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By Diana Diamond

Climate change: A critical challenge for Palo Alto? Or, an impossible goal?

Uploaded: Apr 28, 2021

The Palo Alto City Council has taken on what environmentalists see as an important big step in trying to cut this city’s carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2030 (the "80x30" plan), as measured against our 1990 baseline – a goal that will involve dramatic changes for this community. Opponents say these proposed actions are too difficult to meet and the public will refuse to cooperate.

The overriding issue is the threat of powerful climate changes to our planet. If we don’t quickly do something, living on this planet will be nearly impossible for millions of people.

Climate change is an escalating concern, but, unfortunately not an overwhelming global worry yet.

So, what are some of the things Palo Altans will have to do to reach the 80x30 level?

Take a deep breath:

Vice Mayor Pat Burt, the major advocate for controlling CO2 emissions here, started with a long list, supplanted by staff input:

• Convert every gas appliance in residential homes to electric appliances. That means no more kitchen gas stoves, gas fireplaces, gas water heaters, and perhaps gas grills. Everyone will have to replace them.
• Require that almost all residential automobiles be electric, perhaps by 2030.
• Limit the number of gas-fueled autos from entering town to 40 percent, including all commuters who work in Palo Alto. In other words, 60 percent of commuters must have electric cars.
• Require a city-wide vote on some controversial ideas, such as carbon pricing – although what we would vote on has not yet been fleshed out.

All these actions, if taken, would result in a 72 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, short by 8 percent of our 80x30 goals. So, we would have to do a lot more – like limit the amount of electricity we use between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. – less cooking, less watching TV, no washer or dryer use. Et cetera.

The council unanimously approved all these recommendations.

You can breathe out now. Or just gulp.

One number is mentioned in the staff report --$740 million in expenditures, but I am not sure yet what expenses the $740 million covers.

I know our increasing global CO2 problem is a huge one, and that action, preferably by governments, is need ASAP. The trapped heat is already causing weird climate problems – more hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, droughts, etc.

As critical of “doing something” is, I have two problems with this proposal.

Let’s hypothetically say that Palo Altans do all these things and even achieve the 80x30 level, or maybe 100x40. But if we do, what effect will we have on the global warming problem? Since we are a community of 65,000, the global effect may be miniscule – or nonexistent.

Can we really get other cities to adopt this plan, just because Palo Alto has?

Some enthusiasts have told me that Palo Alto would be recognized nationwide as a city who got it done, and we could be a role model for other cities. That has a tone of arrogance to me. Yes, Palo Alto always wants first place, but, for what it’s worth, that doesn’t really matter to me.

President Biden introduced a similar plan this past week that will be discussed and I hope big parts of it will be adopted, which will be wonderful. National attention can have a significant effect. He is now going to try to get other countries to get on board, but that will be a hard sell. According to the NYT, Australia, India, Indonesia. Mexico and Russia made no new pledges to cut down oil, gas or coal. China is playing a tit-for-tat game – We’ll do this if you, the U.S., change your positions on A, B and C. China is the largest emitter of CO2.

Second, each of these proposals raise a host of issues that need to be answered by our city. The first is how much will it cost? If I have to replace my water heater and buy an electric one, what will that cost and how do I get rid of the old one? How much will it cost to get rid of my gas stove and do I have to get rewired for electric? How about the cost of a new electric car? Is there enough electricity from our city Utilities Department to provide for all-electric houses? What if the grid breaks down, as it has done four times this year so far? How much will our monthly electric costs increase? And even if the city gives a discount incentive to electric car buyers, who is going to pay for that – the rest of us residents? Where is the city going to get the money to pay for all this? From its residents?

My list is endless.

I was talking with a friend about this the other day and she agreed we have to do something and she is eager to participate. And then I suggested that maybe it would be easier to tell residents they can’t fly for the next 10-plus years, because then we will have a much smaller carbon footprint. One cross-country plane trip causes an increase in CO2 emissions equivalent to all the CO2 reductions we make yearly under an 80x30 plan.

She said she couldn’t do that. She lives to travel. And I don't think the city includes air travel in its 80x30 plan -- yet it should.

I, too, love to travel, but because of COVID-19, I haven’t taken a plane for two years now. I can’t say I’ve suffered tremendously.

And even though the airline industry promises to streamline its CO2 emissions, they do expect to see a lot more people flying by 2040 because predictions are that more individuals living in Asia and Africa will want to travel, which will require more new planes and more fuel consumption.

I don’t know how to solve all this, but I am appreciative that Palo Alto is trying to control our CO2 emissions. But people have to buy into this program to make it work. And we have a lot of middle- and low-income people in town so it can't be too costly. So please city council members and staff, don’t be too idealistic -- or too draconian.