Menlo Park became the first city in the U.S. to set a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 on Tuesday when the City Council moved forward with a new plan to slash carbon emissions citywide.
Menlo Park is the first U.S. city to set this goal, according to Menlo Park environmental nonprofit Menlo Spark. The city aims to achieve it by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 90% from 2005 levels and focusing on carbon removal efforts for the remaining 10%.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout associated with it struck, the city's Environmental Quality Commission, which has been developing recommendations for the plan, has narrowed the scope of the project from 77 strategies to six, for now.
The updated climate action plan would replace the city's current goal, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 27% below 2005 levels by 2020. The most current data, from 2017, indicates the city has reduced emissions by about 18.6%.
The new climate action plan would call on Menlo Park to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% of 2005 levels by 2030, to about 34,900 tons down from 349,000 tons in 2005. This would be done by dramatically cutting the amount of greenhouse gases being generated from vehicles, natural gas and waste, and completely eliminating the amount of greenhouse gases from generating electricity. That would be done through the city's partnership with Peninsula Clean Energy, which currently provides 90% clean and renewable energy. The local nonprofit energy provider is working to be greenhouse gas free by 2021 and provide 100% renewable energy around the clock by 2025, according to its website.
Even so, those six strategies are unlikely to have universal support throughout the community, council members said.
They are: explore converting 95% of buildings in the city to all-electric by 2030; set citywide goals to increase electric vehicle use and decrease gasoline sales; expand access to charging for electric vehicles citywide; reduce the annual average miles of vehicle travel per capita by 25% (or another yet-to-be determined goal); stop using fossil fuels for city operations; and create a plan to protect the community from sea level rise and flooding by July 2021.
The council agreed that staff would prioritize the first, third and fifth of those goals.
The step that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions the most annually would be to convert buildings from natural-gas burning ones to all-electric ones, according to Sustainability Manager Rebecca Lucky, and could reduce emissions by between 52,000 and 86,000 tons per year. Halting the use of natural gas citywide would generate reductions on the higher end of that spectrum. Alternatively, and less disruptively, the city could pass a "burnout ordinance."
Such an ordinance would mandate that when a gas furnace burns out or stops working it has to be replaced with an electric heat pump.
Peninsula Clean Energy has offered to provide technical support to help, said Josie Gaillard, environmental quality commissioner. It also offers a water heater rebate and plans to roll out a similar program for space heaters, she said.
Vice Mayor Drew Combs said that one potential obstacle to such an ordinance is that when a gas furnace burns out, a household is in a situation of urgent need. They don't have hot water without it, and it may be difficult to ask them to invest in new electrical wiring that could take time to install, all while they're without hot water. He expressed overall support for the initiative, though.
One of the initial proposals for the first goal was to consider converting 100% of all buildings to all electric systems, but past efforts in pushing for more electricity in new buildings through the city's new "reach" codes generated pushback from property owners like John Tarlton, whose tenants include biotech labs that require gas stoves for scientific purposes, and some chefs who prefer to cook with gas stoves. Council members Catherine Carlton and Ray Mueller pared back the initial proposal to converting 95% of buildings to all-electric, and noted that there would probably be pushback from the community.
"This seems like a really herculean undertaking," Combs said.
Altogether, Gaillard said, an expected value analysis model found that if the city were to invest $1.5 million in the city's climate action plan, it could avoid an estimated $144 million in future costs.
"That seems like a great investment of precious city resources," she said.
Taking action now is critical, Gaillard said, citing scientific research.
The U.N. has reported that global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees of planetary heating between 2030 and 2052. If humans aren't able to cap global warming at that level, there could be "drastic and irreversible planetary changes," according to a staff report. To do that, greenhouse gas emissions planetwide should be decreased by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach "net zero" by 2050, the report said.
Incentives alone won't produce those reductions, Gaillard said. "We need incentives plus mandates."
Council members acknowledged that their plan may be a reach.
"We cannot be Pollyannaish there will be backlash when we have this discussion," Mueller said. "We have to figure out what the community is willing to accept, and, candidly, we may not be able to get there all the way."
"These goals are aspirational, and they're meant to be aspirational," Councilwoman Betsy Nash said. "If we don't have that aspiration, we're never going to tackle the climate crisis."
Correction: A previous version inaccurately stated that the city would prioritize the first, second and fifth of the steps to reduce greenhouse gases. The city will prioritize the first, third and fifth, Lucky said.