What the Bay Area can do to stop the climate crisis

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350 Bay Area joins other environmental justice, social justice, and environmental groups in welcoming the Biden-Harris presidential administration, an administration that has placed climate action and racial justice among its top four priorities. But what does the November election mean for local climate action?

Of course, it will be a relief that California will no longer need to sue the federal government and face legal hurdles for working to decrease the number of gas-guzzling cars on the road or for reducing air pollution, to name just a few. But even if Democrats win the crucial Senate runoff election in Georgia on Jan. 5, their margin in Congress will be razor-thin. This means that we can’t count on massive federal funding for climate action at a time when inaction is far more costly than action.

In the Bay Area, we are fortunate that, so far, 18 local governments have declared climate emergencies. 350 Bay Area has worked with the Climate Emergency Mobilization Task Force to produce four virtual summits exploring how, after declaring climate emergencies, cities and counties can address the climate crisis.

One of the simplest steps cities can take is to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings.  The city of Berkeley started this movement in 2018, and now 39 California cities, mostly in the Bay Area, have followed suit, including San Francisco earlier this month. This gas ban has support from most builders, as it saves them money by not having to run gas lines to a new building. It also reduces greenhouse gases and air pollution and helps improve safety.

The city of Oakland is set to consider a similar ordinance in December. 350 Bay Area is part of a broad coalition to push the California Energy Commission, or CEC, to adopt a similar statewide regulation for all new buildings.

Another step that has been implemented by California cities such as Berkeley, San Francisco and San Anselmo is to adopt an electric vehicle strategy, which are plans to facilitate more sustainable transportation and encourage residents to do the same. These goals can be met by waiving permit fees for charging stations, including for electric bikes, sponsoring electric vehicle educational classes, streamlining and updating building codes to require parking garages to be EV-ready and working with utilities to install charging stations.

Great progress has been made in California toward creating a 100% clean energy electric grid. Electricity in the Bay Area is increasingly supplied by community choice energy agencies, such as East Bay Community Energy in Alameda County and CleanPowerSF in San Francisco, which are committed to increasing renewable energy and keeping prices affordable.

But with the electrification of buildings and transportation, the demand for electricity is expected to increase significantly in coming decades. Residents must continually push the California Public Utilities Commission and CEC to defend policies that keep electricity affordable and reliable in the face of increasing wildfires and extreme weather.

The more energy that can be supplied by locally distributed sources, the more reliable the grid will be. With the price of renewable electricity plummeting below the cost of natural gas or coal, the future of renewable energy is bright.

The issue of how to fund all of these necessary actions is critical. Without a federal Green New Deal, states and cities need to be creative. A public bank may be just what is needed to supply long-term, low-interest loans for cost-effective technological improvements, such as electric vehicles, solar panels, heat pumps and home insulation — Oakland’s recent Equitable Climate Action Plan calls for such a public bank. The best model for this kind of bank nationally comes from North Dakota, where the Bank of North Dakota has been serving as a source of loans for residents and businesses since 1919.

Finally, there is the issue of a just transition to clean energy for workers and front-line communities. In the Bay Area, the city of Richmond should develop a careful analysis of the financial impact of its work to decommission the Chevron refinery, as well as set in motion sustainable alternatives that are mindful of those who rely on that refinery for income.

Acting now to develop a plan will be much less costly than waiting for the refinery to close its gates and lay off workers, as the Marathon Martinez refinery did in August.

These are just a few of the many actions that cities and counties can take. Many Bay Area cities have climate action plans that are outdated or have not been explored. We urge everyone to work with climate action groups such as 350 Bay Area — and our six local groups in the East Bay, San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Contra Costa counties — to help implement these plans in ways that build a just and equitable society for all.

You should also get to know your local city council members and let them know the climate is a high priority for you — the more they hear these words, the more they are likely to act. For cities, one immediate step is to hire and support sustainability staff to ensure that both the city’s climate action plan and general plan are updated and implemented with the urgency they deserve.

Laura Neish is executive director of 350 Bay Area. Jack Lucero Fleck and Kathy Dervin are co-leaders of 350 East Bay.