Opinion: Denser housing at BART stations is climate-smart

We strongly support the environmentally superior option of putting the maximum legally-feasible amount of mixed-income housing at Berkeley BART stations.

As climate scientists, we strongly support the environmentally superior option of putting the maximum legally-viable amount of mixed-income housing at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations. Allowing denser housing at these major, regional transit stations for a variety of income earners represents a once-in-several-generations opportunity to maximize the number of people who can enjoy lower-carbon lifestyles, enabled by easy access to transit and Berkeley’s plentiful jobs. Settling or pushing for less would fly in the face of climate science. Research from the Renewable and Appropriate Laboratory that one of us (Kammen) directs clearly shows that housing policy is climate policy and is an opportunity for social and racial justice, as described in a 2019 New York Times editorial.

In part because Berkeley has been so successful in energy conservation and a transition to renewable sources of electricity, the city’s greatest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is transportation — primarily gas-powered vehicles. Because Berkeley has thousands, if not tens of thousands more jobs than it has homes, thousands of people commute into and out of Berkeley each day, many of them by car. Every home Berkeley builds, therefore, means fewer cars on the region’s roads — that means less air pollution, lower GHG emissions, decreased congestion, and potentially fewer devastating wildfires. Putting these homes near BART so that the people who live there have easy access to public transportation is the climate-smart and common sense thing to do.

Arbitrarily constraining the amount of housing allowed at Ashby and North Berkeley stations or insisting that only subsidized housing (the city has promised an impressive 35% for affordable housing) should be built on these plots would be wholly inconsistent with the actions Berkeley has taken with respect to climate change. In 2018, the City Council declared a “Climate Emergency.” The term “emergency” implies that climate actions should be given the highest priority; conversely, justifying a lack of action should need to clear a very high bar. Arguments against maximizing housing at Berkeley’s BART stations come nowhere near clearing that bar.

We are deeply concerned that — as in other parts of the country — climate misinformation is prevalent even in Berkeley. Groups such as Berkeley Together, North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance, and Friends of Adeline are spreading climate misinformation that is not grounded in academic research on climate change. In particular, the references to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report are misleading. It is especially galling that these ostensibly “community-minded” groups would actively work against new homes in the midst of a widely documented, crushing housing shortage for all income earners.

For example, these groups have claimed that a denser project made of concrete and steel would be worse for the environment. This is deeply misguided. Unless we expect the people who would otherwise live in Berkeley to go homeless, they are going to live somewhere, and building materials are going to be used for not only the homes they live in, but also the brand new roads they have to drive on. As climate scientists, we would much rather that concrete and steel go toward housing near our BART stations — where people can live car-free and car-lite lifestyles — than to building new highways to far-flung suburbs built over our farms and wildlands.

Some of these same groups have also incorrectly claimed that rooftop solar is more important to meeting our climate goals than creating homes along our transit corridors. This is patently false. According to Berkeley’s most recent greenhouse gas emissions inventory, only about 2% of the city’s emissions resulted from residential electricity use. Moreover, now that Berkeley has elected to receive 100% renewable energy from East Bay Community Energy, this percentage will be even lower, if not zero. On the other hand, transportation accounts for 60% of Berkeley’s GHG emissions. As we explained above, every housing unit in Berkeley potentially represents at least one less person driving in and out of Berkeley each day. That has a much bigger climate impact than a few solar panels.

We are at a critical juncture with respect to climate change, and Berkeley has long prided itself on being a model for meaningful climate action. Putting more housing at the city’s BART stations is one of the most impactful things the city can do to reduce the region’s emissions, while also helping to alleviate the crushing housing shortage. A Council decision to support the legally permitted maximum number of new homes at Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations represents an opportunity for Berkeley to truly “walk the walk” on climate change, and we urge you to take this important step and follow the science.

Dr. Dan Kammen is the Senior Advisor on Energy and Innovation for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). He served as a contributing or coordinating lead author on various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1999. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He is a professor of energy at UC Berkeley, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, former Science Envoy for the United States Department of State, and a Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is also a principal of the EcoBlock 100% clean energy block-scale project for lower-income East Bay residents (https://ecoblock.berkeley.edu).
Dr. Charlie Koven is a Berkeley parent and climate scientist who studies feedback between climate and the global carbon cycle. He was a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report, published last year.