My View: Why Wait Till 2045 for Carbon Neutrality

This week in an event probably overshadowed by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the mayors of Sacramento and West Sacramento—Darrell Steinberg and Christopher Cabaldon, respectively—came forward with a draft report that would allow their cities to achieve carbon zero by 2045.

Recognizing the urgent need to act on climate change, the two mayors in November 2018 launched the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change in order to develop recommendations to achieve carbon zero in now 25 years.

Some of their plans include:

  • Mandate all-electric construction to eliminate fossil-fuel use in new buildings by 2023.
  • Transition 25 percent of existing residential and small commercial buildings to all electric by 2030.
  • 30 percent of all residents’ trips are to be by active transportation by 2030, with 40 percent by 2040.
  • 30 percent of all trips are to be by transit and carpools by 2030, with 50 percent by 2045.
  • 70 percent of new vehicle registrations will be for zero-emission vehicles by 2030.
  • Ensure that all neighborhoods, starting with historically marginalized communities and tree-deficient neighborhoods, have access to green space within a quarter-mile by 2030, as well as a baseline canopy of 25 percent by 2030, and 35 percent by 2045.
  • Increase food security and access to healthy, affordable food for all communities by sourcing 25 percent of food locally within a 200-mile radius by 2030, and 40 percent by 2045.
  • Establish a “food recovery to food security” network
  • Expand free or affordable zero-emission vehicle carshare programs
  • Establish “car-free districts” on weekend nights in areas that offer local commerce, recreation, arts and culture.
  • Adopt policies that support telecommuting.

“The cities should reassess their telecommuting policies to allow more staff to work remotely and partner with the chambers of commerce to encourage employers to continue telecommuting programs,” the report said.

To me, as I pointed out last week, the last one is the key.

While I applaud the two mayors for being forward thinking, my overall view is that 25 years is too long and the area proposed is too limited.  I say the last point with a good deal of caveat because I firmly believe that local initiatives on climate change are actually the key—act locally to expand policies globally.

But at the same time, I think we have an historic opportunity to get to carbon neutrality and maybe even zero carbon much sooner than 2045.  As I pointed out in last Sunday’s column, we already have the disruption event in place.  The economy has been halted.  People are working from home.  Some can stay there.  Others can simply change the way they work.

The opportunity is now.  An April 22 Bloomberg report found that seven major global cities experience between a 25 to 65 percent reduction in fine particulate matter during the lockdown.  These are: Los Angeles, New York, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Delhi, Seoul and Wuhan.

This is not good news, but it does show us a path.

“This isn’t the way we would’ve wanted things to happen, God no,” said Gina McCarthy, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration. “This is just a disaster that pointed out the underlying challenges we face. It’s not something to celebrate.”

The bad news, as the Guardian points out, is “the pain of the Covid-19 shutdown has highlighted how ponderous the world’s response has been – the expected cut in emissions, for example, is still less than what scientists say is needed every year this decade to avoid disastrous climate impacts for much of the world.”

“It’s the worst possible way to experience environment improvement and it has also shown us the size of the task,” said Michael Gerrard, an environmental law expert at Columbia University.

And it’s only short term.

“This drop of emissions of six per cent, that’s unfortunately (only) short-term good news”, said Professor Petteri Taalas, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General, in reference to a 5.5 to 5.7 per cent fall in levels of carbon dioxide due to the pandemic, that have been flagged by leading climate experts, including the Center for International Climate Research.

“There might even be a boost in emissions because some of the industries have been stopped”, the WMO head cautioned.

But it does point the way.  And the key in my view would be long term declines in automobile traffic.

I spent much of this week both implementing a very ambitious new business model for the Vanguard, taking advantage of the new realities and what we have learned from them, and also talking to many leading people in these circles.

Talking to economic development people, they believe that the Sacramento region has weathered this storm better than many other areas.  In part that is because of the focus on high tech industry.  But they worry about where the economy is going to head if we continue on the shut down.

COVID has probably changed the way a lot of companies are going to do business.  Some have said they will now no longer seek to upgrade their commercial space because they have learned to do much more in the way of telecommuting.

The problem of course is that telecommuting works for some industries, not others.  So a lot of blue collar jobs, manufacturing, and R&D and labs will require people to work on site.

Contrary to the perception by many, telecommuting doesn’t just mean working from home.  More importantly it means potentially less travel.  I talked to several business people who told me that they used to travel to do pitches to business groups, and they would drive for several hours, do an hour pitch to 10 to 15 people, turn around and come back.

Now they can do it via Zoom, they can speak to the entire company, 300 to 400 people at multiple locations and do it from their office in Sacramento.  Why would they ever go back?

It is not a telecommute issue but I was talking to some on the city council who like the call in public comment enough that they will likely push to keep it in place even after restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.

The question is how much of an impact we can have, and how much of the economy we can figure out ways to restart without endangering the public.

My question I posed to several is whether a 40 percent reduction in traffic would have a tremendous benefit.  The answer was yes.  In so many ways.  Costs for the employee.  Costs for the employer.  Environmental costs.  Road maintenance costs.  Road capacity upgrade needs.

My recommendation then would be for everyone to figure out a way to make the traffic reduction permanent.  How we can reduce vehicle trips and VMT.  That is the key to getting to carbon neutrality in the next decade.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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34 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    I’ve got an idea, how about we try to avoid a deep recession and possibly a depression and get the economy rolling again before California starts solving the world’s problems.

  2. Don Shor

    I’ll keep this simple. When you were working downtown, how often in a given week did you buy lunch instead of bringing it? How often did you meet people for interviews at a local coffee shop, or go out to a bar at the end of the day? How often do you do any of those things now?

    Your repeated suggestion that people stop using commercial real estate for commerce would be a disaster for the downtown, and I suggest you just multiply that out by the thousands or hundreds of thousands who might adopt your suggestion.

    For the next 2 – 4 years, governments at all levels are going to need to focus on

    • unprecedented deficits
    • restoring local and regional responsiveness to pandemics
    • propping up industries that will be slow to rebuild
    • restoring employment.

    Any suggestion that interferes with restoring employment, or requires any more massive government financial investment, is probably a non-starter right now. With tens of millions out of work, getting people back to their current or pre-existing jobs needs to be the top priority. I don’t think most people are looking for a “pivot” right now.

    1. David Greenwald

      I still do work downtown, I have used less than one tank of gas this entire month. There is not much open downtown at this point – a few restaurants that serve to go, a few coffee shops. I suspect many places will never come back. Your suggestion is that we simply attempt to restart the economy the way it was. My suggestion is we use this disruption to do what we needed to do anyway – shift our economy. That will not be a simple task by any means.

      1. Don Shor

        Your suggestion is that we simply attempt to restart the economy the way it was.

        My suggestion is that those who have jobs be more sensitive to the situations of those who don’t.

        1. Tia Will

          Don

          I am completely sensitive to the issues of those who have lost jobs. My son lost the entirety of his self-built business overnight. That does not stop either him or me from realizing that returning to a failing business model while it may tide some people over in the short term ( as would a UBI) it is an extremely poor long term strategy.

    2. Tia Will

      Don

      I disagree with your analysis. The downtown had taken a downturn in brick and mortar business long prior to the advent of COVID-19. Many downtown business owners were trying to soldier on using the same model of business, but many were failing as multiple articles attest to.

      This is a horrible crisis, but it exists, and to ignore the problems that preceded it as well as the challenges posed by it is in my opinion very short-sighted and counterproductive. We must necessarily be seeking improved solutions and behaviors, not a return to that which was already failing.

    3. Richard McCann

      Don

      I agree with Tia. The brick & mortar model was already failing. Shopping malls were going into bankruptcy before this–this event will only hasten that trend. And now businesses are discovering that their workforce can telecommute very effectively, while office rents in agglomeration centers like SF and NYC have skyrocketed. Downtown businesses will also have to adjust, and that may mean that some are closing. The Downtown Plan gives us an opportunity to adjust our vision of what that might look like and actually develop an economic development plan that then must be carried out by City staff.

      Commercial real estate values are at a precipice, and given that so many of those property owners extol the virtues of capitalism, it’s time to let them have the “full body experience”–including bankruptcy if need be. Financial institutions also will need to suffer losses in shareholder wealth from that same trend. We need to avoid repeating the mistake in 2009 of propping up the wealthy on the premise that it is necessary to save the economy. Instead we need to demand that they also share in this costs of this restructuring (including paying back at least the $2.5 trillion doled out so far).

    4. Alan Miller

      Your repeated suggestion that people stop using commercial real estate for commerce

      DS, this is hardly a suggestion, this is fact.  Companies are hemorrhaging cash and considering wholesale abandonment of some buildings in favor of telecommuting.  Between UCD possibly having at least students continue to do classes on line in the Fall, and some jobs going home, there will be less downtown retail business, just like the rest of the country.  DG can’t wish empty buildings into being, it’s already being seen as inevitable part on NN (new normal).

      1. Don Shor

        Two of the oldest retailers in the downtown were able to sell their businesses recently, and my understanding is both got very nearly the asking price. So evidently the death of downtown Davis is much exaggerated. But some of the comments on this thread have been quite unsettling to me. I really have no idea now what David is trying to say in these essays.

    1. Bill Marshall

      What is truly interesting is those who not only support, but want to mandate a “green-based economy/recovery” (aka ‘pivoting?’).   “Green-based” is truly a ‘squishy term’.  Means different things to different folk.

      John H asked about right wing folk… he was somewhat correct… ‘progressives’ believe they know the “answers”, and want to force everyone else to agree, by law… both ends of the bell curve are, well, …

      1. David Greenwald

        I don’t think it’s that squishy at this point. Green-based means techniques and practices that reduce GHG. I don’t see a good way to reduce carbon emissions without requiring it.

      2. Dave Hart

        Progressives do know the answers, that is why they are progressive and not regressive.  Progressives knew the answer that child labor in the 19th and early 20th century was abominable and that only a law that forced it to disappear would work because of the inherent greed of the right wing folk who insisted such laws would destroy their livelihood.  It is only because it was so long ago that it is no longer a controversy.  Progressives now are in the same situation of having a clear vision of what is a better world and laws are a tool to make that happen.  Outlawing child labor and outlawing carbon emissions will be viewed in the same way if we survive as a species and society for another 100 years.

  3. Don Shor

    Mandate all-electric construction to eliminate fossil-fuel use in new buildings by 2023.

    ok, I guess.

    Transition 25 percent of existing residential and small commercial buildings to all electric by 2030.

    who will pay for this?

    30 percent of all residents’ trips are to be by active transportation by 2030, with 40 percent by 2040.

    Very unlikely

    30 percent of all trips are to be by transit and carpools by 2030, with 50 percent by 2045.

    very, very unlikely

    70 percent of new vehicle registrations will be for zero-emission vehicles by 2030.

    not a chance

    Ensure that all neighborhoods, starting with historically marginalized communities and tree-deficient neighborhoods, have access to green space within a quarter-mile by 2030, as well as a baseline canopy of 25 percent by 2030, and 35 percent by 2045.

    excellent idea

    Increase food security and access to healthy, affordable food for all communities by sourcing 25 percent of food locally within a 200-mile radius by 2030, and 40 percent by 2045.

    How is this going to be mandated?

    Establish a “food recovery to food security” network

    Sure. Not sure what this means.

    Expand free or affordable zero-emission vehicle carshare programs

    Paid for by whom?

    Establish “car-free districts” on weekend nights in areas that offer local commerce, recreation, arts and culture.

    Oh for god’s sake, just stop this idea once and for all.

    Adopt policies that support telecommuting.

    Are there policies that don’t allow it or something?

    1. Richard McCann

      – who will pay for all electric retrofits? Developers buying GHG offsets (look for this one in the City’s upcoming CAP)

      – 70% of new vehicles as all electric by 2030? Try 100% of personal vehicles as battery prices continue to fall precipitously, and manufacturers decide scale economies cause them switch rather than try to produce a dual line of motors. Long haul trucking and rail, and off road equipment are more challenging.

      – Local food sources don’t impact GHG much. The much, much bigger impact is increasing plant-based food products and purchasing. The pandemic has revealed faults in the meat packing industry that may sharply curtail production which in turn could increase prices dramatically and cause demand to fall.

      – Food recovery – all ready mandated by state law. Look for more action on this soon statewide.

      – Low cost car share – paid for from the state’s cap and trade program revenues

      – Establish car free districts – these are thriving in Europe and larger US cities are already moving this direction.

      – Telecommuting – Yes, there are certain labor code elements that I understand create barriers. Also companies have their own policies barring this (it doesn’t say “government” policies). As I posted above, this is probably coming anyway as firms discovered that a third of their workforce can telecommute without much productivity loss. I see the rise of condensed offices with conference rooms and shared desks.

      1. Don Shor

        – 70% of new vehicles as all electric by 2030? Try 100% of personal vehicles as battery prices continue to fall precipitously, and manufacturers decide scale economies cause them switch rather than try to produce a dual line of motors. Long haul trucking and rail, and off road equipment are more challenging.

        Electric car use in the US, per Wikipedia, is 0.45% as of 2018. “Try 100%” by 2030? Not a chance. Electrics and hybrids are a niche market. Growing, but very unlikely to supplant regular vehicles in the next generation. But I’m not an expert on this. Do you have substantiation from industry analysts that suggests electric vehicles will dominate the American market in the next decade?

        – Local food sources don’t impact GHG much. The much, much bigger impact is increasing plant-based food products and purchasing. The pandemic has revealed faults in the meat packing industry that may sharply curtail production which in turn could increase prices dramatically and cause demand to fall.

        Plant-based food products will increase, but American taste for meat is unlikely to change significantly. Only 5% of Americans are vegetarian. Any drop in demand based on short-term spot shortages is likely to be of very short duration.

        – Low cost car share – paid for from the state’s cap and trade program revenues

        As I mentioned, the state and local government fiscal conditions are going to be quite dire for the next couple of years. Look for any pot of funds to be raided as they grapple with pandemic costs, reduced tax revenues, and ongoing pension cost increases.

        – Establish car free districts – these are thriving in Europe and larger US cities are already moving this direction.

        They exist. They have been a standard item in new urbanist planning for decades. I see no sense in which they are “thriving.”

        – Telecommuting – Yes, there are certain labor code elements that I understand create barriers. Also companies have their own policies barring this (it doesn’t say “government” policies). As I posted above, this is probably coming anyway as firms discovered that a third of their workforce can telecommute without much productivity loss. I see the rise of condensed offices with conference rooms and shared desks.

        And yet, after a second essay on the benefits of this practice, we learn that David – who presumably has complete autonomy over that decision at his job – continues to go to the office.
        If companies see benefits that exceed the costs, they’ll allow it. If not, they won’t. I don’t really see a role for government in that decision, but I’m not familiar with the labor code issues you’ve raised.

        1. David Greenwald

          Yes Don, I drive to the office (again less than one tank of gas in a month).  And then I telecommute all over the country.  The scale of what we are doing on the court stuff is amazing and something we could never have done before. Our interns right now are scattered across the state, we are penetrating into courthouses, meeting by Zoom, etc. I was driving twice a week to SF, now I can do the same thing via Zoom. This is nothing short of revolutionary.

        2. Keith Olsen

          You act like teleconferencing is some great new invention and started with Zoom.  It’s been around for decades.  So it’s not so “revolutionary” as you say.

        3. Dave Hart

          Electric car use in the US, per Wikipedia, is 0.45% as of 2018. “Try 100%” by 2030? Not a chance. Electrics and hybrids are a niche market. Growing, but very unlikely to supplant regular vehicles in the next generation. But I’m not an expert on this. Do you have substantiation from industry analysts that suggests electric vehicles will dominate the American market in the next decade?

          Don, I truly believe that the only impediment to this is that not enough people have actually driven an electric vehicle.  They are flat out so much more fun to drive, that the only thing holding back 100% is people seem to be afraid to try them.  The only drawback is that they will seriously impact walking and cycling for short local trips.  I have found that I am making trips in the electric car that I used to make on bicycle.  I make up reasons for driving it now.  My late model gasoline SUV has only been driven once since December because I was worried the battery would run down from disuse.  I used to love driving it, but it no longer has the lure.  Yeah, electric is just more fun.

          1. Don Shor

            I think the biggest impediment is the initial cost and the repair costs, and the lack of a secondary market. My employees talk about cars all the time, and EV’s are just out of the question for them. “Affordable” EV’s start at $32000. For most of my customers who have them, they’re a second vehicle used for short shopping trips.

  4. Richard McCann

    So after responding to Don’s issues, I’m going to throw out some different set of obstacles, and make a larger point.

    First, why do we need to pick a specific date for announcing that we’ve transformed the economy? This is such a large effort that we need to break this down into manageable pieces, and make sure that the efforts are coordinated among them. For example, we need to push for full transportation electrification, but we also need to discuss how this can be coordinated with the electricity system to provide enough renewable power and to derive the benefits of having free electricity storage sitting in our driveways 95% of the time.

    Second, commuting is only about a third of our driving mileage based on travel surveys from a decade ago (unfortunately stopped). What do we do about the other two-thirds of the trips? Even if new vehicles are 100% electric by 2030, existing vehicles now have expected lives of a dozen years and more. So half of the 2029 fleet will still be on the road in 2040. What will we be doing to cut down those leisure and task trips?

    Third, if 75% of the homes are still on natural gas, how do we make more of them all electric? I’m sitting in a house that’s more than 60 years old so these houses are lasting longer than anticipated.

    So I’m not very interested in the target date for “zero carbon” as much as I am in what are the feasible steps for getting there regardless of when.

  5. Ron Glick

    I think a big point missing here is what we learn about ourselves during this crisis. It should be obvious by now that we can have many more work days from home than before the pandemic. The technology was already there but there was structural resistance that should now be re-evaluated.

    Working from home where possible saves the energy used in commuting, de-clogs  the roads, improves air quality, reduces the need for office space, reduces stress in the working class and saves time. If we are traveling 25 minutes on average to get to work then working from home saves 50 minutes of commute time each day on average per stay at home worker.

    The positives are so many that I don’t see the clock getting turned back on this. Rather than pushing pie in the sky solutions we could easily move forward simply by picking the low hanging fruit made obvious by current conditions.

    1. Keith Olsen

      I totally agree here with you.  When it can be done working from home is mostly a good thing.  But we don’t need to remake or pivot the whole economy in order to do this.  This is just an adjustment that many businesses can make when it fits their model.

      1. David Greenwald

        You’re missing the fact that this does remake or pivot the economy. If we save money on gas, save wear on roads, etc., that changes the fundamental nature of the economy.

  6. John Hobbs

    “picking the low hanging fruit made obvious by current conditions.”

    Too simple for some brilliant minds I’m guessing, but I agree, the off-ramp is clearly posted if anyone cares to take it. The 19th century education and business models, so obviously archaic, hold great sentimental value to some and great financial value to a few.

  7. Dave Hart

    I’d be interested to know how the entire electric grid is situated to eliminating methane use and replacing it with electricity.  I don’t think my 1974 house with 100-amp service can accommodate all electric appliances and provide for an electric vehicle, let alone two electric vehicles.  That is where the planning has to take place first, and only then ways to help people convert away from methane.

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