The goal is clear: an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.
Palo Alto's path to getting there, however, is anything but. And even as the City Council last week reaffirmed its commitment to the "80 by '30" target (with 1990 as the baseline year), members and city staff acknowledged that it will take plenty of brainstorming, investments, incentives and adjustments along the way to succeed.
The uncertainty is reflected in the framework that the council approved on Nov. 28 for the city's new Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, an ambitious document that has been in the works for the past two years and that will serve as the city's road map for achieving the goal. The newly adopted framework doesn't spell out how the city will achieve the reduction. It does, however, spell out the criteria that the city will use to come up with new policies and offers insights into the types of programs residents should expect to see in the coming years.
A key focus area of the new plan is transportation, which accounts for 61 percent of the city's carbon footprint and which also happens to be a top priority of both residents and council members. To cope with transportation-related emissions, the plan leans heavily on promoting electric vehicles, with a target of having 90 percent of vehicles in Palo Alto be "zero emission" by 2030. In addition, it sets as a target getting 50 percent of the vehicles that arrive to Palo Alto from elsewhere to be "zero emission."
The charge toward toward electric vehicles isn't the only major effort in the plan. Other programs call for providing "universal transit passes" to about 75 percent of residents and employees by 2030 and for instituting parking pricing at all of the city's parking facilities and at 50 percent of private parking sites.
But according to the new framework, vehicle electrification offers the most potential, particularly given the city's adoption in 2014 of a "carbon free" electric portfolio. If the city achieves its goals of electrifying both Palo Alto-based and inbound vehicles, it would slash local emissions by 24 percent -- a greater reduction than any other strategy could feasibly achieve, according to the plan.
Other major carbon-slashing initiatives involve switching residential heating systems from natural gas to electricity (10 percent reduction), electrifying water-heating in local businesses (9 percent) and providing more transit options (9 percent).
During its Nov. 30 discussion of the new framework, some council members were incredulous about having 90 percent of Palo Alto-based vehicles be electric by 2030. Council Tom DuBois said the council and the community really need to see the details behind the proposal because otherwise, "it just sounds unbelievable."
Even so, he joined the rest of the council in approving the framework for the plan, which the city plans to adopt next year. Between now and then, the city will be putting together a series of "sustainability implementation plans" that will spell out in greater details the actions that the city will have to take to meet its emission-reduction goals.
In endorsing the framework for the new plan, the council unanimously accepted the plans' broad definition of "sustainability." The term, according to this adopted framework, should be understood in its “broadest dimensions, including quality of life, the natural environment and resilience, and not just climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reduction.” Other guiding principles call for building resiliency, gathering input on new policy from all community stakeholders, focusing on those sustainability programs that are most cost-effective and important to the community.
Another feature of the new document is a set of "design principles" for guiding the effort, which includes a focus on "what's feasible" and a preference toward "flexible platforms" practical near-term steps that “expand rather than restrict capacity for future actions and pivots.”
The adopting the framework, the council also endorsed the idea proposed by Chief Sustainability Officer Gil Friend to progressively amend the plan as circumstances change and to come up with specific "implementation plans" with smaller time frames and more specific actions. These plans would be updated every five years.
The council found plenty to like in the new document, particularly when it comes to transportation. Solving the problem of Palo Alto's traffic congestion will not only help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions but address one of its most significant and persistent "quality of life" complaints.
"If we provide – not a negative 'anti-car' (option) – but a positive option for those who prefer it to walk or bike or take public transit or telecommute, that provides less congestion for those who do choose to drive, provides a good quality of life for them while also achieving greenhouse-gas reduction," Wolbach said. "I think there are opportunities for win-wins here."
DuBois also emphasized that for many people driving makes sense and that if Palo Alto's policies are perceived as "anti-automobile" as opposed to "anti-internal combustion engine," the city can make poor policy decisions. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff also said that driving isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly if people are switching to emission-free cars.
Friend agreed. The point of the plan, he said, is not to say that cars are bad but that "greenhouse emissions are bad and that congestion is bad."
"That's what we hear from our citizens all the time," Friend said. "It's one of the primary concerns in this community. So strategies that can both reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce congestion would be strategies that we want to prioritize."