City of Santa Monica: Models Effective Local Climate Action in Alignment with C40 Goals

Rick Cole

Santa Monica recently passed its landmark Climate Action & Adaptation Plan, a blueprint for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.  Focusing on achieving zero waste, sustainable transportation and zero net carbon buildings, the plan outlines a range of specific policies and actions to realize these ambitious goals. VXNews spoke with Santa Monica GM Rick Cole, who outlines ways to ensure Santa Monica is “climate ready” through water self-sufficiency, preparing for coastal flooding, and promoting low-carbon food supply and green ecosystems.

Following the conclusion of the UN Climate Summit in New York, attention is now focused on the C40 Mayor’s Summit in Copenhagen.  The international gathering of cities aims to focus on “innovative actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve climate resilience; influence decision makers to take the bold and urgent action; and inspire participants and citizens to take climate action in their own lives.”  How does Santa Monica, which has been a regional leader in climate action, view the prospects for coordinated international efforts by cities around the globe?

Rick Cole: We strongly support the leadership role of the C40 Mayors. Santa Monica Mayors and Councilmembers have taken an active role in thinking globally and acting locally. We’ve never pretended that we can abate climate change in 8.3 square miles.  What Santa Monica has done over the past thirty years and what Santa Monica aims to do over the next thirty is to be a regional leader and a national model of effective local climate action. Thirty years ago, we were the first city in the nation to adopt a sustainability plan and put in place a chief sustainability officer.  Over the past three decades, literally hundreds of cities have taken these steps. Earlier this year, the Council adopted a comprehensive Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.  We hope the actions we are taking to implement that plan will spur similar widespread emulation.

The Santa Monica Council adopted the new plan unanimously, but some press coverage focused on the purported $800 million price tag as unreasonable and infeasible.

I agree that many focused on our best estimates of the total investment in projects and policies that will support carbon neutrality – but they missed the point.  Like the national debate on the proposal for a Green New Deal, the salient point is that spending money to limit climate change contributes to the triple bottom line: in addition to benefiting the planet and the people who live on it, it also saves money in the long run, creates good jobs and builds a more sustainable economy. Most of the funding we will devote to fighting climate change over the next decade delivers cost-effective collateral benefits.

Take two examples. We are spending $85 million to build a City Hall annex that will be the first public building in America to eliminate exported waste and imported water and energy.  It will be self-sufficient in all three areas.  Yes, it’s more expensive up front, but the elimination of ongoing utility bills and ending outside leasing of city offices actually saves money over the life cycle of the financing – and will create a much more efficient workspace to serve the public.  

Similarly, our commitment to wean ourselves off water pumped in from the Sierras or the Colorado River by 2023 not only lowers carbon emissions – it saves rate payers from both higher rates over the long-term and ensures more reliable supply. 

We are not planning to spend $800 million just to stop climate change.  That’s the magnitude of investment we will be making to ensure Santa Monica prospers by reducing waste, locking in a reliable and affordable water supply, promotes smarter mobility choices and invests in a healthy local environment.  

That’s a daunting price tag, however. Can other communities afford to emulate Santa Monica?

Look, there is no “one size fits all” formula – in fact that’s the key to the C40 Leadership model.  What works in Los Angeles can’t be imposed on Cairo and what makes sense in Jakarta can’t be copied in Buenos Aires.  What counts is that we all strive to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Again, the formula for C40 is innovate, influence and inspire.  Santa Monica is “all in” on each of those efforts – to try new approaches, to show what can be done and inspire others to act.

Then let’s focus in on the three primary goals for your climate action targets.  Let’s start with zero waste.  How realistic is that goal in light of the stunning setbacks in the international recycling market?

It probably never made sense to ship our waste to China in hopes it would be recycled instead of being buried or burned. Instead of fooling ourselves by filling those empty shipping containers on their way back to East Asia with plastic waste, there are two much more direct ways to get to zero waste: quit using so much plastic and use materials that can be recycled domestically. If venture capitalists can pump gazillions into ride sharing services and social media apps, they can help save the planet. We’ve gotten uber-lazy about convenience in packaging. It’s stupid, it’s wasteful, it’s choking the ocean and it’s setting the planet on fire. We were not the first to impose new regulations on throw-away plastics in the food industry, but the law our Council passed last year is the toughest in California.  And we’re working with restaurants and ultimately suppliers to make it work.  We still need a straw that works with smoothies that won’t end up inside a mackerel.

Let’s turn to mobility. Santa Monica is ground zero for the scooter revolution. Is that sustainable?

I’d give the same answer that Chou En-lai gave when asked whether he thought the French Revolution had been successful: too soon to tell.  But that’s the challenge of innovation, you can’t tell for sure in advance what’s going to work.  Right now, the scooter industry seems to be settling down.  The devices are becoming sturdier and safer in order to become more profitable.  There will be more industry consolidation.  And then there will be another cycle of innovation.  What’s important to remember amidst this disruptive churn is that besides bikes (which pre-date autos), scooters are the most promising urban alternative to cars in 100 years. 

Let’s take a step back.  In LA County, we’re investing north of $100 billion in expanding rail (the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica is already exceeding 2030 rider projections).  We’re electrifying our buses (Santa Monica just put our first prototype into regular service).  We’re enhancing the bike, scooter and ped realm to make biking, scooting and walking safer and more attractive (we just committed $2 million in scooter device revenue toward adding 19 miles of green bike lanes in Santa Monica.) Even the car industry is going electric (we are on track to have 1000 public charging stations in Santa Monica by 2025.) None of these steps by themselves gets us where we need to be – but all of it, gets us much closer to where we need to be, especially if we put our foot down hard on the accelerator – the electric accelerator in this case.

The third priority in your strategy for 80% greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is zero net carbon buildings. How realistic is that?  

I mentioned our own model, the 50,000 square foot addition to our historic City Hall. That opens on Earth Day next year.  In this arena we are following the lead of C40 Cities like New York and Los Angeles who have pioneered the template for reducing fossil fuel use in existing buildings.  We’re also aligning with cities like Berkeley in requiring new buildings to forgo carbon fuels.  The biggest step forward is one we’ve already taken.  In setting a 100% clean power default for residential and business customers as part of joining the Clean Power Alliance, we have shifted over 90% of those customers – and our entire municipal operation – to 100% clean power. Adding in incentives for solar and the first-in-the-nation zero net energy requirements for single family homes, we think we have a realistic strategy for eliminating one of the major local contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, you mentioned that water self-sufficiency is integral to both your climate action and adaptation plan. Can you cut your lifeline with the Metropolitan Water District without desalination? 

The short answer is, yes.  We are already close.  Our residential and commercial customers continue to conserve despite the end of the drought.  Through conservation and recycling, we’ve cut water use by nearly 20% and aim to cut it by another 20% by 2023.  New development is prohibited from adding to water demand through a combination of on-site conservation and purchased credits that fund conservation offsets.  A major expansion of our stormwater retention and treatment capacity is ready to break ground.  That will augment local water supply.  Given the multiple threats to Southern California’s imported water supply, we think self-sufficiency makes sense, without counting the energy savings from not pumping water from far away sources.

All of Santa Monica’s efforts around waste, mobility, energy and water have required tremendous political will from both the Council and the community. Every step has encountered controversy. None has been easy to implement. Sustaining this level of commitment over thirty years is remarkable.  Yet as a coastal community, Santa Monica never loses sight of our connection to the natural environment.  Our quality of life and standard of living depend on it.  We have a comprehensive plan for promoting sustainability, but the hardest work lies ahead.

All that’s sounds like a remarkable record – and commitment to continuing leadership. Given what Santa Monica has been able to achieve and what it is planning to implement in the near future, how optimistic are you about the impact of the efforts of Santa Monica and California to make a real difference in the planetary challenge?

Pope Francis says that in human affairs there is little basis for optimism, but there is always reason for hope.  If we hesitate to act out of fear that our efforts may fall short, the consequences will be dire for ourselves, our children and everyone on the planet. Even someone without faith, like Albert Camus, believed that we are impelled to push our rock up the hill, no matter how exhausting the effort nor how daunting the prospect for success.  So we must act – and let history be the final verdict on whether we did enough.

“The formula for C40 is innovate, influence and inspire. Santa Monica is all in on each of those efforts – to try new approaches; to show what can be done; and inspire others to act.”—Rick Cole