The power of local government: Berkeley’s environmental progress

Jeong Yun Choi/Staff

In January, Berkeley became the first U.S. city to ban natural gas pipes in new buildings, due to an initiative led by Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison, which added to the city’s long record of progressive environmental ordinances.

The passage of Berkeley’s natural gas ban at the city level is an example of a local effort to reach California’s ambitious zero-carbon energy goal by 2045, set by former governor Jerry Brown in 2018, which called for the transition to 100% carbon-free electricity sources.

“Cities and other municipalities really do the experimenting and the state listens very closely,” said Daniel Kammen, a campus professor with parallel appointments in the Energy and Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy and the department of nuclear engineering, on the role of local government in influencing state and federal legislation.

“Just like the primaries are a place to test-run presidential candidates, cities are a place to test run these ideas,” Kammen said.

Despite current environmental rollbacks at the national level, such as replacing Obama’s Clean Power Plan with a rule that allows states to govern their own emissions, or canceling a requirement for oil and gas companies to report on their methane emissions, cities like Berkeley continue to pass progressive environmental ordinances, even when they don’t align with national goals.

One of the powers reserved for city governments is land use, explained Harrison. In order to pass the law banning natural gas hook-up for new buildings, Harrison utilized the unique powers of local government, “something that really the state doesn’t have the specific land-use authority to do,” she said.

Natural gas accounts for 27% of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions. This ban is one step toward achieving Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2009, that seeks to “reduce the entire community’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 2000 levels by 2050.”

Referencing the city’s responsibility to “guard the health and safety” of its residents, Harrison’s office and Berkeley Council co-sponsors Cheryl Davila, Ben Bartlett and Sophie Hahn were able to prove that the use of natural gas is a public safety, health and environmental issue, resulting in a unanimous vote to pass the ordinance in 2019.

Pioneer environmental ordinances such as the natural gas ban in Berkeley have more influence than just bringing Berkeley and California one step closer to their climate goals. They also encourage progressive environmental laws in other cities and states.

Local action is necessary to do two things, explained Kamman. “One is to innovate and two is to demonstrate that by saving the planet you are not somehow ruining the economy.”

Since President Donald Trump’s executive decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord — an international decision that encouraged climate governance at a local level — Kamman has seen an increase in local government initiatives to combat the climate crisis, especially in states such as California. Kamman explained that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international agreement “emboldens” cities and municipalities that want to “ignore our national leaders if they are going in the wrong direction.”

Not until California sees that “the green clean energy movement is really a social justice movement,” will the state be able to reach its climate goals, said Kamman. He added that clean energy should be available for not just affluent families in Berkeley, but the poorest neighborhoods as well.

Local engagement, such as that demonstrated by Berkeley’s natural gas ban, continues California on the path for a greener energy economy and a cleaner environment. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, revealed that the average turnout rate for California in city council elections was 48%. With less than half of California’s population voting in local elections, the local government may no longer fully reflect the interests or needs of its citizens.

“The result is that an extraordinarily unrepresentative set of residents determines how local governments distribute services and spend the almost $2 trillion that local governments control,” said Zoltan Hajnal, professor of political science at UC San Diego, in a New York Times opinion piece about low voter turnout in local elections.

The city of Berkeley is responsible for public health, parks, police and environmental policy, Harrison explains, “local politics is where everything happens that affects your day-to-day life.”

Writing to Berkeley’s City Council members, following local Council member newsletters and attending policy Council meetings are just some of the ways Harrison said Berkeley citizens can get more involved in local government.

“Local initiatives are critical,” Kamman said about the role of local government in leading California and the U.S. toward a cleaner economy and healthier environment. “Berkeley can be the front end of the New Green Deal.”

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected] .