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Climate Action 2020 in Sonoma County: Doubts Raised for Carbon Emissions Reduction

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"Climate Action 2020" in Sonoma County: Doubts Raised for Carbon Emissions Reduction

by Jerry Bernhaut, ESQ., environmental attorney

Sonoma County’s Climate Action 2020 program is being developed by the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA), which was formed through legislation in 2009 to coordinate efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the County. Despite the recent praise in the local press for Sonoma County’s leadership in addressing climate change, after learning about the program in detail, I have serious doubts that it will actually lower the County’s GHG emissions to levels necessary generally to avoid catastrophic global warming.

I attended an October meeting of the Stakeholders Advisory Group of the RCPA, which is developing a GHG Inventory as a first step in identifying measures for reducing GHG emissions. Emissions from eight sectors were identified: Transportation; Building energy; Agriculture; Solid waste; Off-road transportation; Water-electricity use for distribution and treatment; Wastewater-methane release from treatment; and Stationary fuel combustion, e.g. industrial boilers and generators. The group estimates the major contributions as Building Energy, 33 percent; On-Road Transportation, 52 percent; and Agriculture, eight percent.

The study disregards obvious major sources of GHG emissions resulting directly from Agricultural activities in the County: the carbon emissions from the destruction of tens of thousands of trees for vineyard development, both from the release of stored carbon and the loss of future carbon sequestration as well as the emissions from deep ripping the soil. Also disregarded are enormous carbon emissions from the global distribution network for wine produced and bottled in the County, also emissions caused by displacement of local food production by vineyard development, requiring more importing of food. The only portion of the County’s total GHG contributions from export and import activities counted under their current methodology is as part of on-road transportation within County borders.

Concerned by the glaring under-estimation of the County’s GHG emissions, I’ve been engaged in discussion with RCPA staff, who have been generous with their time. However, there seems to be an obvious bias against any discussion of the need to limit growth in vineyard and winery development and additional tourist venues. Without those limits it is unlikely that the County’s Climate Action Program will contain measures necessary to lower GHG emissions, when considered proportionally as the County’s contribution to global emissions, to avoid catastrophic global warming.  

The Program relies heavily on reaching zero net energy emissions from new commercial buildings by 2020, and new residential buildings by 2030. Other strategies include smart growth/infill development, improved fuel standards, a goal of 33 percent of energy use in the County from renewable energy sources by 2020, all subject to political challenges to timely implementation. It’s hard to see how this program will lead to significant GHG emission reductions while the County continues to issue permits for new vineyards, wineries, resorts, tasting rooms.

The County Supervisors recently adopted a revised zoning ordinance allowing facilities up to 5,000 square feet to “process agricultural products” (wineries?) and retail buildings up to 500 square feet, including “educational tourism” (tasting rooms?). Approval requires only a ministerial, over-the-counter, no hearing-no notice to neighbors permit costing $570.

Even based on its understated estimates, the RCPA reports that overall GHG emissions in Sonoma County have increased. RCPA staff also confirmed that the County Program, as well as the State regulations, are based on stabilizing parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm) while the most respected climate scientists agree we need to reduce current 400 ppm to 350 by year 2050 to avoid irrevocable, catastrophic warming. I can only conclude that public officials in Sonoma County and other relatively liberal communities are at the stage where they recognize the need for meaningful action to address climate change, but are not yet ready to adopt policies which would significantly change the dominant economic system, which relies on perpetual growth in extractive, water and energy intensive activities.

Leading thinkers such as Naomi Klein (please read “This Changes Everything”) agree we need to create more locally self sustaining communities, focus economic growth in areas that serve local needs-health services, education, local food production, infrastructure repair, forest regeneration not destruction.

I’m not hopeful that the new version of the Climate Action program, scheduled for release soon, will adequately address these concerns. The limits of the framework and methodology they are committed to make that unlikely. I say that while acknowledging that the people involved are very competent and care about their work. In my experience as an environmental attorney, I’ve encountered many situations where smart, well-intentioned people are limited by the political constraints of public agencies they work in.

Recognizing the inadequacies of the Sonoma Climate Action Program as currently conceived, with its grossly understated County GHG emissions, does not imply a rejection of the good programs the County has adopted, like Sonoma Clean Power and energy efficient building standards. It simply recognizes that these programs, without deeper changes in our economic/ecological practices, are not enough to reverse our movement towards increased global warming. As Bill McKibbin said about the 350 ppm versus 450 ppm issue, demanding a truly effective, less compromised Climate Action Program “is not making the perfect the enemy of the good, it's making the necessary the enemy of the convenient.”

We need to start with a realistic account of the County’s greenhouse gas emissions, not one based on what public officials find politically feasible. Once we have the real picture we can work to change what is politically feasible.