell, El Cajon city manager. “The city of El Cajon could be 100 percent sustainable but it’d be a drop in the bucket because there need to be vast societal changes.”  

Local governments don’t have much direct control over the 800-pound-gorilla in the room: fossil fuel use. It’s spewing from tailpipes and the power plants used to generate much of San Diego’s electricity. Cars and trucks are responsible for 47 percent of the region’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other category of emissions, the center found. Cities can make land use decisions that make driving less attractive, or that shorten typical trips. But they can’t alone force residents to make different decisions about what cars they own or how much they drive. 

The center’s study, though, lays out a significant room for improvement in local policies. 

Last year, the city of San Diego became the first local city to declare a goal of net zero emissions by 2035, in a proposed update to its 2015 Climate Action Plan, which the City Council has yet to adopt. According to the center’s study, the current plan if fully realized would only eliminate 15 percent of the emissions generated within its borders.  

Over half the cities the center assessed are already updating their climate plans and that’s when local leaders have the most power to propose bold emissions reductions policies. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, for instance, in last year’s proposed climate plan update, suggested gutting natural gas from existing buildings in the city, instead of just requiring electrification of new buildings, which is  what the city of Encinitas did with its plan.  

San Diego’s proposed plan, however, demonstrates how difficult a “net zero” strategy will be for the region. If San Diego achieves everything its draft plan lays out, the city still needs to find a way to cut about 2 million metric tons of emissions to reach “net zero.”   

Alyssa Muto, the director of the city’s Sustainability and Mobility Department, said the new blueprint would make significant progress toward the region’s goals.  

“As other cities … update their (plans) that delta will get closer and closer to zero.”