Sunday Commentary: Spiraling Greenhouse Gas Emissions at DISC?

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Think globally, act locally.  That has been the rallying cry of the environmental movement for decades and as we have seen the failure of leadership at the national level, state and local communities have attempted to reduce their carbon footprint at the more local level, hoping that their actions will inspire broader-based national leadership.

In principle, while Davis’ contribution to the world’s carbon footprint is basically nill, there has to be something that we can do.

However, those goals can cause us to lose sight of a bigger picture.  What can increase the carbon footprint at the local level might actually reduce the planet’s carbon footprint overall—and in different ways.

In my view, the opponents to the DISC project have lost site of this dilemma when they charge that there are “spiraling greenhouse gas emissions” coming from the Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus.

This is a freeway-oriented transit project, the opposition will argue.  And they have a point, but the rest of the argument misses the fact that, while it is true the project may increase Davis’ carbon footprint somewhat, it has the potential to reduce the global footprint and that is the metric we should be paying attention to.

In the opposition ballot argument, the opponents write: “Directly resulting from this debilitating traffic, these greenhouse gas emissions will destroy our City’s Climate Emergency Resolution mandating carbon neutrality by 2040. The projected unmitigated emissions from DISC alone will increase the City’s annual emissions by 8% or over 83 million pounds/year!”

They add: “Although the Developer promises DISC will be carbon neutral, this can only be achieved by buying cheap offsite carbon credits that do nothing to reduce the City’s real carbon footprint. It is unfair to burden our children and grandchildren with this legacy of harmful greenhouse gases for the sake of Developer profits.”

A lot of people are likely to be moved by this argument but it has one huge flaw.  Davis is not an island unto itself.

The problem for the opponents is that the project here is not conjuring people and jobs out of thin air.  Rather, it is relocating where people and jobs will move.

As one person put it to me yesterday, this is at best a push.  You simply take jobs that might have landed somewhere else but have landed here.

We can actually accept that assessment and go home.  The concession that it is a push basically negates the idea that we are creating an unfair burden on our children.

But I want to go further than that.

When baseball launched the sabermetrics movement they created tools by which to assess the value of players, noting that traditional measures like batting average, home runs, and RBIs on the hitter side were insufficient.

They thus created the concept of WAR—wins above replacement—and while I won’t go into the details here, the basic idea was they established a baseline replacement level player and assessed how many additional wins said player would produce over the replacement level.

This is important because you don’t replace a player with no one.  You still get production if you lose Barry Bonds, for example, who had one of the highest WARs in a single season in history—you just lose some value.

Here, we can think of it in terms of CRAR—Carbon Reduction Above Replacement.  It is an acknowledgment that we are not creating a carbon impact by building in Davis, we are transferring that impact from a generic location to another.

The best way to think about this is that carbon emissions are largely a zero-sum game in terms of global impacts.  In other words, if I move 10 jobs to Davis, I’m removing 10 jobs from somewhere else.  The sheer fact that I create 10 jobs in Davis does not all of sudden add those jobs to the planet.

So the only real consideration here is whether the jobs or impact created by this project is greater than the impact created by the jobs being located elsewhere.

There will be plenty of disagreement on this point.

The developer is pushing its sustainability features.  They agreed to passive heating and cooling by design, 100 percent clean energy, photovoltaics, the project to sell and distribute electricity on-site to Valley Clean Energy, residential to be all-electric, and outdoor to be net-zero.

But not everyone buys into the sustainability of this project.

The opponents point out,  “Although the Developer promises DISC will be carbon neutral, this can only be achieved by buying cheap offsite carbon credits that do nothing to reduce the City’s real carbon footprint.”

Others have pointed out that Davis’ building standards are effective the same as the State of California’s, and therefore the efficiency difference between the DISC project and a project in the other California locations is going to be minuscule.

On the other hand, another person I spoke with agrees that any new development anywhere is going to increase carbon footprints so it is a matter of whether the project is in a location that will provide a relative benefit—and in this case, it is better to have it close to a research university than far away, and many other communities elsewhere in the country will not require the type of sustainability features this one has.

The bottom line here is that, from a global perspective, the carbon footprint is at worst a push, and possibly and arguably better depending on whom you ask.

A key question will be should we be concerned if this increases the city’s carbon footprint by 8 percent, if it decreases the overall carbon footprint on the planet (or at worst is offset by reductions elsewhere)?

Some have offered the argument that the opposition is not making an argument about global impact—they are making an argument about local impact.  And there is a belief that the city of Davis, which has laid out carbon reduction goals, should be held accountable.

But to me, this is a bit absurd.  For the sake of the planet, it doesn’t matter what happens in Davis, what matters is the global balance of carbon emissions.  And this project should not increase that.

We can argue—as we will—whether DISC is more energy-efficient than the replacement site, but I think at worst we get to a push here.

There is one additional aspect of this—are the values of Davis and UC Davis helping produce products that will further help to reduce GHG emissions?  In other words, because clean technology and green technology will be a critical component of our community and thus the potential of the innovation center, it is conceivable at least that, just as our efforts at food science and food production can help potentially to feed the world, our efforts at developing clean technology can further help to reduce carbon emissions globally.

That’s of course both speculative and aspirational, but it does speak to one of my motivations for supporting a project like this.  Namely, I believe we can help develop technologies that can help further reduce our carbon footprint.

At the end of the day, reasonable people will disagree over how green this project actually is, but I think we have at least shown that overall this should not be a net addition to carbon emissions on a global scale.

—-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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5 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Spiraling Greenhouse Gas Emissions at DISC?”

  1. Ron Glick

    The opponents produce a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas, that is one or two powers of ten more heat trapping than carbon dioxide.

    I wonder how many of the opponents live in all electric solar powered homes and drive renewable powered electric vehicles?

    Makes you wonder why anyone would make any concessions at all in trying to get a project approved in Davis because no matter how hard you try it will never be good enough to win over the “I have mine” opponents of everything.

  2. Alan Miller

    because clean technology and green technology will be a critical component of our community and thus the potential of the innovation center, it is conceivable at least that, just as our efforts at food science and food production can help potentially to feed the world, our efforts at developing clean technology can further help to reduce carbon emissions globally.

    Utopia now!

  3. Alan Miller

    The Donkey Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion . . .

    The only thing that will truly reduce the global carbon footprint is a significant reduction in global human population, such as from a global pandemic brought about by a virus created by the collective anger of every stone, tree & flower for what mankind has wrought upon this Earth.

    The Donkey Headed Adversary of Humanity Closes the Book!

    1. Richard McCann

      Truly donkey headed…

      Look at the chart at the top of p. 4 of this CARB report–population increasing while GHG emissions are falling, and California certaintly had not aggressively implemented its measures by 2017. There is so much waste in our current system in food production, especially related to animal products, and transportation, especially in increasing horsepower instead of fuel economy (there’s a direct tradeoff), that we have lots of room to reduce for quite a while (and it can’t happen overnight).

      https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/cc/inventory/pubs/reports/2000_2016/ghg_inventory_trends_00-16.pdf

      Population growth is forecasted to peak at 11B in 2100 and then decline.

      https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth

      1. Alan Miller

        Population growth is forecasted to peak at 11B in 2100 and then decline.

        If I was going to be around in 2100, I’d place a bet of $100 (adjusted for 80 years of inflation) that it’s going to happen a lot sooner than that.

        Truly donkey headed…

        #bray!#

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