It's been more than five years since the Palo Alto City Council adopted an ambitious goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, and progress remains stubbornly slow.
Since April 2016, when the council adopted its goal, the city has taken several small steps in support of this target: modifying the building code to require electrification in residential developments; implementing bike improvements to encourage alternatives to driving; and installing solar panels on the roof of a public garage; and taking a formal stance against car idling.
But much to the chagrin of local environmentalists, Palo Alto has not launched any bold pilot programs to further its sustainability goals, which increasingly appear to be aspirational rather than realistic. As of 2019, Palo Alto has achieved emission reductions of just 38% from the 1990 baseline level, with nearly all of it attributable to the council's 2013 decision to make the city's electric portfolio "carbon neutral." The city's current path forward toward a more sustainable future remains murky at best. Under the latest plan, which the city's newly created Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Ad Hoc Committee discussed earlier this month, city staff would spend the next year in analysis mode, upgrading the city's strategic plan and commissioning a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis for various sustainability programs it includes.
Palo Alto's lagging progress and protracted timeline has frustrated residents at the forefront of the city's emission-reduction efforts. Dozens attended the committee's first meeting and more than 40 people addressed the committee, which consists of Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council member Alison Cormack. Their message was clear: Palo Alto needs to move faster.
David Coale, who has long urged more aggressive action on climate change, was one of many residents who suggested that the city's methodical approach is too slow. Coale called on the city to seek exemptions from CEQA for programs that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He also urged city officials actually adopt some of the pilot programs that the city has been discussion for years, which include creating incentives — or requirements — to facilitate a switch away from natural gas and toward clean electricity.
"You have to break out of the city's mold to go slow, and you need to go fast," Coale said. "It's past time for these arguments to take hold. I'm pretty discouraged because it's been so long and there's been so little action."
A group of eight students from Gunn High — some taking a break from class — Zoomed into the virtual meeting to send a similar message. Saman de Silva, a member of Gunn's Green Team, criticized the city for proposing to wait another 16 months before adopting the city's new plan for cutting emissions.
"When push comes to shove, climate change is not waiting for bureaucratic red tape, and neither should this committee," de Silva told the committee.
Resident Debbie Mytels urged the committee to immediately set goals for shutting down aged gas lines and creating a program that allows utility customers to electrify their homes through on-bill financing, a mechanism that would allow them to pay for the upgrade over time. Government action, she said, will be necessary to spur collective action on climate change.
"For a decade now, the city has been putting out programs that educate and gently nudge the public into action but we need to do more," Mytels said. "We need to create programs that support and compel collective actions."
Both members of the new committee agreed with the public that the city needs to be more aggressive when it comes to climate change. Burt and Cormack both supported exploring pilot programs that could be launched sooner rather than later, potentially through CEQA exemptions. They also assured the public that — contrary to popular conceptions of how committees work — the new panel is designed to speed up, rather than slow down, the city's green efforts.
"I think the ad hoc is here to break bottlenecks," Cormack said. "That's what I view this as — as a way for us to get moving faster, for us to work as partners with staff, members of the community and experts."
According to recent staff analysis, achieving the 80x30 goal would require a series of dramatic actions, including the electrification of gas appliances in nearly all single-family homes by 2030, and widespread adoption of electric vehicles, which would have to constitute at least 85% of local car purchases (up from the current rate of 30%). It may also entail adoption of a carbon tax or another type of tax measure to fund the new programs.
Burt acknowledged the challenge but suggested that even these actions may not be enough to address the new normal. Climate impacts, he said, are "no longer something in the future," as evidenced by California's prolonged drought and increasingly intense wildfire seasons.
"Now the events of the last year and even month — and the recent IPCC report — have made it apparent that that 80x30 goal was not the end. It's a critical foundation, it's going to be very difficult to achieve and yet we'll have to go beyond that," Burt said.
The committee plans to begin delving into specific programs at its Sept. 9 meeting, which will focus on residential building electrification. Its following three meetings will focus on commercial building electrification, electric vehicles and mobility programs, respectively, according to the schedule presented by staff. Later meetings will focus on topics such as wildfire protection, sea level rise, financing mechanisms for sustainability efforts and low-carbon construction materials.