Indicator city

If cutting edge San Francisco can't meet the challenge of climate change and related environmental issues, are we all doomed?

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"PT. REYES FROM CHIMNEY ROCK" BY TOM KILLION

steve@sfbg.com

When biologists talk about the health of a fragile ecosystem, they often speak of an "indicator species." That's a critter — a fish, say, or a frog — whose health, or lack thereof, is a signal of the overall health of the system. These days, when environmentalists who think about politics as well as science look at San Francisco, they see an indicator city.

This progressive-minded place of great wealth, knowledge, and technological innovation — surrounded on three sides by steadily rising tides — could signal whether cities in the post-industrial world will meet the challenge of climate change and related problems, from loss of biodiversity to the need for sustainable energy sources.

A decade ago, San Francisco pioneered innovative waste reduction programs and set aggressive goals for reducing its planet-cooking carbon emissions. At that point, the city seemed prepared to make sacrifices and provide leadership in pursuit of sustainability.

Things changed dramatically when the recession hit and Mayor Ed Lee took office with the promise to focus almost exclusively on economic development and job creation. Today, even with the technology and office development sectors booming and employment rates among the lowest in California, the city hasn't returned its focus to the environment.

In fact, with ambitious new efforts to intensify development along the waterfront and only lackluster support for the city's plan to build renewable energy projects through the CleanPowerSF program, the Lee administration seems to be exacerbating the environmental challenge rather than addressing it.

According to conservative projections by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Bay is expected to rise at least 16 inches by 2050 and 55 inches by the end of the century. BCDC maps show San Francisco International Airport and Mission Bay inundated, Treasure Island mostly underwater, and serious flooding the Financial District, the Marina, and Hunters Point.

Lee's administration has commissioned a report showing a path to carbon reduction that involves promoting city-owned renewable energy facilities and radically reducing car trips — while the mayor seems content do the opposite.

It's not an encouraging sign for Earth Day 2013.

 

HOW WE'RE DOING

Last year, the Department of the Environment hired McKinsey and Company to prepare a report titled "San Francisco's Path to a Low-Carbon Economy." It's mostly finished — but you haven't heard much about it. The department has been sitting on it for months.

Why? Some say it's because most of the recommendations clash with the Lee administration's priorities, although city officials say they're just waiting while they get other reports out first. But the report notes the city is falling far short of its carbon reduction goals and "will therefore need to complement existing carbon abatement measures with a range of new and innovative approaches."

Data presented in the report, a copy of which we've obtained from a confidential source, shows that building renewable energy projects through CleanPowerSF, making buildings more energy-efficient, and discouraging private automobile use through congestion pricing, variable-price parking, and building more bike lanes are the most effective tools for reducing carbon output.

But those are things that the mayor either opposes and has a poor record of supporting or putting into action. The easy, corporate-friendly things that Lee endorses, such as supporting more electric, biofuel, and hybrid vehicles, are among the least effective ways to reach the city's goals, the report says.

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