Bay Area, California —
Welcome back to The Planet You Save, a weekly newsletter on local climate action. I'm Taylor Kate Brown and the newsletter will be off next week. I hope you enjoy your favorite Thanksgiving side dish and share this newsletter with relatives and friends — many who are probably thinking about climate change action as well. As always you can sign up for the weekly edition here.
Let's call this one San Diego and the case of the mysteriously disappearing cars.
I've written before about what makes a strong net-zero goal for a city, but what happens when how the city records their progress is questionable? This week, San Diego revamped its entire climate plan to aim for a net-zero target by 2035. But one of the reasons they did so is because they'd been called out — repeatedly — by their local newspaper for relying on out-of-date data to claim the city had made significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
It's exactly the kind of local & state climate reporting this newsletter seeks out and that I wish we had more of across the country: understanding what local & state officials are actually promising and keeping on them about delivering on those promises.
So I wanted to talk to the reporter: Joshua Emerson Smith has worked at the San Diego Union Tribune for six years, covering all kinds of stories on climate, transit and water. He kindly spoke to me about how this story came to happen and what's next for San Diego's greenhouse gas reduction plan.
"Basically they overestimated what their carbon footprint was to begin with." Smith says. "I was able to show that the really big footprint, the original emissions that they were claiming, were over inflated because of an outdated model that showed that more people were driving [in 2010] than actually they were."
Smith said he first noticed something off when he was going through the technical appendices of the plan.
"I saw that there was a major reduction in driving, according to the model, between 2015 and 2017. And we knew that that wasn't the case: driving was spiking everywhere else across San Diego and San Diego County as well as across the country. So it seemed really odd that we had this dramatic reduction in vehicle miles traveled in the climate plan... that's when I really started poking around."
Because 2010 was the city's baseline year, San Diego was telling its residents they had already dramatically slashed emissions without doing much at all. The error would leave the city always behind on their actual goals.
Smith and the Union Tribune pointed out the issue to the city and wrote up the story in 2017. In 2020, the city claimed a 25% reduction in greenhouse gases in less than a decade — based on the faulty data.
"We had a new mayor come in, who originally tried to stick with the old numbers," Smith said. He thinks the city was so resistant to recalculating because it would show "they have a lot more work to do than they previously thought."
But it wasn't until last week that the city finally scrapped the model as part of a new approach, instead of recalculating.
"They just said going forward, we're going to have these new benchmarks for success."
The new plan actually includes faster target reductions than its previous version, and calls for net-zero by 2035. The city acknowledges the plan doesn't get 100% of the way there, relying on strategies not explicitly outlined in the plan to cut the last 25%.
So what stands out to Smith in this new attempt?
"The big news out of the plan, other than revamping their targets, is that they're going to look at a restrictions on natural gas in new construction. They said they're going to do that by 2023." If that comes to pass, San Diego would join the now dozens of cities in California to do so.
Smith also reports on San Diego's other climate to-dos. This week the city council will consider divesting from fossil fuel investments, including about $17 million in Chevron. The plan also calls for the city's alternate electricity provider to get to 100% renewable energy, and pushes for a lot more commuters to take transit, biking and walk within the city. San Diego will get a start when it opens the expansion of the Mid-Coast Trolley soon, a light-rail line that now will connect to a major job center north of the main city.
I've got more good reading below, but I'm interested in what climate journalism you're seeing in your local news — good and bad — reply to this email with a local story you've seen recently.
What new clean car standards in Nevada mean for drivers there & and the environment.
Climate change is already affecting life far from the coasts, Reckon explains what that means in the South.
San Francisco says the city's busy Embarcadero may need to be elevated as much as seven feet over the coming decades to deal with sea level rise.
Closing a coal-fired power plant in Pueblo to meet Colorado climate goals is easier said than done, and Denver signs a long-term solar project that will provide 30% of the power to low-income residents.
Hawaiian Electric vows to cut carbon emissions from electricity by 70% by 2030 -- primarily through putting solar on rooftops, against trend for most utilities.
Grappling with the with the mental toll of climate activism in Kansas & beyond.