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Zoe Siegel

Prioritizing Equity, Capacity Building, & Natural Solutions to Take Bold Climate Action

In September, Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors passed a Declaration of Climate Emergency to acknowledge the climate crisis and take decisive action to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt their communities to a changing climate. The resolution demands accelerated actions on the climate crisis and calls on local and regional partners to join together to address climate change. This Declaration resolves to establish an interdepartmental task force to focus on the urgent implementation of the County’s Climate Action Plan and incorporate COVID-19 recovery into their climate goals all while prioritizing environmental justice and the needs of highly impacted communities. This Declaration also takes bold action to develop a plan to create a “Just Transition” away from a fossil-fuel dependent economy.

As cities and counties across the Bay Area grapple with how to respond, mitigate, and adapt to the consequences of climate change, many jurisdictions have employed emergency declarations to take immediate action. Adding the “emergency” title to the slow-moving disaster of climate change can be the crucial step for a jurisdiction to allow elected officials and staff to take the bold action needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. We are already experiencing serious climate impacts from the current +1.2˚C increase in overall global temperature, on pace as a planet to reach +1.5˚C in the next decade (get more information on this via the IPCC). We need to take decisive action now to avoid even more catastrophic climate-driven disasters than the present-day ones. 

We applaud Contra Costa County and the multitude of other cities and counties around the region who have also passed Climate Declarations. Passing a climate emergency is a great step in prioritizing climate action, however, it is just one step of many that are needed in order to take decisive leadership to prevent catastrophic climate change in our region and our world. 

But what other steps should local jurisdictions take to accelerate climate action?

Integrate Climate Action Into General Plans

Every jurisdiction must take steps to reduce emissions and incorporate adaptation measures into their communities. We need to make sure every jurisdiction has a Climate Action Plan that is integrated into a local General Plan. Climate Action Plans are cities’ guidebooks to mitigating climate change and addressing resilience, but they frequently have less influence and authority than the General Plan. General Plans are the regulatory guiding force of a jurisdiction so cities must connect the resilience ideas in the Climate Action Plan to implementable policies in the General Plan. 

SB379, a bill passed in 2015, is legislation requiring all cities and counties in California to incorporate climate adaptation and resilience into General Plan Safety Elements or other documents. There are a multitude of ways jurisdictions can comply with this regulation and it is often difficult to monitor and track which jurisdictions are in compliance and which are not. The Office of Planning and Research (OPR) conducted a survey to gain insight into the types of plans that local governments use to meet SB379 requirements and what kind of progress has been made to date. 

Of the 71 jurisdictions, OPR focused on for this study, 23% of respondents have self-reported completing the requirements for SB379 and 56% have completed a review of existing planning documents. Five years after this regulation was passed, this is a small subsection of jurisdictions that have met the SB379 requirements. Interestingly, the majority of jurisdictions reported that the largest barriers to adhering to SB379 are a lack of funding and organizational capacity to deliver on heightened local climate planning.

Increase Funding and Capacity Building

There is a clear need for funding, capacity building, and also urgent climate action now. Even in our economically depressed COVID-19 world, we need to prioritize funding for resilience projects and work to build capacity so that local jurisdictions are able to meet their climate goals. We cannot afford to wait to mitigate climate change. We must develop innovative funding strategies and build partnerships across agencies, departments, and regions to build capacity. The Bay Area Climate Adaptation Network is an example of an effort to boost capacity across jurisdictions. Greenbelt Alliance is developing planning guidance, innovative policy strategies, and key partnerships as part of its Accelerating Climate Resilience Program that will bolster capacity and support local and regional efforts to implement equitable, climate-resilient land-use decisions. 

Embed Equity Into Everything

Climate change is exacerbating the injustices that frontline communities face, which makes equitable climate adaptation even more essential. In order to be resilient, we must center equity in the development of environmental policies by prioritizing the needs of climate-vulnerable communities. This includes responding meaningfully to their leadership in designing solutions and leveraging resources to ensure equity-focused outcomes are tied to each policy. Resilience investments should prioritize projects in low-income communities and communities of color and work directly with the community to come up with solutions that work for them to build resilience and adapt to future climate impacts.  In their report, Making equity real in climate adaptation and community resilience policies, the Greenlining institute emphasizes that we must center community needs and build social equity into the very fabric of policies and grant programs that focus on climate adaptation and resilience. We must build equity into every resilience process so that community members are deeply engaged and can share their priorities and learn how to adapt to the challenges of a changing climate.  For accountability, policies and grant programs should build in evaluation metrics and regularly evaluate their equity successes.  

Prioritize Nature-Based Solutions

On October 7, 2020, Governor Newsom announced Executive Order N-82-20 to conserve 30% of natural and working lands by 2030—putting California on the right track to utilize the power of nature to reduce emissions and address impacts of climate change. Natural solutions reduce the risk of wildland fires and flooding, provide clean drinking water, fresh food, and improve air quality while promoting climate change resilience and supporting the ecological systems upon which we all depend. In order to fully realize this vision, however, there needs to be a funding strategy and implementation plan tied to it. This will increase resilience and investments in natural lands through carbon sequestration, stormwater mitigation, shoreline protection, and fire resilience and will provide a natural canopy to mitigate extreme heat. As we have seen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, access to public space is critical for our health and well being and the projects that result from this executive order should serve a dual purpose of providing physical resilience through natural solutions while also providing health benefits and social resilience through parks and areas of recreation.

Build More Housing in Existing Communities

The climate crisis and housing crisis are inextricably linked. We need to develop strong housing policies, like Opportunity Housing in San Jose that my colleague Justin Wang writes about, that prioritizes equitable infill development—reducing sprawl and limiting development in fire and flood-prone areas. Bay Area residents who cannot afford to live near their workplace must commute long distances which has negative effects on their health and GhG emissions. Compact infill development and increased affordable housing in existing neighborhoods will help to ensure that Bay Area residents have access to housing, reduce GHG emissions, and create healthy, safe communities where families can thrive. We cannot continue to build housing without taking fire risk into consideration. In his conversation with my colleague Sarah Cardona, Van Butsic explains that we need to prioritize infill housing in existing urban areas. There are ways to add density while also making them safer and more livable. We need to make strategic decisions to avoid development in fire-prone areas like the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) or outside Urban Growth Boundaries

Take Bold Action to Achieve Net-Negative Emissions by 2030

The DNC Climate Committee has set the following national climate targets near-zero emissions by 2040:

  • 100% clean renewable energy by 2030 in electricity generation, buildings, and transportation
  • 100% zero-carbon new buildings by 2025

Accelerated national targets are also articulated in the recently released plans from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. To get anywhere close to these updated national goals, California must accelerate its efforts. The proposed Climate-Safe CA 2030 targets are: 80% below 1990 GHG levels. In order to do this, local jurisdictions must take bold action to reduce emissions. As an example of an out-of-the-box strategy, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently proposed a 60% work from home policy as part of the Final Blueprint in the Plan Bay Area regional planning process, as a potential method of reducing emissions.

Increased Communication and a Coordinated Regional Effort

In order to be fully resilient, we must work together on a coordinated approach to the impacts of climate change. Cities must work in close partnership with surrounding cities, park districts, wastewater districts, and local landowners to make sure the Bay Areas lands and people are resilient to the effects of climate change. Sea level rise and fires do not stop at jurisdictional boundaries so we need a coordinated regional solution with clear goals and implementable policies. We also must communicate internally across departments and with local community-based organizations in order to build the networks and trust needed to respond to disasters. 

At Greenbelt Alliance, we stand ready to educate local, regional, and state government leaders on the climate-resilient land-use policies to prioritize, including nature-based solutions to wildfire, flooding, and drought, and prioritizing low-income communities of color who face the most serious impacts of climate change with the fewest means to adapt. We advocate for incorporating adaptation measures and innovative policy solutions into ongoing and future planning efforts, and the meaningful involvement of all people in these environmental and land-use decisions. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with various agencies, sectors, jurisdictions, and diverse community-based organizations to unlock regional coordination in planning for climate impacts and taking the bold suite of steps needed to face the climate emergency head-on.

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