Palo Alto's evolving plan to curb carbon emissions faced a sharp rebuke Monday from numerous local environmentalists, who argued that the city is overstating its achievements while falling well short of its targets for combating climate change.
The criticism came as the City Council took a brief break from its immediate priority — responding to the coronavirus pandemic — to unanimously adopt a two-year plan aimed at getting the city closer to its goal of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline. The council had adopted the goal — known as 80/30 — in 2016 and has since taken some steps to advance it, including raising the energy efficiency standards in new buildings, retiring the sewage-burning incinerators near the Baylands and launching a carbon-offset program for natural gas.
That said, the city has failed to meet its energy efficiency goals for 2019 and is not on track to meet this year's goals either, said Christine Luong, the city's sustainability manager. It has achieved electric efficiency savings of 0.61% and gas efficiency savings of 0.44% in fiscal year 2019.
The city also did not meet its targets for building electrification, she said. Luong attributed this largely to higher expenses of retrofitting gas appliances in existing buildings and higher operational costs of heat pump equipment.
Many of the actions in the two-year plan build on efforts that the city had previously launched, including continued promotion of electric vehicles and enforcement of the new requirement for "all electric" buildings. While the requirement currently applies to low-rise residential buildings, next year it also will include commercial and high-rise residential buildings.
But even with these steps, the city has curbed emissions by only about 36%, with the vast majority of the decrease attributed to the council's shift to "carbon neutral" electricity in 2013. If the carbon offsets are factored in, the city's reduction is about 56.5%, according to the Public Works Department.
Despite the progress, residents maintained that the proposed steps are insufficient to meet the goal, which requires the city to reduce its carbon emissions by 224,600 metric tons annually. The advocacy group Carbon Free Palo Alto criticized the city in a letter for what it called a "longstanding disconnect between our GHG reduction goal and Palo Alto's program results and plans."
The group argued that the city has not seen significant reductions in emissions since 2013 and does not have any programs that could feasibly scale to the 80/30 goal.
"From this perspective, City Staff and Council have collectively made no substantive progress on implementing our official City climate policy," the letter stated.
Resident David Page called the updated plan "an embarrassment."
"There's so little that Palo Alto has done and so much that it has taken credit for, given the nature of the problem and the magnitude of the consequences that are headed in our direction," Page said.
David Coale, a longtime advocate for climate change initiatives, criticized the city for failing to report its progress on the 80% reduction goal or to lay out tangible actions that need to be taken to meet the goal. Coale estimated that getting to the desired reduction would require converting 2,300 water heating systems from natural gas to electricity, as well as 1,400 space heating systems. It also would entail converting about 8,600 vehicles every year from gas to electric.
"We really need to have that kind of reporting, based on the goal that we need to get to, not relative to our neighboring cities," Coale said. "Because this is an absolute goal. It was set by good science and great models. Just like the way we're battling the coronavirus, we need to pay attention to the science here and act accordingly."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss compared the process of cutting carbon to losing weight, where you "start with a big bang and lose all that weight and then forevermore, you're trying to lose that 5 or 10 pounds."
"I think maybe we need to look ahead and say, 'How do we get that final result that we'll be after?'" Kniss said.
Kniss acknowledged that reducing natural gas by half is going to be a "true challenge." Even though the city is now mandating all-electric homes, it will be a long time for that to make a difference, given the small number of homes that get constructed every year.
The council didn't propose any new initiatives on Monday, though members reiterated the desire to see more electric vehicles. The two-year Sustainability Implementation Plan, which the council unanimously adopted, calls for a greater focus on the installation of charging equipment for electric vehicles at low-income homes.
"I think we really need to focus on electric vehicles and keep driving that adoption rate up in the city," said Vice Mayor Tom DuBois. "We're going to add in the electrified heating and cooling for homes and businesses, but a really strong focus on electric vehicles I think is going to go a long way."