An Interview with Two Climate Warriors about the County of Santa Barbara’s One Climate Initiative
The impacts from climate change have touched most everywhere worldwide and Santa Barbara County is no exception. Despite being the birthplace for the modern environmental movement, rising temperatures, devastating wildfires, and increasingly severe weather events have impacted our community in immeasurable ways. The Thomas Fire in December 2017 signaled the unpredictability of what has now become a year-round fire season. Shortly thereafter, the Montecito debris flow catastrophe struck, costing our community far more than monetary damage. These events underscored the need for local action to address climate change impacts specific to our county. In response, the County in late 2020 announced several efforts to reduce carbon emissions, increase community resilience, and prepare for climate impacts.
This article will explore these initiatives through two conversations. Garrett Wong is the Climate Program Manager for the County’s Sustainability Division and is responsible for leading the development of the County’s new 2030 Climate Action Plan. Katie Davis is the Chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter and she also serves on Sierra Club California’s Executive Committee Board. Her roles with the Sierra Club provide her with a unique vantage point to see how local actions can best plug into California’s statewide goals.
Let’s talk about the specific climate initiatives that make up the County’s One Climate Initiative. First, the Safety Element of the County’s General Plan will be updated to address climate change. What can we expect to see in these updates to the Safety Element?
GW: “The Safety Element fundamentally should inform how we plan and design our communities, and how we might respond to certain incidences that are essentially unplanned…. As we start to look at future climate change impacts, there are some risks that we may want to avoid in a concerted way so that we are not leaving people in harm’s way …. We’ll have to consider the likelihood of sea level rise encroaching upon residential neighborhoods [and] the likelihood of wildfires impacting certain communities. On a more programmatic level, we need to consider how we protect and treat our vulnerable populations in a more concerted way as extreme heat becomes more prevalent [and] as wildfire smoke also impacts them. Hopefully, this will be an exercise that allows us to think and prepare in advance of these events. Unfortunately, we have recent events to use as case studies about what went well and what didn’t go well.”
KD: “It is admirable that the County is doing this work [now] and it will save us a lot of money, issues, and problems down the road. The better you can plan now for what is coming, the more prepared you will be and the less issues you will have. For instance, if you have evaluated what areas are vulnerable to flooding …., then you can start planning accordingly. Maybe we do not build as close to creeks, so we have bigger setbacks from areas that are vulnerable. Maybe our building code requires that [development] is elevated in areas subject to flooding.… We could have more conditions around what can and cannot be done in high fire hazard zones. It is good to plan so you don’t have as many houses that are flooded or burned down, or as many people that suffer the negative consequences.”
Second, the County is also developing a new 2030 Climate Action Plan to achieve a 50% reduction of community-wide GHG emissions by 2030. The 2015 Energy & Climate Action Plan (“ECAP”) had a sunset date of 2020. Tell us more about the strategy to reduce GHG emissions that was set forth in the 2015 ECAP.
GW: “The [ECAP] is a non-statutory plan. It is a voluntary document that most jurisdictions develop to do several things. One is to establish a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon emissions from different sectors of the community. The other outcome may be to streamline permitting for development so that individual projects do not need to assess and mitigate their own GHGs at the project level. The County’s [2015 ECAP] had a number of different objectives and Emission Reduction Measures [ERMs]. It spanned across different sectors’ emissions like buildings, transportation, agriculture, solid waste, wastewater, and aviation. It essentially identified actions to be taken in order to reduce emissions from those sectors to achieve the County’s goal of a 15% reduction by 2020 compared to 2007 emission levels.”
KD: “The [County] did not meet their goals [in the 2015 ECAP] and the main drivers of that were the increase in natural gas usage and increase in vehicle miles traveled from transportation. We have a lack of housing, so that plays into it. People have to drive further to their jobs and commutes are increasing…. One thing missing from the 2015 ECAP was stationary sources, like oil production facilities.… Most places do [include stationary sources] and there was no reason to exclude those sources. We should continue to bring [stationary sources] down as well because [stationary sources] are also emitting a lot of air pollution like PM2.5.
[i] [PM2.5] is particularly terrible, causes cancer, and makes people more vulnerable to COVID, so there are lots of other benefits to not having those emissions. It may be not as bad as it looks if we can keep stationary sources from increasing as well—if we don’t expand oil production and restart offshore platforms.”
What did the 2015 ECAP achieve and what still needs to be addressed to reduce GHG emissions?
GW: “A lot of the work that the  ECAP set out to achieve is actually coming to fruition now. Community Choice Energy [CCE] … will increase renewable energy options and lower carbon energy for residential and commercial customers. We are about to open a new ReSource Center at the Tajiguas Landfill, which will increase the county’s landfill diversion and increase recycling and composting rates. We are installing charging stations across county facilities and increasing the use of electric vehicles. The County—in collaboration with San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties—recently launched a new regional energy network to deliver energy efficiency to low income and hard-to-reach customers. The work that still needs to be done is … quite a lot. We know that in order to achieve our goals we must develop (or consider) more ambitious policies as well as robust programs. We need to reduce natural gas use in buildings, … we need to reduce commuter trips, and we need to electrify vehicles on the road, including those for goods movement. Those will be the primary objectives to reach our goals.”
What do you hope to see in the 2030 Climate Action Plan?
GW: “The 2015 ECAP was ambitious in the sense that there were too many actions and measures to implement in order to be effective. We hope that the next Climate Action Plan will be more targeted and specific to achieve speed and scale when it comes to emissions reductions.… [W]e plan to engage businesses and industries in order to shift their operations and their use of technology to help make them more efficient and a part of the solution.”
KD: “I think that we made huge progress with renewable energy since the 2015 ECAP. Prices for solar and wind have come way down and for battery storage as well. We have a clear path. We are joining a community choice program that already has a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030…. That is huge because we have been getting our electricity from powerplants down in Oxnard, which were polluting that area and are also reliant on one grid line coming up through the mountains that is vulnerable. To the extent we can have more solar in Santa Barbara County on buildings and more battery storage facilities, which is already happening, it will be a more resilient grid and a less polluting one.…
There has also been a lot of forward movement on electrifying our transportation sector. MTD has a goal of 100% electric buses … I expect [fleet electrification] to continue and expand. Governor Newsom signed an order saying that we will not be buying gas cars after 2035, so that is really setting a direction for future transportation … being powered by 100% renewable energy. Once we have 100% renewable energy, we can power our cars and transportation from it—that is really how we reduce GHG emissions. Their prices for electric vehicles have come way down. There are used options now and a lot more infrastructure, so I would expect to see a focus on continuing to ensure that upswing and making sure people have a way to charge … their cars ….
Buildings are another major source of GHG emissions aside from electricity and transportation. That is really about, again, moving away from natural gas.… It is more affordable to build buildings without having to build out natural gas infrastructure, like dual fueling, so we will actually save money. It’s a win, win, win. Reduce GHGs, make things more affordable and improve people’s health, so I would expect some building stuff to be in there.”
Third, the Active Transportation Plan (“ATP”) will emphasize the need for both active transportation infrastructure planning and programs to help meet the County and region’s goals for transportation mobility and accessibility choices. The ATP is intended to promote safety, mobility, and access while reducing carbon emissions and supporting public health. Why is transportation important to addressing climate change impacts?
GW: “As most people know, transportation is not only one of the largest sources of emissions locally and globally, but it is also just the bane of our existence. More than 98% of all vehicles on the road are still fossil fuel powered. There are many options that are available now for [electric] passenger vehicles and we need to make sure that everyone’s next vehicle that they purchase will be a non-fossil fuel powered vehicle. The Active Transportation Plan is primarily focused on getting people out of vehicles and on foot, bikes, or other personal mobility devices. By making it easier for people to get around without their car, we do a number of different things: we improve individual and public health by encouraging people to be more active; we promote a stronger and more localized economy by encouraging people to patron their local retailers and restaurants; and we foster a greater sense of community by getting people out in their own neighborhoods.”
KD: “Active transportation specifically refers to pedestrians, so making sure areas are walkable and bikeable. Too much of our planning has been very car-centric and very road-centric.… Re-thinking our communities so we are paying attention to pedestrians and cyclists is important. Both for the people doing it—to improve safety—but also because [there are] no GHG emissions from biking and walking. It is a more livable community when you pay attention to all forms of transportation, not just cars.…”
Fourth, let’s talk about the 2021 CCE Launch, (available at www.countyofsb.org/3ce). As of January 2021, the Central Coast Community Energy (“3CE”) enrolled residential and commercial customers in the unincorporated areas of the county and all cities with the exception of Lompoc and Santa Barbara. What exactly is CCE and why is it an important climate initiative?
GW: “There are two portions of electricity service. One is generation and the other is distribution. Generation is where power is generated from—things like solar and wind, but also natural gas plants and large hydro plants. Distribution is how power gets to the customer through the poles and wires that go over the hillsides and crisscross over neighborhoods. We pay for two services: one is to have enough power and the other is to have reliability. CCE is a process by which local governments take over the energy generation portion of your utility bill. Local governments having climate goals in mind are able to source their community’s energy from existing and new energy generators that meet those objectives, like solar and wind. CCE also enables local governments to capture rate payer dollars, which have historically gone to the investor-owned utilities who ultimately have to pay shareholder dividends. By contrast, CCE programs are not for profit and therefore have greater capabilities and interests in re-investing rate payer dollars into local projects and programs that create green jobs in the community.
3CE already has in place a suite of community programs primarily orientated around electrification of buildings and vehicles as well as a resiliency program to promote battery storage. As a member of 3CE, we have the ability to influence the programs and projects that get designed and implemented through 3CE as well as the broader community.”
KD: “[Under 3CE, we are] moving to 100% renewable energy by 2030, so we have a more aggressive timetable compared to California as a whole, which has a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045. We are going to get there faster and it is going to be cost competitive. You will get more renewable energy over time for the same price and more local investments in energy programs so they may do things like helping build more [electric vehicle] charging or paying more for people who put solar on their house. They’re working on those energy programs that will be available in 2021 now and those will be finalized in the coming months.”
Has CCE been successful in other jurisdictions and if so, where?
GW: “CCE has been around for over a decade now. It started in northern California in Marin and Sonoma counties. Over the past few years, it has expanded significantly across California.
KD: “[There are more than] 180 California towns and cities with CCE programs. They are all over California, [and] really expanding. In 2019, Ventura County and Los Angeles County rolled out the Clean Power Alliance, which is another Community Choice program.… [These programs] have been around for many years now and I don’t think any of them have failed. They’re all doing well. It is a proven program.”
How does environmental justice fit within the County’s One Climate Initiative?
GW: “Environmental justice is one of the leading principles or objectives that all of these efforts share. It is still a relatively new concept and space for the County to occupy, but we are very cognizant of the fact that those who have been marginalized, disenfranchised, or left out of the civic process are the ones who are likely or are already being impacted by climate change as well as the pandemic on top of the other structural and institutional barriers that they face. We have started by creating an Equity Advisory Committee that includes representatives from the Central Coast Climate Justice Network as well as representatives from the disability community, the LGBTQIA community, and rural communities to help inform and guide our plans as we start to develop them.”
KD: “We put most of our polluting and toxic things in communities that are low income and minority, traditionally. Powerplants in Oxnard, for instance. These are also the communities that live near freeways, which have high air pollution levels.… Then there are the climate impacts too. It is harder for low income and minority communities to be able to overcome these climate disasters and respond to them. When we are talking about climate justice and environmental justice, it is centering those communities and making sure that we are really seeing who is most vulnerable and providing protections and support to those communities.… There really are some great statewide programs that have some really generous rebates based on people’s income. It used to be everyone got the same rebate no matter what you’re buying, but now it is really income-based, so you have bigger rebates for lower income folks. We need to make sure to get the word out about those. We need to make sure that the solutions are accessible to everyone and that the adaptations we are making do not leave people out, center the people most vulnerable, and make sure that we are responding to their needs.”
Where can the public go to find more information about the County’s One Climate Initiative?
To learn more about what is happening locally, please visit: https://www.countyofsb.org/oneclimate.
[i] PM2.5s are fine inhalable particles with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue of the Santa Barbara Lawyer Magazine.
Garrett Wong is the Climate Program Manager for the County of Santa Barbara. He is responsible for developing the County’s 2030 Climate Action Plan and is the Acting Manager for the Santa Barbara Regional Climate Collaborative. Prior to the County, Garrett was the Sr. Sustainability Analyst for Climate & Energy at the City of Santa Monica. Garrett also serves on the Board of the Local Government Sustainable Energy Coalition, which represents local governments before the California Public Utilities Commission.
Katie Davis is Chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter and Santa Barbara Group and was recently elected to the board of Sierra Club California. She also serves on Sierra Club’s National Marine Team and California Climate and Energy Committee and the Community Environmental Council’s President’s Council. She was appointed by local elected leaders to the Community Advisory Council for Central Coast Community Energy, and the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District. A former VP at tech company, Citrix, she was involved in corporate sustainability initiatives. In 2012 she trained with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, became a climate change speaker and activist. Since then, she has helped lead successful campaigns including local goals for 100% renewable energy and 100% electric buses and stopping oil expansion.
Tara Messing is a Staff Attorney at the Environmental Defense Center. Ms. Messing’s work includes litigation and advocacy related to clean water, climate and energy, and open space and wildlife. Tara received her J.D. from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law with a certificate in Environmental Law. She currently serves as the President of the Santa Barbara Women Lawyers Foundation and Vice President of the Santa Barbara Women Lawyers. She also continues to serve on the Board for the Santa Barbara County Bar Association and is the co-editor for the Santa Barbara Lawyer Magazine.