Earlier this year, the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce presented the Joe Garbarino Large Green Business of the Year Award to the City of San Rafael for the outstanding success of its Climate Change Action Plan. The plan has brought the community together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level even lower than the state-set target to avert global climate change. In the process, the City of San Rafael and its Climate Change Action Plan has become a model that other cities in Marin County, as well as other counties, are looking to follow.
The San Rafael City Council drafted a climate change action plan in 2008, becoming the first jurisdiction in Marin County to create a workable plan. By September 2013, having achieved measurable success, the city received the first ever Silver Beacon Award by the Institute for Local Government and the statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative for Local Leadership toward Solving Climate Change. The award, and the approval this May of their updated 2019 Climate Change Action Plan by the City Council, acknowledges both the excellence of their work and the appreciation of the community at-large.
Cory Bytof has been the Climate Change Action Plan Sustainability and Volunteer Program Coordinator since 2011. Over the past year-and-a-half, he has worked with community working groups and subject matter experts to update the plan. With the up-to-date plan approved and their teams in place, the city is ready to meet or exceed its goals, and the state goals, for 2020, 2030 and 2050. The innovative plan and method of achieving its goals relies on a structure of collaboration, coordination and team efforts within the community framed by a clear set of protocols for measuring and tracking its progress along the way.
While the goals they’re aiming for have been set by the state, San Rafael has so far exceeded them. “Scientists were saying in the mid-2000s that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 if we’re going to stave off the worst of climate change,” says Bytof. The state committed to that goal and reached out to its cities. “They asked local governments to commit to a 15 percent reduction by 2020 – and the state would as well,” Bytof says. San Rafael, being ambitious, set a stretch goal for target reduction of 25 percent by 2020. As of 2016, the city has achieved a community-wide emissions reduction of 18 percent. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge to get to 25 percent by 2020, but Bytof adds, “We’ve got a strong active community, which keeps me optimistic.”
The City of San Rafael follows international protocols for measuring local greenhouse gas emissions and for recording their progress so that everyone is working to the same standard. “All the actions that we have on the plan are measureable,” Bytof says. “Right now, the way we’re doing it is the same way everyone else in Marin is doing it as well as other cities around the world—so you can add them all up together as a county, and you can aggregate them state-wide as well.”
Marin was the first county in the state to adopt a community choice aggregation program—Marin Clean Energy (MCE)—to transition Marin’s energy to cleaner, renewable electricity. In 2010 and 2011, the City of San Rafael opted in to MCE, and residents and businesses were automatically switched over, boosting the program from the start. Individuals could opt out if they didn’t want clean energy. But why would they? With MCE, most of the power comes from wind and solar, much of which is produced in California. And in 2017 the City went further, switching all its municipal electricity to the slightly more expensive 100 percent renewable Deep Green option.
“That was a real game changer,” says Bytof. The success of MCE boosted emissions savings and helped spur the growth of clean energy production in California, with MCE expanding to Contra Costa, Solano and Napa counties. “Now, there’s so much renewable energy on the grid during the daytime, we actually have more than we can use,” says Bytof. After the City took action, showing that clean energy and emissions reduction is possible, it was time for the community to step up.
Currently, the city government—with all its operations and employees—uses just 1 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions of San Rafael. The majority of San Rafael’s emissions come from residents and businesses. “If we are going to have any chance at meeting our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, it’s crucial that everyone be involved,” he says.
Getting community buy-in is key to the city’s efforts to go green. “We have a strong environmental community,” says Bytof. “People demand environmental action. They’ll come to city council meetings, they’ll call their representatives and ask for things to happen, and it doesn’t take long for people to get on board. Students are more active these days and often speak at City Council meetings in favor of climate action. Our awards and success are a direct result of community involvement as well as strong leadership on our Council.”
“Overall, people understand that addressing climate change is really important and we want to do it together as a community,” says Joanne Webster, president of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce. She emphasizes that, unlike what some may think, sustainability doesn’t have to be inconsistent with a growing economy. “It can be consistent with a growing economy,” she says. But it must be equitable as well. That is, it must recognize that measures for emissions reductions should not be thought of as one-size-fits-all. “Those who can afford an electric vehicle right now can afford to plug it in in their home at night. So [charging stations] shouldn’t be publicly funded. If private developers want to add that to their shopping centers, fine. But it shouldn’t be required for a multi-family apartment complex, for example.”
“So, we’re not only looking at the cost analyses and the economic impacts [of energy efficiency], but how equitable are these plans,” she says. “Instead, we consider what’s the return on investment that will have the greatest impact,” she adds. Consideration is also given to the cost and effect of a certain measure on large and small businesses. “It’s harder for a small business to go green. It’s more costly,” says Webster. “For instance, banning single-use plastics or plastic straws is easier if you’re a franchise chain, because it’s one supplier suppling 15 of your stores. But it’s if you’re a tiny café on Fourth Street, that’s a greater cost.” Acknowledging this difference, the chamber awards both the Large Green Business and the Small Green Business of the year. “We want to address climate change,” she says again, “but our position is that you can’t do all of it all the time. So, it’s which ones are the most important and where we can have the most impact.”
To make the Climate Change Action Plan work, as Cory Bytof says, it takes everybody, large businesses and small, and whole communities, working together, doing what they can. In San Rafael and throughout Marin, an organization called Resilient Neighborhoods, formed by veteran environmentalist, Tamra Peters is doing just that. To date, Resilient Neighborhoods (RN) has helped 1,300 people reduce 7 million pounds of CO2 pollution in Marin County.
Peters’ dedication and optimism can be traced back to the start of her career. She joined The Nature Conservancy after the first Earth Day in 1970, and she was working for the Natural Resources Defense Council when the world agreed to the Montreal Protocol, dedicated to grapple with a global environmental problem. A “hole” was forming in the ozone layer – the layer of the stratosphere that protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation and protects humans from things like skin cancer. Chemicals being used worldwide in aerosols, refrigerants and solvents caused the problem, scientific researchers discovered. “The world came together and banned [the chemicals responsible for the damage] Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs),” she says. The Protocol has been renewed many times and now includes 197 nations. As a result, the Ozone hole now is slowly closing.
Peters sees hope from the Montreal Protocol success as we now face an even greater global problem—a warming planet. We are already experiencing impact from climate change in the form of wildfires, droughts, floods and species extinction, and future projections are dire if human activity does not change. Disturbed by what she was seeing, Peters, in 2010, decided to do something about it in Marin where she lives. Bolstered by her background in environmental work, and with a master’s degree in organizational development, she put together a program, supported by the city, called Resilient Neighborhoods. Peters worked full time as a volunteer assisted by an intern. To get started, she launched a pilot with a goal to get 100 households to reduce 1 million pounds of CO2 pollution and create neighborhoods and communities resilient to the impacts of climate-related disasters. The program is comprehensive, focusing on the areas of consumption, diet, water, waste, transportation, home energy, emergency preparedness, adaptation and getting people involved in their community. “We did the pilot and we exceeded our goals,” she says. Residential carbon reduction is important in San Rafael and Marin because over 65% of CO2 emissions are generated by residents. Peters feel good that her program is giving back to the city by helping it achieve its Climate Action Plan goals.
She ran the organization for seven years, leading Climate Action Teams through the five-meeting program. RN still builds teams in neighborhoods, and it’s expanded to offering its program at community centers and libraries and to groups like service clubs and places of worship. Additionally, RN partnered with Marin County last year and successfully created “Resilient Offices.” With additional funding, RN hopes to offer Resilient Offices to other businesses. “Our program is always evolving, adding what is needed. We now teach about creating defensible space and hardening your home against wildfires,” she says. Program graduates are inspired to take action, feel empowered to rise above the fear many are experiencing, and see that their actions do make a difference.
At the root of Resilient Neighborhoods is a change in lifestyle and behavior. “Making changes in our daily habits and decisions can be challenging,” says Peters. “The change is possible because you have a supportive group of people who are there because they want to do something.” The group has a little fun in describing the program, saying it’s like Weight Watchers, except people go on a low-carbon diet to lose 5,000 lbs. in 60 days. "They give their teams names like 'Low Carbon Mamas', and the 'Fetugreenie Carbon-natas'. It’s a lot of fun, and the team bonds.”
She and others serve as team coaches creating a safe, fun environment that encourages behavior change. “Teams can be diverse. For example, there may be renters and apartment building owners on the same team. So the coach tells team members not to judge themselves or compare themselves to others,” she says. “People start where they start, and end where they end. We each have a different life experience. The important thing is that everybody does the best they can and they support one another. In the meetings, people learn about more than 100 actions they can choose from and how to do them."
While individuals can go to the web and use online carbon reduction programs, there’s a special magic that happens in the team. Being in a group is where deep behavior change really happens. Results tend to surpass those of online programs by a wide margin. Why? “People, on their own, may do a couple of actions and then get distracted by all the demands in their lives,” Peters says. “They may reduce 800 pounds of carbon. Whereas in our teams, behavior change tools are at work. Team members publicly commit to reduce 5,000 pounds of carbon or 25 percent of their starting household emissions and take community actions. That commitment leads to our average household reduction of 12,000 pounds of carbon pollution or 30 percent of their baseline emissions. It’s also because we do it in a group and in an organized, step-by-step way. People report in after a meeting and say, ‘These are the actions I took,’ and other members will say, ‘Oh great, I did that too!’ and they exchange useful tips and information.” Peters laughs. “When you know you’ll have to be reporting to the team in two weeks, it motivates you.”
Some of the actions are easy and inexpensive; some take more work and decision-making. Peters says the most important actions are with transportation—driving less, taking public transportation, getting an electric vehicle—and with energy choices such as getting solar panels or buying electricity from 100% renewable sources. “Some of these actions take time and money, but they can be planned and pledged to take later,” Peters says. “We follow up with reminders and current information about rebates and financial incentives." In a survey of graduates, RN found that 75% continue taking actions they learned in the program, even years later.
There’s an investment required for such success, and though Peters says hiring a contractor helps for actions like adding insulation, time is the most important asset needed. “We learned that some people are really busy,” she says. For instance, working parents have busy schedules, and getting nights where people in our neighborhood could meet was challenging.” The program calls for two meetings a month for two hours each—not an insignificant commitment for working people. Nevertheless, when they gather together, the energy increases, and whether team members are homeowners or renters, they all share the same goal.
Resilient Neighborhoods is not just a medium for climate action by educating, motivating and generating change; It’s a way to build more cohesive and involved communities. They’re also building something near and dear to Peters’ heart. “We’re building a deeper connection to nature,” she says, “and the understanding that we’re part of her systems.” For Peters, this is a natural evolution of shared action in the interests of a shared future. “We’re creating a better future,” she says. “And there are people like us all over the world doing it. That’s what will make it work.”
“I’m a big believer in the collective wisdom of our community,” says San Rafael City Councilmember Kate Colin, who herself was once a member of Resilient Neighborhoods, as well as one of the original group that put the Climate Change Action plan together. Now on the City Council, she’s liaison to the Climate Change Action Plan meetings. “This is where we meet with the community on a quarterly basis and say, ‘Hey, what are we working on?’ What do we need to keep working on?’ The meetings are where the real work gets done,” she says, adding, “Because we can’t do this alone.” The question then, is how to engage the community at large?
According to Colin, one motivating factor is that when you’re working toward something with other people, you get to see the cumulative impact of your collective work. “If everyone just starts to do some action, it starts to build.” As with Resilient Neighborhoods, the approach they use is not punitive, but supportive. “If you can’t take 10 actions, take one action,” she says. “Then next month, take another. Then another.” Actions can vary from the small ones—change your light bulbs to LEDs, to the large ones—buy an electric car, get your house insulated or go all the way 100 percent green through Marin Clean Energy. These are very personal action steps and the point is to do what you can.
“It’s so interesting,” says Colin, “someone said something the other day—we were talking about composting and none of us have our green can in our kitchen, we have it outside, so someone said to me, ‘You know…I would compost, but it’s just so inconvenient.’ And I thought – that is such an interesting word. Saving the planet might be a little inconvenient right now, and it might mean that you’re spending a little bit more money on [clean] electricity. But how inconvenient is it to have 10 days of smoke because of the fires? Or to have floods by Highway 101 because of incoming tides and rising sea levels. Right now, those are one-offs, but we’re looking into the future. As our climate changes and the climate patterns change, it will have real implications on how we live our lives.” One group, in her experience, that understands right away: the youth. “The next generation has a very different view,” she says. “They would never say, ‘Oh that’s inconvenient.’ They don’t think that way. The world they’ve come into has always been about, ‘How do we make the world more resilient? How do we prepare for Climate Change?’” She says the most pointed comments they received in the Council chambers have been from the students. “And so, we really do listen to them.”
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, there’s no hope,” says Colin. “I tell people to get educated. Start reading articles. Start learning about the issue. Because if nothing else, being informed, you can’t help but to start to make different decisions.” Plus, on the way, you may find yourself…happier. “It’s been a joy and a necessity,” says Colin. “Because we can’t do this alone.” As you listen to her, and to Cory Bytof, and Joanne Webster and Tamra Peters, you start to realize that what sometimes feels like a distant, abstract, looming global problem too huge for any single effort can be solved in small steps with friends and neighbors working together. It’s an opportunity for results, and hope for the future. “It’s not an environmental issue,” says Colin. “It’s a people issue. It’s all about the community.”
Energy use: Shift energy use to 100 percent renewable by switching to MCE’s Deep Green program. The cost, per household, may be little more than a latte or two a month. Find more information, visit www.mcecleanenergy.org/100-renewable/.
Transportation: Reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by switching to an electric vehicle. Can’t do that? Try alternatives: a hybrid, carpools, bicycles, public transit or riding the SMART train when possible. For more information, visit 511.org.
Energy efficiency: Marin is looking at all the ways to reduce energy use in homes, offices and infrastructure including insulation of buildings, changing to energy-efficient LED lighting, shutting down electronics when not in use. For more information, visit www.marincounty.org/depts/cd/divisions/sustainability/climate-and-adaptation/drawdown-marin/energy-efficiency-in-bldgs-and-infra.
Food: Food waste is a major contributor to global warming. Consider purchasing locally, buying only what you need, donating unneeded food to the Marin Food Bank, compost your food waste. For more information, visit zerowastemarin.org/residents/composting-info-courses/current-campaign/.
Carbon sequestration: Trees and grasses are doing it all the time. Using compost in gardens, rangelands and open space encourages rich native grass cultures that help absorbing carbon, too. Marin Carbon Project is working with farmers to help them become carbon sequesters. For more information, visit www.marincounty.org/depts/cd/divisions/sustainability/climate-and-adaptation/drawdown-marin/carbon-sequestration.
Be a Resilient Neighborhood: Learn all the drawdown strategies and have fun, too.
For more information, visit www.marincounty.org/depts/cd/divisions/sustainability/climate-and-adaptation/drawdown-marin/climate-resilient-communities.
The ozone presents a paradox. On the earth, it is a constituent of air pollution and is harmful to health. But in the stratosphere, in a layer about 10 miles above the earth, it collects in a 30-mile high layer, combining with nitrogen and oxygen to form a protective layer, shielding earth from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet light.
The hole started showing up in an area over Antarctica in 1976, but scientists were not certain until 1985 that the problem was real and that human activity was in the form of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in air conditioning, aerosols and cleaning products, was responsible. Though it’s commonly referred to at the “ozone hole,” it’s a thinning of the ozone layer, not a hole.
In 1986, more than 70 countries, including the United States, signed the “Montreal Protocol On Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer,” the first global environmental effort of its kind. It set targets for eliminating CFCs by 1996. As of 2017, 30 years later, the hole is reduced and scientists expect, with continued compliance, a return to pre-1985 levels by 2050.
For a status report of the progress restoring the ozone layer, visit www.epa.gov/ozone-layer-protection/.
The United Nations Secretary-General will hold a Climate Action Summit in September. General Antonio Guterres, The United Nations Secretary, called on the world’s leaders to make “enlightened” choices, saying, “It’s not only the Pacific that is at stake, it’s the whole planet,” after returning from a tour in May 2019 of the South Pacific Islands. He is hosting a Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019, to stimulate governments to meet the challenge.
For more information, visit www.un.org/en/climatechange/.
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