Just as in politics, all greenhouse gas emissions are local.
Cities now produce 75 percent of all the world's greenhouse gas emissions, so climate solutions that ignore municipalities do so at the planet's peril. Local governments are on the front lines in fighting the sources of global warming: from revising building codes, promoting energy efficiency, providing recycling and compost services, requiring renewable fuel and energy use, and managing transit systems.
Two years ago, California passed the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32) to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The task of determining how to achieve this goal was given to the California Air Resources Board. But turning AB32's words into action has been glacial. The state released its first of many draft plans in June. The final plan is scheduled for adoption in November with many regulations not taking effect until 2012.
More than 852 U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Santa Monica, have committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to Kyoto Protocol levels (or beyond). While we have no national greenhouse gas reduction goal or national carbon emissions trading system, we're a global leader when it comes to grassroots efforts. To maintain this momentum, U.S. cities need authority, funding and accountability for meeting their greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Before we develop a new set of complex regulations to help us implement AB32, we could learn a lot by recycling a few ideas from our past.
In the 1980s, California was running out of space to put our trash. The state recycled only 11 percent of all waste and landfills were reaching capacity. In 1989, the state legislated that every city and county achieves a 50 percent recycling rate by 2000. The implementation was precedent setting.
All local governments are required to report annually to the state in great detail on the types and quantities of waste diverted from landfills through reduction, recycling and composting activities, as well as how they are going to meet the targets. Today, each of California's 536 local jurisdictions knows how much of their paper, scrap iron, lawn trimmings, bottles and cans, and even building materials, is being recycled. Any jurisdiction failing to reach the recycling target can be fined $10,000 a day.
Rather than enacting a cookie-cutter regulation that would work for no one, the recycling law allowed each county to adopt an implementation strategy that would work for its communities. San Francisco has been able to work with its residents and businesses to recycle and compost 70 percent of the waste (it was at 35 percent in 1990). This same basic legal framework should be applied to the issue of climate change.
Under this local carbon dioxide reduction model, counties would be responsible for reducing carbon emissions from building energy, agriculture, manufacturing and, of course, waste management. Counties would work both locally and regionally to reduce vehicle miles traveled.
The state would continue to have jurisdiction over large emitters, such as oil refineries and energy utilities, and over developing a low-carbon fuels policy.
The state needs to begin by establishing county-level reporting requirements and procedures, and setting aggressive emission-reduction requirements.
Cities and counties will then need financial incentives to develop the critical infrastructure that reducing and measuring carbon emissions will require. Recent reports suggest that building dense transit-oriented urban areas can lead to a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions. Local land-use and zoning policies have therefore become one of the single most important tools in combating climate change.
Finally, the state should look to its recycling program, and hold cities and counties accountable for meeting emission reduction targets, and reward those who achieve more.
Continuing California's legacy of local environmental action will serve us well in dealing with the global issue of climate change.
Jared Blumenfeld directs San Francisco's Department of Environment. Dean Kubani heads the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for Santa Monica.
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