San Francisco’s latest climate plan sets path for a zero-emissions future

‘It’s not a dream document. This is a roadmap for what we need to do’

Imagine a world where San Franciscans commuted to work in electric-powered vehicles, arriving at office buildings powered by renewable energy that emitted no greenhouse gasses. In this world, every resident would have equal access to clean air, outdoor space and healthy food sourced from nutrient-rich soils that sequestered carbon deep underground.

In a state plagued by rising inequality, worsening wildfires and intensifying drought, this might read like some fanciful Utopian ideal. But it’s a future that San Francisco hopes to implement in the coming decades.

This week, San Francisco’s Department of the Environment released the latest version of its Climate Action Plan, which lays out a strategy to help The City meet its emissions reductions goals — passed into law this summer — and includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 60% by 2030 and becoming net-zero by 2040.

The plan focuses on six key sectors including decarbonizing San Francisco’s energy supply, transportation and building operations. But it also outlines a path forward for reducing the production and consumption of goods and improving ecosystems, all while paying special attention to racial and social equity and public health.

“It’s not a dream document. This is a road map for what we need to do,” said Debbie Raphael, the director of the Department of the Environment. “It’s also scientifically defensible — all these actions actually add up to carbon neutrality. This is the way we get there.”

More specifically, the plan will target the following areas:

  • Energy supply: Shift The City’s energy supply to 100% renewable electricity by 2025, while phasing out all other fossil fuels to become net-zero by 2040.
  • Building operations: Eliminate fossil fuel use in new construction and electrify existing buildings by 2040.
  • Transportation and land use: Shift 80% of trips taken to low-carbon modes, including walking, biking, public transit, and shared electric vehicles by 2030 — all while reducing private vehicle use and electrifying 100% of remaining private vehicles by 2040.
  • Housing: Increase compact infill housing production near transit and build at least 5,000 new housing units per year, including at least 30% affordable units.
  • Responsible production and consumption: Reduce solid waste generation 15% below 2015 levels and reduce disposal to landfill 50% below 2015 levels, while encouraging residents to embrace plant-rich diets.
  • Healthy ecosystems: Sequester carbon through ecosystem restoration, including increased urban tree canopy, green infrastructure, and compost application.
The six different sectors that factor into The City’s net-zero emissions goal by 2040. (San Francisco Climate Action Plan)

The six different sectors that factor into The City’s net-zero emissions goal by 2040. (San Francisco Climate Action Plan)

But in the nearly two decades since the original plan was introduced, the issues long testing The City have only been amplified by a warming world: Seas have risen faster than experts predicted, putting some of the most vulnerable populations at risk. Summer wildfire smoke now routinely fouls San Francisco’s air, filling people’s lungs with harmful particulate matter. Historic drought and a shrinking snowpack threaten water supplies and stronger storms are outpacing the capacity of The City’s century-old sewage system.

Despite the challenges, Raphael sees a massive opportunity for San Francisco to model what climate action and resilience should look like on the global stage. “When you look at where is that carbon coming from, it’s coming from cities,” said Raphael, noting 80% of emissions are generated by cities worldwide. “Cities like San Francisco are really the laboratories for that change.”

San Francisco already has proven it’s capable of meeting aggressive targets. In 2019, The City slashed its greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels — six years ahead of its previous goal. “That fact alone speaks for itself,” said Raphael. “San Francisco has shown the world that you can have a strong, thriving economy and environmental leadership.”

But emissions reductions alone will not usher in a just transition for all residents. Some say The City is not doing enough to combat the worst impacts of climate change.

“The targets are great, but we’re one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest country in the world,” said Daniel Tahara, a climate advocate and member of the San Francisco Climate Emergency Coalition. “The City’s goals are not adequate enough to meet the challenges and our responsibility for our direct emissions in The City, let alone as a world leader on the world stage.”

Getting more people to ride bicycles, as well as take public transportation and use shared electric vehicles, will be key to San Francisco’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Getting more people to ride bicycles, as well as take public transportation and use shared electric vehicles, will be key to San Francisco’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Tahara has been vocal in his push for more aggressive emissions targets, but conceded this new plan could be an important tool to compel San Francisco’s leadership to act. “It starts with the mayor. It starts with the Board of Supervisors,” he said. “I don’t think they’re pushing the envelope anymore.”

But even with the current plan, major challenges lie ahead.

The first will be getting residents on board with the ways in which extensive changes to infrastructure transportation and energy consumption will trickle into our everyday lives. Electrifying buildings and weaning off natural gas will mean residents will have to give up flame-cooked foods and gas-powered vehicles in favor of alternatives, like electric stoves and public transit.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors passed a ban on natural gas in all new construction, but the new plan requires The City to scale that up, electrifying all buildings by 2040.

“You have to make it a little more personal for people,” said Avni Jamdar, regional director for the environmental nonprofit Emerald Cities. “When you put information, not from a greenhouse gas emission point of view, but from a health outcomes perspective, people really get it. People get that you’re going to have better health indicators in your indoor air quality if you switch out your gas stove.”

Another concern is how to train and employ skilled workers equitably. Taking buildings as an example, said Jamdar, “there are so few contractors who can do building electrification work right now — let alone minority contractors. We need to train minority, disadvantaged contractors so they can benefit from this work.”

But perhaps the most important question looming over the plan’s implementation is the issue of funding. “It is the question,” said Raphael, adding the Department of the Environment is undertaking a deep cost analysis of the plan.

Electrifying all of The City’s buildings alone could cost nearly $6 billion. While some actions in the plan already have funding, others still need resources, noted Joseph Sweiss, spokesperson for the department.

“We need to prioritize policies that give us a triple word score,” said Raphael. Policies, she said, “that give us the social benefit, the environmental benefit and the economic benefit.”

For now, The City’s Climate Action Plan, for all its ambition, remains just that. “Writing a plan is the first step,” said Jamdar. “But how do you get to the outcomes? To me, that’s the concern. How do we get this done?”

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