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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Making Tough Choices on Global Warming at the Local Level

This year for the first time marks a real shift in the issue of the global warming. It seems that for years there was a destructive debate over the issue of whether global climate change was caused by human activities--a debate that fundamentally missed the point because while we had a political debate--often muted--on this question, we missed out on many opportunities to mitigate climate damage that would not have disrupted the economy and were things that we ought to do regardless of whether or not this issue exists.

However, this has all changed this year, you can see it in the focus from the scientific community, you can see it the production and publicity that Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" has received, and you can see in the response at the state, county, and local government levels.

Global warming is a well-documented problem that is far bigger than just the city of Davis. However, many of the changes needed on an international level begin with practices at the local level.

Tuesday night at the Davis City Council meeting, there was an agenda item on global warming and the things that the city needs to do to reduce emissions.

The real question I had after watching both the presentation and the council exchange following it is whether or not this is window dressing by the council majority to appear to be environmentally friendly and socially conscious or whether this marks the beginning of real changes--tough changes--that we have to make in order to affect the global climate and must be undertaken at a community-by-community level.

The city is putting together an action plan to reduce the carbon footprint which they claim is already low and already many of these items are in place. The big one of course is to drive less. Vehicle emissions represent a huge amount of the carbon problem.

An interesting thing that came up at the county level perhaps a month or month and a half ago was Duane Chamberlain, the County Supervisor who represents much of rural Yolo County talked about his conversations with local farmers about how much fuel they used per acre of their land. It was a fairly low number when he compared it to how much fuel was used in a medium density city neighborhood. You are talking about multiple dwellings on that land where people are using hundreds if not thousands of gallons of fuel individually, and you may have several dwellings on that acre. Whereas, Chamberlain was suggesting that many farmers perhaps used 40-60 gallons per acre.

And that is just driving fuel. What that suggests is in terms of carbon footprint, urban land use is much higher than rural land use.

The council majority of course suggests their support for these types of issues and yet their policies do not seem consistent.

At the previous meeting there was a long and sustained debate as to whether they should mandate solar panels for a new housing development. The council majority's position was that it should be optional. If you have a commitment to reduction of energy usage, how can solar panels which are clean and sustainable uses of energy be optional?

Moreover, one of the big problems of the Covell Village proposal, was the traffic impacts. Increasing traffic adds greatly to carbon emissions because the higher the intensity of the traffic, the more vehicles idle and less efficient they use their fuel. Covell Village would have produced vast traffic problems and that would have increased greatly the amount of carbon emissions in Davis. That does not mean that we can never develop or add subdivisions or communities, but it does mean that we need to start planning for traffic, alternative transportation and cleaner burner transportation at the very least in conjunction with new housing development.

Then there is the entire Target and big-box issue. This is a corporation with a huge and vast global carbon footprint. This is the type of non-sustainable use of resources that we need to start changing. The debate over this was glossed over last fall. The Target building in Davis was marketed to the Davis consumer and voter as being green--the color of the building is green, it is put in a LEED certified building. As one person put it last fall--you can put a Hummer car dealership in a LEED certified building, that is not going to make it environmentally friendly or address the top concerns of global warming at a local level.

So the council majority is going to have to decide if global warming and reducing our carbon footprint is an actual priority.

Are they willing to make actual tough choices that impact people's lives?

They talked about easy to implement plans that require "no vision" to implement--those are things that we can all agree on and we should do. But to really get into this problem we need to make tough choices on development and building construction and neighborhood planning.

There was also talk about not reinventing the wheel. I think Councilmember Lamar Heystek make the crucial point, "in terms of a vision, I think we need to look at what other communities do and then exceed them. I think competition is a good thing."

Mayor Sue Greenwald finally pointed out that there was no mention in the action plan about city planning, land use patterns, floor area ratios for houses, she asked if there was anything about making use of land use planning. Staff gave a vague answer on this but suggested it was an important component.

Councilmember Saylor suggested at one point--"it is not a question of who is greener than the other one"--and yet I think it is exactly a question of that. Are some of the land use policies that this city employs consistent with the goal of dealing with global warming? I think Sue Greenwald was exactly right that this component of the discussion was largely missing.

Councilmember Souza made the point that the burning of fossil fuels is what is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions and that in this area that is the consumption of gasoline. And I agree with that, what I was disappointed in is the lack of recognition that fuel usage is not merely a site-based problem. That if we consume goods that need transportation or that were manufactured elsewhere, guess what, we are contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions in a real way, even though the emissions are occurring elsewhere and the rest of the world is also doing the same thing.

Finally concern was raised by both Mayor Greenwald and Councilmember Heystek about the 18 month visioning process. Both suggested we should do things quicker. Mayor Greenwald was concerned that we would lose momentum and also fall behind what other communities are doing. Heystek suggested earlier in the discussion that this ought to be a one-year process rather than an 18-month process.

My overall concerns echo these--there are things we can and should do now and we also have to discuss the tough issues of land use, city planning, commercial development, and transportation.

Davis indeed does many good things environmentally, however, we should not pretend that the current policies and recent developments have moved us in the right direction.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting