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Politics & Policy

SF’s climate action plan: What you need to know

Source: AFP via Getty Images

The rollout of a city report doesn’t usually come alongside an event featuring musical performances, city luminaries and TED talks, but that’s what’s accompanying the release of San Francisco’s 2021 Climate Action Plan

Running to nearly 150 pages, the report provides a roadmap for the city to achieve its legislative mandate of getting to net-zero emissions by 2040: strategies include now-familiar steps such as boosting renewable energy and enacting environmentally friendly transportation and land-use policies. The plans are ambitious, but there’s little in the way of enforcement or accountability measures at this point. 

Climate change is a global issue with billions of individual stakeholders, but it’s clear is that cities can play a major role in addressing the problem: 70% of global emissions are created by cities. San Francisco has painted itself as a leader, with the first version of its Climate Action Plan released back in 2004.

“San Francisco has a vital role to play in modeling climate action for cities around the world,” the plan says. 

Climate change activists are not so sure. Some have argued that the plan’s extended time frame is already too little, too late. 

“Setting climate goals for 2040 while the people of San Francisco are experiencing climate impacts today is not the behavior of a city that wants to ‘serve as a model for other municipalities,’” Ryan Schleeter, communications director of The Climate Center, said in an email. “We’re at risk of falling behind the curve. Governor Newsom is exploring moving the state’s goal for carbon neutrality up ten years to 2035, and San Jose recently set a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. I was hoping to see San Francisco follow suit.”

Here’s our rundown of the major takeaways from the report. 

What is the path to getting to net zero emissions? Getting to a balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions—known as net zero emissions—is a big climb. It requires 90% cuts in emissions, which in turn means 100% renewable electricity by 2025 and zero onsite fossil fuel emissions by large commercial by 2030, among other things.

What are the current main sources of greenhouse gas emissions for the city? According to a study conducted in 2019, the leading source of emissions is transportation (mostly cars) at 47%, followed by electricity and natural gas use in building operations, which make up roughly 41% of emissions. (The city proper doesn’t have any fossil-fuel power plants.)

What are the top climate solutions being posed? While the plan contains a total of 31 strategies and 159 supporting actions, it also breaks out the top 10 climate solutions to reach the city’s net-zero goal. 

  • Turning to 100% renewable electricity by 2025 and phasing out all fossil fuels
  • Electrifying existing buildings 
  • Investing in public and active transportation projects
  • Increasing density and mixed-use developments near transit
  • Accelerate adoption of zero emission vehicles and boost charging infrastructure 
  • Use pricing policy to reduce private vehicle use and limit congestion 
  • Implement and reform parking management programs
  • Increase compact infill housing production near transit
  • Reduce food waste and promote plant-rich diets
  • Enhance and maintain the city’s urban forest and green space.

What’s the plan to boost renewable energy usage? Key to the process is building up the city’s sources of clean energy so that 100% renewable electricity is the only option for San Francisco residents and businesses by 2025. Supporting actions include installing onsite solar and battery storage at affordable housing developments, city-owned buildings and other critical community sites.

What About PG&E? The plan also says the process would be accelerated by San Francisco acquiring PG&E grid assets in the city—a long-held ambition of some local politicians.

I hear they want to take away all the parking? With transportation ranked as the single largest source of emissions, reducing the reliance on gas-powered personal vehicles is critical to getting San Francisco to its net-zero goal. Key to the plan is making it harder (and more expensive) to park in San Francisco, by expanding paid parking across the city, raising the tax on private parking and reducing the total available parking supply. The plan also suggests building out programs like Slow Streets to create car-free and walkable networks throughout the city. 

How will this plan be paid for? That’s the million – or maybe closer to trillion-dollar – question. While a full cost estimate is still in the works, the document itself admits that existing sources of funding are inadequate for its full implementation. That means external support is needed from state and federal governments. Simply electrifying the current housing stock is estimated to cost as much as $5.8 billion and that doesn’t take into account commercial buildings or any of the other priorities in the plan. Future possibilities include grant opportunities or new taxes such as a carbon or food tax. 

How is racial and social equity being considered? The plan notes that low-income and minority residents are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Interventions to support these groups could include targeted benefits like subsidies for green technologies, or more generalized policies like expanding affordable housing options and creating new job opportunities for workers moving out of polluting industries.The city has created a Racial and Social Equity Assessment Tool to assess the plan’s strategies using an equity lens. 

Kevin Truong can be reached at