When it comes to climate action, San Francisco is doing many things right.
Nearly 600 cities globally report emissions statistics and climate action plans to a global nonprofit survey every year. Of those, just 7 percent receive top marks. San Francisco is one of them.
Among the winning initiatives: Clean Power SF aims to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2030; the Board of Supervisors has reformed building codes to include sustainability measures, passed legislation that bans natural gas in new construction and limits distribution of single-use plastics; and The City reduced emissions across all sectors since 1990.
But there’s still plenty more to do. San Francisco’s efforts come at a time that decades of greenhouse gas emissions have led to droughts, record-breaking temperatures, smoke-filled air and extreme weather that impacts nearly every corner of the planet. These are the findings of a United Nations report released in August. It ties human activity to the rapid increase in surface temperatures and the subsequent rise in sea levels.
“We know climate change impacts are happening now, not tomorrow. We need urgent action at an unprecedented scale,” said Katie Walsh, a sustainability expert at the global environmental nonprofit CDP (formerly called the Carbon Disclosure Project) which conducts the global survey of cities.
The U.N. study makes it clear that every city must step up its game. Especially those like San Francisco, which can set new standards as a leader in the arena. Failure to act now risks losing the opportunity to affect change entirely.
“This is really the first generation of city leadership that recognizes the scale of the climate crisis,” Walsh said. “This is also really the last generation of leadership that can make the changes to prevent it.”
Many advocates are seizing the moment to demand more of local government, galvanized by the findings of the U.N. report’s authors that there’s still time to curb the most catastrophic effects of climate change, but only with swift and bold action.
“In 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared a climate emergency,” said Phillip Dupree, an organizer with Sunrise Bay Area. “I would love for us to act like it.”
San Francisco will never be able to achieve its zero emissions goals without addressing transportation.
Transportation produces 47 percent of all emissions citywide, according to 2019 data from the Department of Environment. Over 70 percent of those greenhouse gases come from trucks and cars.
Advocates say there can be no serious conversation around climate action without making public transit the superior travel option and making driving a less attractive alternative. Simply moving to make all private vehicles electric doesn’t cut it, they say.
Many say it’s a simple game of economics. Make Muni free for all riders, and increase the cost of parking meters, residential parking passes and travel to certain parts of The City by car through something like a downtown congestion toll.
Others suggest a comprehensive street design plan that makes room for public transit as well as other forms of mobility, such as biking or walking. For example, they suggest building out a robust network of transit-only lanes, prioritizing approval for car-free streets and replacing parking spaces with community investments such as parks, bikeshare stations and mixed-use development.
“We are far too car-centric and don’t have a comprehensive plan for that,” Supervisor Myrna Melgar said. “Our efforts are haphazard like closing an occasional street without improving the rest of The City.”
Muni has a zero emissions goal by 2035. It also has an electric bus pilot already in the works that eventually will replace about 600 vehicles in the fleet.
All told, public transportation accounts for just 3 percent of San Francisco’s total emissions. Within that, Muni creates 1 percent followed by ferries (53 percent), Caltrain (26 percent) and BART (20 percent).
Even if every bus became battery-powered tomorrow, though, San Francisco wouldn’t be able to operate them because it lacks the infrastructure needed to charge and house the vehicles.
Plans for a new facility at Portrero Yard will include battery charging stations, but that won’t happen until 2027. In the meantime, Woods Yard, which is near the Chase Center, will be where the pilot electric vehicles recharge.
How to expand charging stations remains an important, but lofty proposition. They’re expensive, often bogged down in bureaucratic partnerships and require work in outdated facilities due for a rebuild.
But if buses aren’t really the problem when it comes to lowering emissions, what other infrastructure changes can promote effective climate action?
Higher density housing, for one. San Franciscans spend 39 hours per more year commuting than they did in 2008, according to a 2019 report from a real estate firm. The Bay Area is also home to a growing number of “super-commuters” who travel more than 90 minutes each way to work in The City.
This could mean zoning reform that allows increased housing in all parts of San Francisco, including near transit centers. One such example is legislation recently proposed by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman that would legalize four-plexes on any lot zoned for single-family use.
“These are the kinds of changes we need to see in San Francisco to combat climate change,” said Ewan Barker Plummer, a youth climate activist. “My generation is the one that will feel the impacts of the choices we make now.”
A more timely tool might be developing plans for electrification in existing residential and commercial buildings, jumping off legislation that bans natural gas in new ones.
“We don’t have to do it overnight,” said Erik Mebust, a local climate action organizer. “We just need to start now if we’re going to get (to) zero emissions by 2050.”
An effective climate action strategy must ensure the burden doesn’t fall on the most vulnerable, namely low-income earners and communities of color.
These individuals are more likely to be car-dependent, live far away from their work or rely on facilities with flames instead of electric stoves for cultural or financial reasons, for example.
Advocates say one way to do this is by creating green jobs for the most vulnerable.
For example, Jackie Fielder, a progressive activist and former candidate for the California State Senate, suggests hiring people to retrofit buildings to become electric and energy efficient by giving them induction stove tops and heat pump water heaters.
Prioritizing equity isn’t just an exercise in lip service.
“For cities that are leading the way on this, they’re doing the work with communities that have been historically marginalized or, will be, by climate change,” Walsh said.