When Palo Alto adopted a goal in 2016 to cut carbon emissions by 80%, city leaders heralded the action as a critical step in the city's effort to combat climate change.
Since then, however, the City Council's actions have not matched its rhetoric. Emission levels have remained relatively unchanged in the last five years, and the city's progress on electrification of buildings has been slow. Even though the council has taken some actions — including constructing new charging stations at public garages and adopting mandates that require new buildings to eschew gas appliances in favor of electric ones — these steps are nowhere near enough to get to the "80x30" goal, which calls for an 80% reduction of emissions by 2030, as measured against the baseline year of 1990.
According to city staff, Palo Alto emitted an estimated 482,327 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from the residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, waste, water and municipal sectors in 2019 — a 38.2% decrease since 1990, but only a small dip from the 2013, when the city's adopted a "carbon neutral" electric portfolio. About two-thirds of these emissions were in the transportation sector; the remaining third was mostly in natural gas. To meet its goal, the city would need to get to 217,745 metric tons of CO2e by 2030.
What would that take? For starters, the electrification of gas appliances in virtually all single-family homes and of practically all rooftop HVAC units by 2030, as well a widespread adoption of electric vehicles by local residents. According to city staff, 85% of car purchases in Palo Alto would have to be electric vehicles (up from 30% today) and 40% of commuter trips into Palo Alto would be made by electric vehicles (up from the current 3%).
It would likely require a citywide vote for a controversial policy such as carbon pricing. According to a new analysis by Utilities Department staff, it would require about $740 million in expenditures (though it remains unclear whether it will be the city — or the residents — who are paying for the needed investments) and it could easily entail a legal challenge, as is the case in Berkeley, where the city is facing a suit over its 2019 ban on natural gas in new buildings.
Even these actions, if instituted, would achieve only a 72% reduction in carbon emissions since 1990, leaving a gap of 8% between what's desired and what's currently viewed as viable.
Faced with the daunting challenge, the council took a stride toward the 80x30 goal on Monday night, when it reaffirmed its commitment to the climate change goal and directed staff to study a host of new programs and initiatives that would advance the city's emission-reduction mission. This includes establishing a new stakeholder group of local experts to help steer the city's efforts on climate action and exploring a program in which utility customers voluntarily pay a fee to support building electrification throughout the city — an updated version of the PaloAltoGreen program.
Other proposals in the motion, which was crafted by Vice Mayor Pat Burt and unanimously approved by his colleagues, include exploring an on-bill financing program that would allow residents to invest in replacing gas appliances with electric ones and then pay off the cost over time through fees on their utility bills.
Burt acknowledged the challenge of meeting the council's ambitious goal but suggested that the city has little choice but to move ahead. He pointed to the wildfires that have ravaged parts of the state in recent years as an argument for aggressively moving ahead with its action plan on climate change. Global warming, he argued, isn't just a long-term existential threat; it is also a near-term hazard to public health.
"Just imagine a fire speeding down out of the foothills and wiping out and coming into our urban-wildland boundary … and the incredible impacts. It's hard to even fathom but I encourage you to go visit the outskirts of Boulder Creek, Santa Rose or Paradise, California," Burt said. "These are not things that are hypothetical. These are events today in California."
His colleagues agreed and joined him in supporting staff's proposed action plan, which focuses its early phases on education and community outreach. Over the next year, the city plans to conduct an environmental analysis of the Sustainability/Climate Action Plan and then move ahead with pilot programs pertaining to electrification.
"Palo Alto used to be a leader on this issue and I think it's really time we reclaim our role as regional, state and even national leader on bold climate change actions," council member Greer Stone said during the discussion.
While everyone agreed that action on climate change is necessary, some questioned whether the city's goals are actually achievable. Burt suggested there are some reasons for hope. Palo Alto residents, he noted, have proven in the past that they are willing to pay extra for achieving environmental goal, whether it's purchasing a Tesla or signing up for PaloAltoGreen.
Another piece of evidence arrived in the form of a petition signed by 229 residents, including neighborhood leaders and environmental activists. The petition urged the council to stay on track with its climate action plan by expanding electrification of city buildings, improving traffic flow, expanding bike boulevards and providing incentives for purchases of electric vehicles.
"Over the years, Palo alto has earned its reputation as one of the nation's most environmentally engaged communities," states the letter, whose signatories include environmental activists Debbie Mytels, Sandra Slater, Sven Thesen and former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto. "Now is not the time to scale back our goals or slow our approach: climate change is happening faster than originally predicted, and we need to act just as quickly."
Council member Alison Cormack also said that staff's proposal fills her with hope, even despite the fact that most of the programs in the plan have yet to be vetted with the community or undergo an environmental analysis.
"Not only is there a path, but there is a dollar figure that is within the realm of possibility," Cormack said. "Maybe we haven't figured out yet how to make it work, but I'm pretty confident, given the magnitude of the problem and working together, that we can do so."
Others weren't as confident. Mayor Tom DuBois noted that the key actions proposed by staff — including conversion of nearly all single-family homes to electrification — constitute "huge changes in behavior."
"There is really no time to waste," DuBois said. "These are really steep targets."