Climate Change

Protecting the Earth’s climate from catastrophic climate change depends in large part on rethinking the way we build and operate our cities.


The living roof at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan found that 51% of San Francisco’s emissions were from transportation – 48% from cars and trucks, and 3% from public transport. The remaining 49% are from buildings.  San Francisco’s plan doesn’t account for emissions from its Port, Airport, or from the stuff San Franciscans consume.  The plan relies on emission reductions from transportation (the largest share), building energy, solid waste and recycling, and electrical generation to achieve its targets.

Climate Action and Sustainability Planning in San Francisco

San Francisco has its own Climate Action Plan, which calls for reducing San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions (chiefly carbon dioxide) by 2.5 million tons by 2012, or a 20% reduction from 1990 levels. (see the Department of Environment’s website for the complete plan.) California’s plan, adopted last year, seeks to reduce emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. An 80% reduction sounds daunting, but it amounts to reducing emissions by approximately 2% per year.

San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan found that 49% of the City’s greenhouse gas emissions came from buildings, and 51% from transportation. Of the transportation share, only 3% of emissions were from transport, and the remaining 48% from automobiles. San Francisco’s plan doesn’t account for emissions from its Port, Airport, or from the stuff San Franciscans consume. The plan relies on emission reductions from transportation (the largest share), building energy, solid waste and recycling, and electrical generation to achieve its targets.

San Francisco also developed a sustainability plan in 1996. The plan developed goals for a comprehensive list of environmental topics, including Air Quality, Biodiversity, Energy, Climate Change, and Ozone Depletion, Food and Agriculture, Hazardous Materials, Human Health, Parks, Open Spaces and Streetscapes, Solid Waste, Transportation, and Water and Wastewater, and such cross-disciplinary areas as Economy and Economic Development, Environmental Justice, Municipal Expenditures, Public Information and Education, and Risk Management. A list of indicators were established, but no goals set, so progress has been uneven.

San Francisco’s plans lay out bold goals, but fall short because the other city departments, including Planning, MTA, Redevelopment, Recreation and Parks, and the Port, Airport, and Public Utilities Commission, have not adopted these sustainability goals as their own, and have not addressed sustainability in their own plans, practices, and metrics. Livable City is working to integrate sustainability goals into the activities of every city department, especially those concerned with land use, transportation, and infrastructure.

Climate Action Plan Quick Facts:

  • Created in response to 2002’s Resolution 158-02, “Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, which set a target of reducing emissions to 20% of the 1990 level by 2012.
  • The Climate Action Plan was presented in September 2004, but not formally adopted.
  • The plan calculated 1990 emissions as 9.1 million tons per year, of which 51 percent were transport and 49 percent from buildings.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions increased from 9.1 to 9.7 million tons between 1990 and 2000.
  • Of the 1990 transport-related emissions, 47 percent were from private autos (trips within the city accounting for 24 percent, and auto trips to and from San Francisco for 23 percent). 3 percent was from transit (1 percent Muni, 2 percent from BART, Caltrain, and ferries). The municipal fleet accounted for the remaining 1 percent.
  • Of the emissions from buildings, 19 percent were from residential buildings, 16 percent from commercial buildings, 10 percent from industrial buildings, and 4% from municipal buildings.
  • Emissions from the Port of San Francisco and San Francisco International Airport were not included.
  • The report identified actions to reduce emissions by 2.6 million tons per year to achieve the 2012 goal of 7.2 million tons per year. Actions were grouped into four areas: transportation (963,000 tons), energy efficiency (801,000 tons), renewable energy (548,000 tons) and solid waste (302,000 tons).

san francisco emissions

San Francisco’s Climate Change Ordinance

Livable City authored a comprehensive ordinance establishing a Climate Change Goals and Action Plan for San Francisco, sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. The ordiance was unanimously approved in May 2008, and adopts greenhouse gas reduction targets for San Francisco: 25% below 1990 levels by 2017, 40% below 1990 levels by 2025, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The City also adopts specific reduction targets for each year, and every city department will create a departmental action plan to achieve its goals.

Key elements of the Climate Change Goals and Action Plan ordinance:

  • The ordinance will establish greenhouse gas reduction targets of 20% below 1990 levels by 2012 (from San Francisco’s 2002 resolution), 25% below 1990 levels by 2017, 40% below 1990 levels by 2025, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 (from California’s 2005 executive order).
  • The Department of the Environment (DoE) will calculate San Francisco’s 1990 emissions baseline, monitor yearly greenhouse gas emissions, and setting yearly goals (approximately 2% a year, but probably steeper in the first few years to hit the 2012 and 2017 goals).
  • The 2004 climate action plan will be used to establish a baseline, and will be updated as necessary.
  • Every city department will adopt a climate action plan to reduce the emissions from its own activities, as well as the private sector activities within its regulatory scope, by Summer 2008, with periodic updates.
  • The Planning Department will review San Francisco’s General Plan to integrate climate action into its policies, review its guidelines for environmental review to take greenhouse gas emissions into account, and review transportation policies to encourage a shift to sustainable transportation modes.
  • The Department of Building Inspection will review the building code and other codes to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions.
  • The Department of Public Works will review city standards to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions.
  • The City Administrator will review standards for city owned and leased buildings, and review city purchasing requirements, to improve their environmental performance and reduce emissions.
  • The DoE will coordinate the climate action plans for all city departments, releasing a yearly report on greenhouse gas emissions, and compiling yearly progress reports onto a single report card and web site, starting with a report on the 2008-2009 budget year.
  • The DoE will work with other city and county governments and the State of California to adopt a common baseline approach and coordinate greenhouse gas reduction targets and policies.
  • The DoE will identify and coordinate projects in the city that will qualify for funding under the state-mandated cap-and-trade schemes.
  • The ordinance tasks the San Francisco Public Utilities commission with developing an energy action plan to make San Francisco’s electric power supply fossil fuel free by 2030, improve the reliability of San Francisco’s electrical grid, set annual goals for increasing the percentage of the City’s energy that comes from renewable sources, and set emission reduction goals for the Sewer System Master Plan.

GREEN LA: Los Angeles’ “Action Plan to Lead the Nation in Fighting Global Warming”

On May 15, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled GREEN LA, Los Angeles’ plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35% below 1990 levels by 2030. The plan includes shifting the city’s municipal utility to 35% renewable power by 2020, improving the energy efficiency of buildings and lighting, and reducing water use by 20%. The plan also includes an ambitious expansion of transit in Los Angeles, including the promoting high-density housing close to major transit lines. Another goal is to “depave paradise” by planting a million trees, creating and depaving parks and schoolyards, expanding rainwater infiltration, and restoring the LA River.

Villaraigosa, who was elected mayor in 2005, has been an energetic livable city advocate. He appointed environmentalists to powerful commissions, including the Port and Planning commissions, and has championed an ambitious transit expansion program that includes rapid bus, bus rapid transit, light rail, and metro. Villaragosa works well with LA’s energetic community of livable city advocates. Tree People have expanded LA’s urban forest, and convinced Los Angeles County to become an innovator in reducing urban runoff and recharging groundwater by greening the city. Friends of the Los Angeles River have re-envisioned the forlorn, concrete-lined LA River as a naturalized river and linear open space.

  • Press release [pdf format]
  • Plan summary [pdf format]

Plan NYC: New York City’s action plan for a greener, greater New York

On Earth Day, Sunday April 22, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York released the PlaNYC report, New York City’s blueprint for a more sustainable, livable New York. The report aims help New York grow from its current 8.2 million residents to 9.1 million by 2030, while providing the city with more affordable housing, cleaner air and water, more accessible open space, and better public transit, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30%.

Bloomberg’s announcement included some big new initiatives among the 127 proposals around livability and sustainability:

  • Transit-oriented development: the plan aims to orient new development around existing and planned transit lines, while creating new affordable housing on city-owned property, decking over highways and rail yards, and accelerating the cleanup of the city’s 7,600 acres of brownfields.
  • Green building: new buildings will soon be required to be 20% more efficient than current standards, and city government will reduce its energy use by 30% in the next ten years.
  • Clean energy: the city will establish a new Energy Planning Board to devise a sustainable energy strategy, and will invest in modernizing its electric grid and building large new renewable projects within the city, like the East River tidal power project.
  • Congestion charge: Bloomberg proposed a phased implementation of a congestion charge covering Manhattan below 86th Street. Like San Francisco, road access to Manhattan is partially via toll bridges and tunnels, and the Bloomberg proposal is to begin charging $8 or more to enter Manhattan on remaining roadways, like the East River bridges.
  • Transit investment: The city will raise nearly $31 billion to bring every station to a state of good repair, expand subway capacity, complete major new capacity-expansion projects like the 2nd Avenue Subway, and improve transit access from the outer boroughs. Funding will come from a $200 million per year commitment from the city budget, as well as congestion charges and matching state funds.
  • Open space: The city will ensure that every New Yorker will be within ten minutes walk from a park, and every neighborhood provided with an urban plaza.
  • Clean water: the city pledges to make its urban waters clean enough to open 90% of its waterways to recreation, and will invest nearly $250 million in urban greening projects, including street trees, green roofs, and permeable pavement and open spaces.

PlaNYC has been a year-long effort, which grew out of planning for how to find room for the more than 1 million more New Yorkers expected by 2030:

“When our Office of Long Term Planning began its work more than a year ago, the goal was to create a strategic land use plan. But we soon realized that you can’t formulate a land use plan without thinking about transportation and you can’t think about transportation without thinking about air quality. You can’t think about air quality without thinking about energy and you certainly can’t think about energy – or any of this – without thinking about global warming.

“Every one of these issues is inter-connected. And so we broadened our horizon. We began thinking about a more comprehensive vision for addressing all of the city’s long-term physical – and that includes environmental – challenges.”

The plan is ambitious, but it is being coordinated by a new office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability headed by Daniel Doctoroff, and it enjoys strong mayoral support. New York is also building on a soild foundation — the city has invested heavily in restoring its transit system to health, and ridership is at a 50-year high; its open spaces have been restored and revitalized, and nearly 300 acres added in the past 5 years; and the city’s compact form and reliance on public transit make it one of the most energy-efficient cities in the US.

  • The PlaNYC report can be downloaded here.
  • Mayor Blomberg’s Earth Day speech can be downloaded here.