Four years after they adopted a lofty goal of cutting emissions by 80% by 2030, Palo Alto's elected leaders are confronting a sobering reality: Barring something dramatic, it's probably not happening.
The city has been in a bit of a rut of late when it comes to meeting sustainability targets. Since 2016, its emissions have remained stubbornly flat at slightly below 500,000 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The city did offset about 150,000 megatons in 2018 by purchasing certificates through its PaloAltoGreen Gas program, funding that supports sustainability projects at rural farms elsewhere in the nation.
Given these offsets, staff is estimating that it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by about 56% from the 1990 baseline. Everyone acknowledges that getting to 80% by 2030 (with 1990 as the baseline) will be much harder.
In the coming months, as part of the city's work on the Sustainability/Climate Action Plan, staff will work with the consulting firm AECOM to evaluate the various ideas for cutting emissions. The most dramatic actions (classified as "high intervention") include requiring new non-residential developments to be all-electric, banning registration of gasoline cars in Palo Alto by 2030 and requiring apartment buildings to provide chargers for electric vehicles.
The list of ideas also includes retrofitting multifamily buildings to replace wall furnaces with electric heat pump systems by 2030; electrifying gas appliances in single-family homes upon home sale beginning in 2025; and electrifying water heating and space heating systems in schools by 2030.
In discussing these initiatives, some council members acknowledged that the "80 by 30" goal that the council adopted in 2016 may be out of reach.
"We're kind of in a cognitive dissonance situation," Councilman Eric Filseth said. "On the one hand, we're doing lots of good stuff. On the other hand, we're not going to hit '80 by 30' and we know it."
The city has three options, he said. It can engage in "high intervention" activities that focus on turning off natural gas and banning cars. It can modify either the 80 or the 30 in its official goal. Or, he said, "we can continue with the cognitive dissonance, where 80 by 30 is kind of aspirational and we keep doing nice things and do low-interventional stuff but we're not going to get to 80 by 30."
"It's going to get harder to do that as we get closer and closer to 2030," Filseth said.
The coronavirus pandemic adds another level of uncertainty. With the city's revenues cratering, Palo Alto has less funding available for electrification projects and other ambitious efforts. Christine Luong, the city's sustainability manager, indicated that the city plans to focus on "low cost" tools such as voluntary programs, education efforts and pilot projects for the next two years, as the pandemic plays out.
"But we're going to need to explore different funding streams such as ballot measures, bond measures or establishing a carbon fund so we can meet an 80 by 30 goal," Luong said.
The health crisis is also shifting some of Palo Alto's transportation discussions. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois suggested that the city revise its sustainability plan to account for pandemic-era changes in commute patterns. Fewer people may take public transit in the coming months he said, while many will likely continue to work from home.
"We really have to consider the impacts of COVID and what we learned in the last couple of months," DuBois said. "There's a huge opportunity to double down on remote work options.
Council members Liz Kniss and Greg Tanaka both emphasized the importance of making it easier and cheaper to replace their gas appliances with electric ones. Kniss also noted that if the city moves to ban gas vehicles and mandate electric ones, it will have to figure out ways to make sure apartment buildings have enough charging stations to accommodate the mandate.
"If we're really going to say, 'No cars or no one who is not driving an electric vehicle within 10 years,' we should face that we really have a lot of work to do to get there," Kniss said. "Great goal, but you need some realistic stepping stones along the way."
When it comes to electrification of residential buildings, the city may look at it on a block-by-block basis. City Manager Ed Shikada proposed the "Cool Block" model, which encourages coordination among neighbors to promote sustainability, as one that the city can follow.
Sandra Slater, who has participated in and managed the Cool Block program in Palo Alto, was one of nearly 20 residents who urged the council to persist in working toward its sustainability goal.
"We haven't made much progress in the last several years but we have a lot of ammunition in our quiver," Slater said. "We've got to identify what the barriers are to get these programs in place and figure out how to get them implemented."
Dashiell Leeds, conservation assistant with the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter supported the city's effort to reach 80% emission reductions from the 1990 level and suggested that a good way to start is by electrifying city-owned buildings. He urged the council to retain its goal for cutting emissions.
"By setting ambitious targets, we can sort of give other cities the motivation to set similar targets," Leeds said. "And it can transform ideas that may seem far-reaching to incredibly reasonable, as long as there is a consensus."