This graphic by the city of Berkeley illustrates Climate Action Plan successes and outlines what still needs to happen moving forward.
This infographic by the city of Berkeley illustrates Climate Action Plan successes and outlines what still needs to happen moving forward.

The city of Berkeley has reduced community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 8% since 2000 despite a 10% increase in population, the city announced in an annual report mailed last week to residents and businesses throughout the city.

The mailing is the most comprehensive public report produced by the city to date on its progress toward Climate Action Plan goals established in 2006. The city has set a target of a 33% reduction in emissions by 2020, and an 80% reduction by 2050.

The latest annual report, centered around the theme of sustainability, is “a way to look at a broad swath of what city government work is,” said city spokesman Matthai Chakko, “how departments all come together, even if they seem to be working separately, toward a common goal.”

The mailing was an opportunity, said city climate action coordinator Timothy Burroughs, to demonstrate significant emissions reductions that few communities nationwide have been able to achieve.

“It really speaks to how strong of a value this is for Berkeley residents and businesses,” said Burroughs. “It really speaks to how seriously they’re taking energy efficiency. And our job in city government is to make it as easy as possible for residents and businesses to go green.”

Improvements across a range of measures

Reductions were achieved via a range of strategies, from a decrease in electricity use in homes (9%) and businesses (6%), to a 22% drop in home water usage and a 43% decline in the amount of solid waste sent to landfills.

More than half of the city’s emissions come from gas- and diesel-powered vehicles, and the city has taken steps, said city staff, to promote alternatives to their use via better access to cycling resources and public transportation; more electric vehicle and car-sharing opportunities; and land-use strategies to encourage greener buildings along transit corridors. The goBerkeley initiative currently underway is also slated to play a role by decreasing congestion and emissions caused by drivers circling for a parking spot, and encouraging the use of public transportation and shared vehicles.

Click the image above to see more Climate Action Plan result infographics. Source: City of Berkeley
Click the image above to see more Climate Action Plan result infographics. Source: City of Berkeley, 2011

Infrastructure improvements — such as those that will be funded via last year’s Measure M ballot initiative, LED upgrades completed or planned for the city’s 7,600 streetlights, and renovations of the city’s libraries — have also contributed to the 8% reduction, as well as more decreases to come down the line, according to the annual report.

Solar and other lighting upgrades, an increase in street tree plantings and a growing number of LEED-certified construction projects are also bolstering the trend. Neal DeSnoo, energy program officer for the city, said the city has created policies to increase these trends moving forward, by requiring, for example, new construction to be solar- and electric vehicle-ready.

Burroughs noted Wednesday that the economic downtown of 2008 is believed to have made a difference region-wide as far as an increasing awareness about turning off lights, using less water, and finding other ways to reduce energy usage to save money.

Keeping track is key

Tracking all of these measures is a key component for making headway toward Climate Action Plan goals, said Burroughs. And it’s not easy. The city uses PG&E data to track energy consumption; regional estimates from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to track vehicle emissions; data from other agencies to track solid waste that ends up at the landfill; and even data from the U.S. Census to see how far people drive to work. Tracking these and other numbers allows the city to spot trends, learn more about what’s driving changes, and come up with ways to build on progress as deadlines approach.

Marna Schwartz, outreach specialist on green issues for the city, said another tool helping community members change their habits and decrease energy consumption is technology. Cell phone apps and online programs that provide a snapshot of energy usage and trends can provide the information people need to trigger a behavior change, she said. Technological improvements in home appliances, green building practices and cleaner energy sources are also making a difference.

The city is also hoping to encourage more improvements from local businesses via the Energy Smart Awards contest, now in its second year. The goal is to help building owners, managers, staff and tenants better understand how to approach energy use, as well as save money on monthly utility bills. These steps toward efficiency would also contribute toward helping the city in its sustainability goals. (Learn more about the contest here.)

Much of the larger-scale work in Berkeley thus far has been funded by $30 million in grants received by the city since 2009, from the agencies such as the Alameda County Transportation Commission and Metropolitan Transportation Commission ($12.7 million) for transit improvements; the U.S. Department of Energy (about $1 million) for energy upgrades in 250 Berkeley buildings; and the state Department of Forestry to update the city’s tree inventory ($137,500).

In addition to city government-led changes, staff also pointed to the work of the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition, an all-volunteer group led by the Ecology Center that takes on a variety of projects year-round — such as creating community gardens and increasing energy efficiency in multi-family housing — designed to help the city meet its Climate Action Plan goals. (Find out how to get involved here.)

“No silver bullet,” say city staff

To meet the 2020 and 2050 goals, city staff said a broad range of changes still need to take place. These include a push toward vehicles using cleaner fuels and, ideally, fewer vehicles on the road; more solar energy usage; and a larger segment of the population changing their practices at home and work to prioritize conservation.

“We don’t know all the answers,” said Chakko. “And all the solutions that have come to the fore now, some of them we wouldn’t have conceived of, perhaps. in 2006. It’s having that engaged process that makes people look for solutions they might not have thought of before.”

There is no “silver bullet,” added DeSnoo, to reach the goals set forward by the Climate Action Plan. But he said he expects all the current trends to accelerate as more people get on board and the available technologies improve. The 8% reduction, he continued, is an important step in the right direction, and Berkeley is a community that seems more than willing to rise to the challenge.

“The city cannot just impose the Climate Action Plan on people,” DeSnoo said. “It is a participatory process, and the reason we’ve accomplished this is because the community’s responded. We’re demonstrating that progress is possible, and that’s an opening. There’s positive feedback that what they’re doing is having an impact. And that’s got to snowball. That’s the hope.”

Learn much more about the city’s Climate Action Plan on the city website. Information about the city’s approach to sustainability is available here

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...