‘Slow down to speed up’: Berkeley prioritizes equitable sustainability

Illustration of different sustainability-focused items, like solar panels, electric vehicles, and bicycles
Aishwarya Jayadeep/File

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When Billi Romain, manager of Berkeley’s Office of Energy and Sustainable Development, was first employed by the city of Berkeley 15 years ago, the city government had a single sustainability-focused staff member in its economic development office.

Today, Berkeley’s environmental agenda has evolved to be one of the most “ambitious” in the country, spanning several city offices to generate proactive and equitable climate solutions.

The city’s Climate Action Plan — initiated in 2006 through ballot Measure G with 82% voter approval — sets the tone for Berkeley’s current sustainability initiatives, according to Romain. In establishing a goal of slashing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, Romain added, Berkeley committed itself to a long-term path of climate “resiliency.”

“Since 2017, 2018 (sustainability) was a foci; before then, our staff had laid out what the challenges were, where emissions were coming from,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison. “We had a climate change plan with many goals for many years, but they’re just goals. They have to be given the resources and a way to make it happen.”

Environmental legislation began entering the legislative slate en masse in 2018; Berkeley became one of the first cities to pass a climate emergency declaration that year and passed the first natural gas ban on new buildings in the country, Harrison added.

Now, sustainability is embedded in how the city shapes public policy, from transportation to housing to economic development, said Rebecca Milliken, the city’s sustainability outreach specialist.

Milliken laid out an initiative to transition existing buildings away from fossil fuels and a city goal to decarbonize by 2035, as well as efforts to shift to electric mobility options: for example, electric vehicles, scooters and an electric fleet of municipal vehicles.

“Now, all the buildings we own get 100% sustainable energy,” Harrison said. “But what can we do to help homeowners and businesses do the same? The energy does cost more, and so it’s another equity question.”

Equity is the other integral lens for Berkeley’s public policy, Romain emphasized. In addition to an equity fund financing rebates for low-income households, Harrison described a property transfer tax that can have its revenue be accessed by new homeowners to perform energy efficiency upgrades.

These initiatives would expand access to the benefits of sustainability, including decreased power bills and improved indoor air quality and health outcomes, for historically disadvantaged communities in Berkeley, Harrison added.

“We have to slow down to speed up, addressing the needs of all people and making sure we’re improving the quality of people’s lives,” said Elizabeth Redman Cleveland, Berkeley’s chief strategist of sustainable growth. “In the end, that’s what this is all about: the real resilience benefits in sustainability.”

Redman Cleveland speculated that this centering of social sustainability was most likely catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests occurring simultaneously last summer. Romain highlighted that social, economic and environmental forms of resilience are integral to evaluating and reevaluating Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan.

Milliken applauded the city’s active environmentalism concentrated in the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition, formed in 2012 to fold its more than 900 members of the community into decision-making surrounding the Climate Action Plan.

“It’s a great landing place to learn about climate-related opportunities,” Milliken said. “We’re fortunate to have this group of community members and organizations in Berkeley and beyond that want to support our efforts.”

These efforts by the city government and larger community have been mirrored by the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD.

Sofia Peltz, BUSD’s sustainability coordinator, outlined the district’s eight-part Sustainability Plan, adopted in 2018, to solidify “district-level and site-specific sustainability.” For instance, Peltz detailed in an email that by partnering the school community with local nonprofits, a plan to reduce district usage of single-use packaging in food services has been realized.

Other initiatives include promoting environmental literacy and a virtual speaker series with local sustainability professionals to help students develop personal connections to the planet. Those personal links are crucial to incentivizing individual environmental actions, Romain added.

Making use of city sustainability rebates, grants and loans; opting into East Bay Community Energy’s renewable power; shopping locally; commenting on city policies; and joining community environmental groups all require different amounts of effort but all have real impacts, Milliken, Romain and Redman Cleveland added.

“I try to look at the climate crisis not as ‘we’re all gonna die tomorrow’ but more like how can we make our lives better today?” Harrison said. “How can I make my life and life on the planet better at the same time?”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katherineshok.