The sweetest, greenest spot on the planet

Written by aditya trivedi


We’ve always thought that San Francisco is a pretty sweet spot to be – it’s biker-friendly, you’re ostracized for using paper cups (oh wait… maybe that’s just within the TerraPass office), and green compost bins are more prevalent than trees (I joke, we have a lot of trees). We weren’t being totally egotistical; others thought so too. And now, the city itself has provided evidence that sustainability efforts can make a real impact.

On October 19, Mayor Ed Lee announced that San Francisco has already achieved a 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels, amidst an increasing population and an increase in electricity consumption. This is an extraordinary accomplishment – it surpasses the Kyoto target of 7 percent reduction by 2012 as well as the recently passed AB 32 measure calling for a return to 1990 levels. If you’re more numbers-inclined, check out these pretty bar charts (.pdf) and graphs (.pdf).

The news was presented by Mayor Lee, with support from former Mayor and current Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who was instrumental in pushing through the city’s sustainability efforts during his time in office (2004-2011). In the words of Newsom:

San Francisco is leading by example towards California’s green future by drastically reducing carbon emissions greater than any other U.S. city and surpassing international standards through tough climate change policies. Cities are proving to be the primary agents of action to address the world’s climate change problem. We need other cities to follow San Francisco’s lead if we are going to reduce worldwide carbon emissions and halt climate change.

Several environmental organizations also applauded these efforts. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Vice President David H. Festa remarked:

Savvy cities get that protecting the environment is a business opportunity. San Francisco is capturing that opportunity and leading the way on climate change solutions.

This is great news, and I couldn’t be prouder. I hope that more leaders respond to both Newsom and Festa’s calling. Don’t get me wrong… this is totally rad!

But a small concern. I can’t help but wonder, does San Francisco (and California) have an unfair advantage over other cities? To answer that, we should take a look at how SF got where it has (quotes from the press release)…

1. “The largest contributing factor to the carbon reductions was the closure of the City’s two remaining inefficient natural gas power plants at Hunter’s Point in 2006 and Potrero last year.”

Getting rid of dirty power. It’s certainly not an easy step, and like everything else, comes with a price – so the economics will vary from city to city. But this isn’t unique to SF.

2. “San Francisco’s electricity mix is growing increasingly cleaner. Electricity for the City’s municipal operations comes primarily from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s carbon-free Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric system in the Sierras, and approximately seven megawatts of solar projects on municipal facilities around the City.”

Hmm, well hydropower isn’t really an option for every place. Take Oklahoma for example. You need surface water and topography (surface water needs to flow steeply down). So that’s a bit unique – it’s great that SF took advantage of their surroundings.

3. “Other contributing factors to San Francisco’s emissions reduction achievements include local investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and progress in waste diversion through recycling and composting. SFE’s analysis showed that the City’s mandatory waste recycling and composting law resulted in the diversion of 1.5 million tons of waste in 2009 that would have otherwise ended up in landfills.”

None of these sound city-specific to me. In fact, this seems like the obvious first step that other cities should be taking.

What else is there? Well, two other things come to my mind.

4. The climate is really mild here.

Recall Mark Twain’s quote (made famous by every tourist book ever published): “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Which translates to, the temperature hardly ever drops below 50 degrees F and hardly ever rises above 80 degrees F (except for this blissful two-three weeks in late September, where everyone wears shorts and skirts and skips work to lounge in the parks). What this also means is that people don’t have to consume nearly as much energy as in places like New York, Boston, or Chicago, which experience really drastic winters and very hot summers.

5. Extensive network of public transit.

Literally taking more cars off the road and encouraging commuters to take public transit eliminates greenhouse gases. But what about cities (I’m thinking LA) where the infrastructure makes a lot less sense?

So my non-quantitative-highly-subjective conclusion is that San Francisco certainly has a lot working in its favor, but its progress did not happen but chance alone. SF should be recognized for its leadership decisions. It has done a lot of legwork to get to this point, and will continue to do so – it is striving for 80 percent reduction levels by 2050 (wow!). The decision to eliminate dirty energy, invest in renewables, concentrate on increasing landfill diversion rates, and encourage use of public transit are all conscious efforts that took blood (political capital), sweat (human resources) and tears (shed at high costs of green power).

As other pursue their own sustainability plans with an approach that works for them, I hope that they will look to San Francisco for inspiration.

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