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Hope for San Francisco, environment in 2016

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Green composting bins should be in high demand in 2016, if San Francisco hopes to achieve its Zero Waste goal by 2020. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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Last year brought some encouraging environmental news: President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, world leaders signed a climate agreement in Paris and Shell abandoned its drilling operations in the Alaskan Arctic. San Francisco also took steps in 2015 — albeit smaller — to fight climate change, reduce waste and green The City.

I’m hopeful these steps are the start of big changes in 2016.

Divestment from fossil fuels
In December, the San Francisco Retirement Board directed staff to create a plan to divest approximately $21 million in city pension funds from thermal coal companies and reinvest the money in renewable energy. The decision gives me hope the Retirement Board will make divestment from fossil fuels a priority in 2016, as the Board of Supervisors urged it to do in early 2013. Finally, after almost three years of delay, we’re seeing some action.

But the December decision is a very, very small step. San Francisco money will still fund polluters — including Exxon, Chevron and ConocoPhillips — until actual divestment occurs. The Retirement Board is still relying on a staff led by Jay Huish, who has a history of deterring action. And even if divestment from thermal coal does occur, approximately $460 million in city money will still fund companies that intend to pump more oil, dig more coal, pollute our planet and impact our health.

Today, the Retirement Board’s Environmental, Social and Governance Committee will meet. I am hopeful the committee will help the board develop a clear strategy for total fossil fuel divestment in 2016, like the board did to fight apartheid, atrocities in Sudan and big tobacco in the past. While the board has a fiduciary duty to protect the money city employees need in the future, how is funding the biggest contributors to climate change protecting our future?

Closer to Zero Waste
With only four years left to meet the Zero Waste goal by 2020, city leaders need San Franciscans to use the blue recycling, green composting and brown textile bins a lot more. The Department of Environment can fine people who throw food scraps in the trash, but it prefers outreach programs. Unfortunately, it’s hard for city officials to knock on every apartment door and visit every Starbucks to help people compost.

To better target outreach, a Zero Waste Community Council was announced last October. The pilot council will investigate barriers residents and businesses in the neighborhood of Chinatown face and report its findings to The City.

“The council will help us identify places that need the swift kick in rear to get to zero waste by 2020,” Josh Arce, president of the environment commission, told me. “It brings groups of tenants, seniors, local businesses, landlords and neighborhood organizations together to talk about what’s happening on the ground in a way that’s culturally competent.”

The department must meet with Supervisor Aaron Peskin to finalize formation of the council, but it’s hard to imagine the new progressive supervisor will delay efforts to reduce waste. More supervisors should establish community councils in 2016, so barriers in other neighborhoods are addressed. We have four years to significantly reduce our waste. This year, the green bin should be a popular commodity in San Francisco.

Green neighborhood projects
I think the most exciting program established by The City in 2015 was the creation of the Green Benefit District in the Dogpatch and northwest Potrero Hill. Homeowners in the district will pay an additional $0.0951 per square foot in property taxes to fund maintenance and improvements of public spaces. It’s a forward-thinking program to help the community transform abandoned Caltrans properties and industrial sites.

As The City continues to grow, programs like the GBD can help communities maintain character. It’s a way for neighborhoods to protect their spaces. I hope similar innovations cushion the blow of new housing developments.

As always, I will bring you all the environmental news I uncover in 2016.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist, who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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