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Thursday, November 20, 2008

City of Davis Global Warming and Carbon Goals

I continue to be somewhat perplexed by the entire push for carbon neutrality at the city level. I watched the council meeting on Tuesday, and it is obvious that the city has put in a lot of staff hours looking into this. I have not yet attending a Climate Action Team meeting, and I suspect I will not do so. It is not really that I think the issue is unimportant--I think it is one of the top 5 issues facing the new Obama administration along with the economy, health care, human rights, and re-orientating our role in the world.

There is a lot to critique and comment on, so I will pick just a few things to discuss. I really would like to see the comments actually of what people in this community think about these efforts and what they believe we should do.

One of the interesting assumptions that the city makes here is that the existing houses will last until at least 2050. In fact, we do not attempt to get to carbon neutrality until that point. Depending who we talk to about the state of the climate, that may be too late. But we need to leave that issue aside. If there is an aspect of this that I most strongly supportive of it is the idea of new energy efficiency in home design. This plan almost cedes that issue. I am sure we can retrofit homes with photovoltaic cells, but frankly that is the beginning of energy efficiency, not the end. There are whole host of passive features for homes that can make us more efficient. Start with good insulation to keep the heat in during winter months and the heat out during summer months. Making use of the position of the sun to gain maximum sun exposure during the winter and minimizing direct sunlight during peak heat hours in the summer can help. Orienting cross-ventilation can enable people to utilize nature's cooling device--the delta breeze during evening hours in the summer to reduce air conditioning usage. But if we are conceding that these changes will not be implemented for 42 years, where are we?

The next issue is both a local land use issue and a global issue--transportation. We can have the best designed houses in the world, but if you have to drive to work, it helps us none. Last night on the Vanguard Radio show, representatives of Lewis Planned Communities talked about the prospect of people biking to Amtrak and taking the Capitol Corridor train to work. That would certainly be a start. But unless we are going to get serious about a transportation system at the regional level, those people are going to be exceptions, not the rule. The prospect of smart urban design is to put housing where the jobs are. There is little doubt that is a smart principle, but it involves us figuring out what our true internal needs are and then determining a way to provide housing for those needs. There are pitfalls to that strategy as well, as you end up attracting people more to places like Davis with new residential growth which contributes to the problem of commuting. Until we change that mindset, transportation is going to remain a problem. We seem to be as a society sitting back, waiting for new technology to save us here. But will it be too late?

The third prong to this is obviously going to be business development. I hate to keep coming back to Target, but it is a glaring contradiction. If we are serious about global warming and reducing our carbon footprint, then we cannot continue to practice unsustainable consumer practices. I will be frank--as a society, we do not want to sacrifice. We want to innovate our way out of this problem as we have innovated our way out of many problems in the past. I am unsure we can do that. I think to some extent we are going to have to change the way we live. Housing and transportation are only part of that equation. The other part is our wasteful consumer habits. Target is the perfect model for what is wrong with that approach. The great irony is that we have put Target in the LEED-certified building. We might as well put a HUMMER car lot in a LEED-certified building for all the good this does us.

There are so many problems with the Target model, but let's go over a few. Cheap disposable goods that end up taking large amount of energy to produce and they end up in the landfill. Production is off-sight. The goods are transported from a long way from here to centralized locations where they are then transported here. There are harmful economic impacts as well, but in terms of an environmental model, it is the worst possible model. Where are most of the product manufactured? Oversees in factories that are environmental hazards on a large number of levels. The products themselves are generally not environmentally friendly. You have wasteful packaging that ends up in landfills unless they are recycled. The products themselves are inexpensive, which means they have a limited life, and one needs to purchase more. In short, it is not a sustainable business model for an environment such as ours.

And yet, with all of our time and energy and planning that has gone into the CAT and mitigating global warming, I have seen no consideration of the impact of Target and places like Target on global warming. Unless we are willing to change the way we live and consume products, it is going to be difficult to combat global warming. I see us willing to have bells and whistles and to pay for those bells and whistles, but I do not see us willing to sacrifice.

It is on this point, that I illustrate a further problem. For new development involving housing, the city is moving toward developing greenhouse gas reduction guidelines. Sounds reasonable.

However, now you have at the meeting on Tuesday, a developer who happens to be a member of CAT warning of the danger of putting too many restrictions on developers. To be honest at one level I can understand his concern--this is the person's livelihood, who can blame him for being concerned. But on another level, it is yet another example of the unwillingness to sacrifice. Moreover, I have seen the efforts of a few of the more recent proposed developments who have put almost of this into their proposals already. Why? Because, they have to sell their projects to the community and this is what most people in the community want. So I think largely these fears are unfounded.

The developer suggested that we were the verge of actually shutting down new residential development in this community and that the city will not be able to achieve any of its goals related to housing. I do not buy it. Has anyone seen any indication that the pressure to develop will stop? There is too much money to be made. Developers are more likely to do this voluntarily in order to get their projects approved.

The bottom line here is that this illustrates the peril of such goals. We need to start coming into the mindset at some point that we need to sacrifice. I think there are new technologies and that green technologies and innovations are a driving economic force in the future. There are other jurisdictions with some pretty innovative plans already on the books. But at the core and in the final hour, we need to acknowledge that we are going to have to give some things up. Maybe for the developers it is a bit of the profit margin. Maybe for the city it is a bit of our plans. Maybe the consumers it is some of our cheap and convenient consumer goals. Perhaps it is the luxury of huge gas-guzzling SUVs. Perhaps in Alaska, it is the acknowledgment that drill-baby-drill is in fact incompatible with global warming reductions rather than its cure. I don't know, but it seems to me that we have a lot of tough choices ahead if we want to try to head off the potential fall-out from global warming.

---David M. Greenwald reporting