It has been exciting to hear about the Green New Deal (GND) being talked about across the nation. Here at home, Palo Alto has committed to an 80-percent reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 — the 80-by-30 goal. This goal was adopted in 2016, so you could say Palo Alto has laid the groundwork for its GND already; but even though city staff has been working on this, the overall plan is not widely known. With California's recent Climate Action Summit in San Francisco last September, a United Nations report, and even the climate report from the White House, all saying that climate change is worsening at a faster pace than we thought, I think the City of Palo Alto needs to step up its efforts to enable our community to seriously address climate change.
The first step is to avoid continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and appliances that will likely become obsolete before the end of their useful life. The main opportunities to save here relate to transportation, and natural gas usage in buildings. They are the largest contributors to Palo Alto's GHG emissions, and we have efficient and cost-effective alternatives. Let's look at our transportation:
Currently, Palo Alto is planning to build a parking garage downtown at a cost of $29 million. This large expenditure would encourage more auto use and likely be underutilized as our transportation modes continue changing. Increasingly, the younger demographic is shying away from car ownership, choosing instead to use company buses/shuttles, public transit, ride-sharing services and other modes of transportation. Ride-sharing services and self-driving cars will become very important to our aging population as well, enabling safe and reliable mobility as driving becomes more difficult.
The money for the garage can be spent much more effectively on expanding the nonprofit Traffic Management Association's (TMA) alternative commuting program. (The association develops, manages and markets programs aimed at reducing traffic levels in downtown Palo Alto.)
By 2017, the association had reduced the number of single-driver service workers driving downtown by 10 percent by providing alternative commute incentives to their places of work. It plans to reduce driving by 30 percent (from a 2015 baseline of about 5,500 member employees) in the next few years with incentives that increase the use of carpooling, CalTrain, biking and walking. This change is being achieved at a tiny fraction of the cost of building new parking garages and allows for increased flexibility in managing parking demand. Plans are afoot to increase and expand these efforts to the Cal Ave area.
The other good news in transportation is that we have reached a 50-percent active transportation mode (walking, biking, skateboarding) share in our schools. Most of this is bicycle use. This change has reduced auto traffic and parking problems, promoted a healthy lifestyle, and freed up parents from school transportation all while reducing GHG emissions. While some of Palo Alto's bike infrastructure might not be perfect, continued investment in this area will serve us all well by enabling more of us to use active transportation modes. The success in our schools is an outstanding example of what concerted city-supported efforts can accomplish.
For our energy infrastructure, the time is right to modernize by moving away from natural gas to the city's carbon neutral electricity to power our homes and buildings. When you factor in the natural gas leakage (2-5 percent for California) from production, distribution and end-use in buildings, natural gas is no better than coal in terms of the GHG pollution that is created. We would never consider using coal to heat our homes, as was the common practice in the 1800s. The resulting pollution choked our cities and shortened our life span. The difference now is that the CO2, methane and other pollution from natural gas use is invisible. What is most visible are the effects of climate change that worsen "natural" disasters worldwide.
Again, here in Palo Alto, there is good news. The city has enjoyed carbon neutral electricity since 2013 at rates lower than our neighbors. Also, a recently completed study commissioned by the city showed that it is cost effective for all new homes and small businesses and major remodels to be built all-electric. The study looked at using modern heat-pump appliances for heating and cooling (hot water too) and induction cooking; not the old clunky resistive heating and cooking of yesteryear. These new appliances are three times more efficient than their gas counter parts, and are cheaper to operate so we can start gradually upgrading to electric homes in a cost effective and beneficial way. The city can help by requiring that all new homes, small businesses and large retrofits use cost-effective, low-carbon appliances instead of their natural gas counterparts. And with electric vehicles (EVs) getting more affordable everyday, charging them with Palo Alto's carbon neutral electricity also will play a big role in switching away from fossil fuel use.
Since climate change is happening faster than any government can react, we need to make climate change a top city council priority. If we make the right investments now instead of building obsolete infrastructure and equipment, we will save even more in the long run. The sooner we make climate-friendly investments, the more we will save and improve our quality of life.
If you think Palo Alto should be combating climate change through local actions, then send an email to the City Council (firstname.lastname@example.org) asking them to adopt climate change as one of the top Council priorities for the upcoming year.
David Coale is a board member of Carbon Free Palo Alto, was on the city's Green Building Technical Advisory Committee and is a former Acterra board member.