Los Angeles’ Sustainable City “pLAn,” a four-part series (part II)
This is the second in a four-part series on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s sustainability pLAn.
You can catch up on Part I here.
Environmental action and renewable energy are the most vital issues of our lifetime, and arguably of the history of humanity. Like the Paris Agreement, Garcetti’s pLAn throws around a lot of big numbers and target dates that at first blush can sound sweeping and ambitious. The scale and rate of change necessary to ensure our survival here on earth, however, is far beyond what most of us understand. As mentioned in the opening to this series, the pLAn is a purely aspirational document with no enforcement mechanisms. It is less ambitious than the targets outlined in Paris, which itself was much too modest to keep us below the nonscientific, political goal of 2o Celsius.
With that said, for convenience this article will ignore the Paris Agreement and evaluate pLAn in terms of the current scientific consensus on what is necessary, with occasional comparisons to other U.S. cities’ greenhouse gas emission targets to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Los Angeles is taking any kind of leadership role. Now, for the bad news.
We have three years to act on the climate crisis.
Yes you read that right. The window for drastic action closes in 2020, and even that will only avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In an open letter, former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and others write: “The maths is brutally clear: while the world can’t be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence [before] 2020.”
Earlier this year, an article published in Science outlined a global carbon trajectory based on “Moore’s Law” of computing. “Moore’s law, is the observation that innovation doubles the number of transistors on a computer chip about every two years and it has held true for 50 years” (first link in original). Johan Rockström of Stockholm University, the article’s lead author, found that basically carbon emissions will need to halve every decade between now and 2050, with concurrent exponential growth in renewable energy and as-yet undeveloped carbon capture technologies.
To accomplish this, coal use must disappear by 2030 and oil by 2040. For this to happen, the “no-brainer” policies suggested include an immediate end to the estimated $5.3 TRILLION in annual subsidies given globally to the fossil fuel industry, as well as a $50 per ton tax placed on carbon. As a side note, in lieu of a carbon tax, the Democrat-controlled California Senate just passed, with the full-throated endorsement of Governor Jerry Brown, SB398, which is a cap-and-trade scam written by the fossil fuel lobby.
Now to Los Angeles.
Because we live in a desert and our forebears lacked the imagination for a goddamned water-reclamation system and instead let all rainwater and runoff flow freely down to Long Beach and into the fucking ocean, and even paved over the LA River to expedite the trip, the Environment section of pLAn begins with “Local Water.” Followed by Local Solar, Energy-Efficient Buildings, the laughable Carbon & Climate Leadership, and finally ends where the entire pLAn belongs: Waste & Landfills.
One of the actionable items in pLAn is the creation of a Water Cabinet to advise the Mayor’s office on water and drought related issues. This has been done, and one of their first orders of business was to increase rebates to homeowners who replace their lawns with drought-resistant landscaping or astroturf. The long term efficacy of tearing up grass all over the city is questionable, as our trees rely on the water contained by the root structure of all those lawns. And, obviously, the financial benefit of these rebates is available only to those Angelenos who own property in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, if not the world.
The next order of business is to secure increased funding for the already in-process clean up the San Fernando Groundwater Basin. This is all to the good, so long as money is actually found. The same goes for the goal of improving our water supply infrastructure and water recycling capabilities.
Another plus is the increased use of permeable pavement in large construction projects and increased green infrastructure throughout the city, including bioswales and a number of other passive stormwater treatment features that people without a civic engineering degree will have to look up. Again, though, a reminder that in itself pLAn includes no funding mechanisms.
The rest of the Local Water section sets targets for reductions in water importation and water usage. For example, DWP will reduce its importation of water 50% by 2025, source 50% of our water locally by 2035, and we will reduce per capita usage 25% by 2035. But pLAn provides no explanation for how or why people will use less water.
A real cynic might say California would have plenty of water if we didn’t grow fruit and vegetables for the entire nation, and blaming the per capita usage of average citizens is merely deflecting attention away from industry. With a hamburger requiring around 660 gallons of water to produce, there could be something to that but this is the world we live in. Other cities facing an existential threat from drought are handling things a bit more aggressively.
San Diego, to give one nearby example, built a $1 billion desalination plant. Desalination is expensive, wildly inefficient, and comes with its own host of environmental issues. But in terms of showing a commitment to a secure water supply, our neighbors to the south spent one billion dollars on their future while we here in LA are spending our tax dollars on a new stadium for the Chargers.
In the category of “smack myself across the face repeatedly with a wet noodle for not having done this already,” pLAn calls for a solar installation on the roof of the LA Convention Center. As previously mentioned, we live in a desert. Around the world, in deserts the sun often shines. We should have solar panels on every flat surface, and this is where a rebate system like the one offered for lawncare could actually help.
Does pLAn include rebates to incentivize adding solar panels to privately owned roofs? No, of course it doesn’t. The pLAn calls for “expanding” the current program for low-income homeowners to install solar on single-family dwellings, but this program does not apply to commercial or multi-family residential. And in this context “low-income” equals 80% of the Area Median Income. You can find the AMI of your neighborhood here, and then ask yourself how on God’s beautiful earth anyone making that amount could possibly own a home on which to put a solar panel. (Spoiler alert: out of 272 neighborhoods, only the top 35 break $100,000/year for HOUSEHOLD income.)
Solar will very soon be the cheapest form of new energy on earth, easily beating coal within the next 10 years. Cheapest to install and build, that is, since obviously once it is in place the sunshine part is free forever. The renewable energy mix should to be tailored to the needs of individual locations of course, but morally and financially there is simply no justification for not building solar everywhere.
The target is to reduce energy consumption for all building types to levels 30% below a 2013 baseline. It is unclear why 2013 is the baseline, but my guess would be that was a particularly heavy year for energy consumption. Anyway, pLAn calls for expanding the LA Better Building Challenge, which offers free consulting services to implement energy efficiency. (I won’t here cynically point out the inefficiency and waste that often accompanies consultants.) And it also calls for “assess[ing] options” to incentivize or (better) require LEED Silver, the second-to-lowest, certification or better for all new construction and major rehabilitation projects. LEED is a private sector nonprofit, but nevertheless badass, and the higher certification levels are not fucking around. For businesses LEED takes into account things you wouldn’t normally think of when it comes to building efficiency, things like employee commutes and public transit to and from your building, which pretty much already fucks all of Los Angeles.
CARBON & CLIMATE LEADERSHIP
This is where Los Angeles should really shine, the reason I personally am interested in pLAn as a document at all, and also the reason for the long background on global carbon emissions at the head of this article. And yet.
According to the completely non-binding and virtually ignored pLAn, LA will “have no ownership stake in coal-fired power plants by 2025.” Let that sink in for a minute. Coal, the fuel of the 19th century, will be in Los Angeles’ energy mix until at least 2025. And remember that coal use must entirely end worldwide by 2030.
No other improvements, tweaks, or renovations to either the power grid or transportation infrastructure will matter. No amount of electrified cars, buses, or even the newly unveiled pursuit-rated hybrid police cruiser will matter so long as the electricity charging those vehicles is generated by burning coal.
And since the near term, as in the next three short years, is the most crucial to our very existence, let’s look at pLAn’s near term “outcomes” one by one:
Establish a pathway to derive 50% of LADWP’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030
This would be monumentally insufficient on its own, but is even more pathetic when compared with Pittsburgh — the city Donald Trump cited in his farewell speech to the Paris Agreement — which has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2035. And also Las Vegas, which CURRENTLY runs 100% of its government with renewable energy. Oh, and the whole damned country of Germany.
Develop a comprehensive climate action and adaptation plan, including an annual standardized GHG inventory
Wait what? I thought this was the climate action plan.
Work with other cities to establish standardization of municipal and community-wide GHG inventory reporting in the US and globally
This one is good, if it means following the lead of Las Vegas and this partial list of other U.S. cities committed to 100% renewable energy: Atlanta, 2035; Salt Lake City, within 15 years; San Diego, 2035; San Francisco, 2030; San Jose, 2022; and the home of literally the most popular politician in America, Burlington, Vermont, which has been powered by 100% renewable energy for the last three years.
Lead mayors of US’ largest cities to sign on to the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agreement (MNCAA)
We’re not even close to leading cities in California, let alone the U.S. So perhaps we can hope that Garcetti will at least follow other mayors.
Accelerate the decarbonization of the electricity grid, including ceasing delivery of power from Navajo Generating Station
This right here is Mayor Eric Garcetti’s political career summed up in a single bullet point. Let me explain: the utility companies that own the Navajo Generating Station voted — themselves, on their own, out of their own capitalist self-interest — to close this coal-fired power plant when the lease expires at the end of 2019.
Yet “ceasing delivery of power” is included in pLAn as though some triumph of political will on the part of our mayor. Better get ready for more of this, as Garcetti’s future campaign ads are coming soon to a TV near you.
WASTE & LANDFILLS
LA is actually doing pretty well already on this front, relative to other U.S. cities. We are second in the nation, in fact, right behind San Francisco. The standard measure for waste management is “landfill diversion,” a vague but super-important sounding term that covers just about anything that keeps trash out of a garbage dump. A city’s “landfill diversion rate” is expressed in a percentage that indicates the relative size of a landfill from one year to the next.
LA’s current diversion rate is around 75%, astronomically higher than the national average of about 33%, and this means that our landfills are “only” getting 25% larger each year. Our long term goal, according to pLAn, is a 95% diversion rate by 2035.
The diversion part can be accomplished in a number of ways. Increased recycling (Garcetti’s already working on providing more homeless to scavenge your blue bins), incineration (great for the environment), composting (currently provided by some community centers and private entities around the city), a few other various methods, and my favorite: selling waste to a third party. Yes, that’s right, why wouldn’t there be a market for used trash. Perhaps we could sell it to Sweden, where they are recycling so hard they are running out of garbage.
A city-wide composting program could do great things, and if coupled with community gardening opportunities it could really help both food-insecure Angelenos and our overall environmental impact — given that the agricultural industry, and meat production specifically, generates more greenhouse gasses than global transportation combined (the numbers vary, but raising animals for meat and dairy account for approximately 18% of total greenhouse emissions). But pLAn is much more interested in recycled construction materials like asphalt for ever-increasing, unequal development projects.
To be honest, these are the kinds of things that frustrate me beyond all reason: interlocking and mutually-reinforcing problems that can easily be mitigated by small changes in how we structure our cities. Agriculture is responsible for 80% of California’s water use, and 14% of Americans (1 in 6) are food insecure — meaning they have limited access to adequate food or are not sure how they will be able to access adequate food (cutting medication pills in half to save money, and spending that money on food is a common example). Community garden centers, or an urban garden policy like the one recently begun in Paris that makes it easier for apartment-dwellers to grow food, would alleviate food insecurity at basically no cost. It would also dismantle the centralized agricultural system that is sucking the groundwater out of California’s Central Valley and destroying our aquifers. Aquifers never recover once depleted, and lest you think that is some far-off problem, Saudi Arabia permanently destroyed their groundwater supply in one generation of human life — 30 years.
A city-wide compost program would divert huge amounts of biodegradable waste from landfills, which would radically decrease methane emissions, and also provide organic, nutrient-rich soil for decentralized urban food production. Now, the Central Valley agriculture problem is nationwide in scale and will not be solved by gardens in Los Angeles, but a national shift in the way we think of farming would go a long way toward solving multiple existential threats. And who is going to lead the way, if not us?
With that, we conclude the Environment section of the Sustainable City pLAn. The next article in this series will address the Economy section.