Poor air quality due to wildfires is becoming more common locally. Here a man wears a mask on a Berkeley street in October 2017. Photo: Pete Rosos

Devastating Northern California wildfires the past two years has Berkeley talking about accelerating its Climate Action Plan to head off the greater impacts of climate change.

At a special Dec. 6 work session, city staff members told the City Council that Berkeley’s 2009 plan to reduce greenhouse emissions 80% below 2000 levels by 2050 was right on track.

“The horrible fires reminded us of the urgency of the problem,” said Billi Romain, the city’s sustainability program manager. “Berkeley has never wavered in our commitments. We maintained a leadership role by implementing innovative policies and by organizing regional and state coalitions to accelerate action.

“It’s clear the situation is more urgent than ever.”

The annual report was based on numbers compiled through the end of 2016.

Since 2000, Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 15%, despite population growing at an 18% clip during the same time. That number includes pollution from transportation, energy use in buildings and solid waste disposal.

Since 2000, Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 15%, despite population growing at an 18% clip during the same time.

But the city isn’t stopping long to pat itself on the back.

“Our efforts to protect the climate have successfully reduced emissions,” Romain said. “However, we need to accelerate these efforts to address climate change.”

The city is focusing on reducing energy use in construction of new buildings, minimizing landfill waste and converting to cleaner electricity use citywide, as well as taking those cleaner electric methods — literally — to the streets.

Transportation was continuously mentioned as an area needing heavy focus. Even if the city already has the nation’s highest percentage of residents riding their bicycles to work, and the second highest rate of residents walking to work (among cities with populations of more than 100,000), council and staff agreed that’s not enough.

“We need to do more to reduce the number of cars on the road,” Romain said.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other council members recently proposed a citywide goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050, which Arreguín pledged at the most recent Global Climate Summit. They’ve also said the city will become fossil fuel-free, and will only be using renewable energy by mid-century.

“We knew by the fires that occurred, which have literally choked (us), the emergency is real,” said Arreguín. While we are doing a lot, we do need to accelerate the pace at which we are addressing the climate.”

The most recent data shows transportation accounts for 60% of Berkeley’s emissions, while residential and commercial buildings account for 37% (landfill waste sits at 3%, while municipal buildings only account for 0.4% of citywide emissions).

2016 community-wide GHG emissions inventory by sector and fuel. See chart in the city report

Numbers produced by UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory weren’t included in the city tally, though both had representatives at the meeting to report how each is reducing pollution.

“Any new building that we build going forward after June 2019 needs to be zero net carbon (emissions), either through a climate action plan process, or an electrification process” said Kira Stoll, UC Berkeley’s director of sustainability, who added that 35% of the university’s vehicle fleet is powered by alternative fuel.

“We have more work to do,” she said.

John Elliott, Berkeley Lab’s chief sustainability officer, said the lab has a team of experts continuously examining its buildings for ways to improve their energy efficiency. He said the lab’s conversion to LED lighting has changed things dramatically.

“The savings were almost 95%,” Elliott said. “It’s almost laughable, I know. It’s a big savings from new technology.”

He also pointed out that the lab is committed to sustainable practices when it breaks ground — all future buildings will be built in the footprint of previous structures.

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn pointed out that, while the university and the laboratory efforts are laudable, both have “captive audiences and highly motivated” employees. More needs to be done to get residents on board. Among their options is the city’s agreement with East Bay Community Energy to provide more renewable energy as an alternative to PG&E (which still owns the infrastructure).

“The city has the heaviest lifting to do,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot.”

Councilwoman Kate Harrison said, while it’s “incredibly important that we declare it a climate emergency,” she said all the ideas and effort boil down to one thing.

“What’s more important to me is, at the end of the day, how much better our lives are going to be.”

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Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...