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Think Globally, Act Santa Monically

Photo by Elizabeth Perrin
As recreationeers mill around licking ice creams

and waiting their turn, the giant Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier turns against a perfect sky. Overhead, seagulls squawk belligerently, demanding crumbs, while beneath us, the sea splashes indolently against the pylons. It’s a scene that could be straight out of the early 20th century, until you look over to the roofs of the kiosk and the nearby buildings, where banks of photovoltaic cells suck up sunlight to power the fun. Collectively, the steel-blue racks of panels generate 50 kilowatts of power, enough to provide the yearly energy needs of the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel.

“It’s a ‘net zero’ energy facility,” Craig Perkins explained to me during a drive-by tour of the area. It is also an emblem of a future that Perkins, who is Santa Monica’s director of environmental and public-works management, envisions for the city as a whole. Over the past year, Perkins’ department conducted a study of rooftops and has identified 17,500 structures as suitable locations for photovoltaics. Added up, they would constitute 24 million square feet of space from which sunlight could be captured to channel energy into the electric grid. If the entire area were covered in solar panels, Perkins says, they would generate a total of 103 megawatts. Given that the city’s yearly power consumption is between 150 and 200 megawatts, well over half the community’s energy could come from the sun. By pursuing various energy-reduction programs, Perkins says, the entire city could become a net-zero-power consumer.

Cutting down power bills saves the city money; it also saves the atmosphere by cutting down emissions of the greenhouse gases that are the key contributors to global warming. Santa Monica is at the forefront of an emerging movement of cities that are beginning to think globally and act locally to combat this insidious trend. Perkins’ department will be putting before the Santa Monica City Council a proposal that would commit the city to reducing its greenhouse-gas output to 15 percent to 20 percent below 1990 levels — two or three times the reduction set by the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that addresses global warming (and which the United States has not signed). But Perkins wants the city to do even better. If all the innovations his department has identified were put into practice, he says, Santa Monica could reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 63 percent.

Such actions are becoming increasingly critical. A recent paper in The Journal of Climate reported that a sophisticated computer simulation had revealed that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (the leading greenhouse gas) are currently on course to double from preindustrial levels by 2070. After that, things go from bad to worse, with levels predicted to triple by 2120, and quadruple by 2160. The simulation predicted that climate warming would reveal itself most strongly in the Arctic, a result consistent with trends already being seen in the region. This summer, the floating cap of Arctic sea ice shrank to the smallest size ever seen in a century of record keeping, and in July, scientists studying Greenland glaciers reported that the rate at which one of the largest, the Kangerdlugssuaq glacier, is spilling into the sea has increased threefold since the last time it was measured, in 1988. The Greenland ice sheet contains enough ice that were it to melt, sea levels would rise by 7 meters, inundating coastal cities the world over.

From the tropics also comes grim news. Three recent studies have found evidence that storm activity is increasing. In August, Emanuel Kerry at MIT reported in Science that the destructive power of cyclones has increased by 50 percent over the past half-century, while a study from the Georgia Institute of Technology revealed a near doubling in the number of Katrina-style category 4 and 5 storms over the past 35 years. Almost all climatologists believe these trends are a direct result of global warming due to increasing greenhouse gases.

In the pantheon of environmental problems facing our planet, few loom so large, and the flurry of recent data is sure to intensify debate at the next round of the Kyoto talks, which take place in Montreal at the end of this month (November 28–December 9). The Montreal meeting, which is the 11th session of what is formally known as the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Convention, will be the largest intergovernmental climate conference since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 — some 10,000 participants from all levels of government are expected to attend. Moreover, the introduction in Europe of a trading system for greenhouse-gas emission credits is also attracting unprecedented business interest. Perkins, who has been working on environmental issues for Santa Monica for more than two decades, notes that humanity has reached a critical juncture and can no longer afford the luxury of runaway emissions. “When you frame your analysis in terms of the next 25 years,” he says, “it really makes a difference to what you do.”

In March, Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor was one of 10 mayors who decreed a resolution calling on local governments across the country to take the lead in combating global warming. In a letter sent to 400 mayors from Long Beach to Long Island, the 10 initial signatories, spearheaded by Seattle’s Greg Nickols, urged their counterparts to sign an agreement committing their municipalities “to meet or beat” the target levels set at Kyoto. Dubbed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, it asks city councils to adopt concrete action plans such as increasing the fuel efficiency of their fleets, converting city vehicles to biofuels, creating “compact, walkable urban communities” and promoting tree planting to absorb CO2.

The mayors’ action was precipitated by a singular lack of leadership on the part of the Bush administration. On February 16, the Kyoto Protocol became law for the 150 countries that had signed on. Those who have ratified it are now obliged to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels. Had the U.S. been among them, it would have been required to reduce its emissions by 7 percent. Although the U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it produces more than a quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions, with a per capita output more than double that of its nearest rivals.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), American cars and trucks pump 1.4 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. The British Royal Society has calculated that the 13 percent rise in greenhouse gases generated by the USA alone between 1990 and 2002 was larger than the total cut that would be achieved if all the nations that have ratified Kyoto actually meet their goals. In short, we are the world’s greenhouse gluttons.

Instead of taking a moral lead, the Bush administration has been playing ostrich, committed to the fantasy that if it denies global warming long enough, the problem will melt away. In June, the National Academy of Sciences, along with its counterparts in China, Russia, India, Brazil, Japan and Europe, issued an urgent warning that further delays in reducing greenhouse heating would likely lead to major environmental shifts, causing flooding, droughts and heat waves adversely affecting millions of people. With impeccable timing and a jaw-dropping disregard for scientific evidence, the White House was at this moment spinning away the news that the chief of staff for its Council on Environmental Quality had repeatedly doctored reports on the subject, inserting language that minimized the potential consequences of global warming and maximized the degree of uncertainty about its happening at all.

In the face of federal inaction, responsibility has devolved to the state and local levels. In the Northeast, a consortium of nine states, including New York and New Jersey, is considering a proposal to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from its own power plants and to introduce an air-pollution trading scheme akin to the one recently set up in Europe. That’s another idea vehemently opposed by W and his oil-industry cronies. In 2002, California passed the Pavley bill (after its sponsor, state Assemblywoman Fran Pavley), which is expected to reduce 22 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks by 2012 and 30 percent by 2016. California is actually the world’s ninth-largest emitter of CO2, ahead of Italy, South Korea and Mexico. Even Governor Schwarzenegger — he of the Humvees — has come onboard, signing an executive order that sets targets to reduce the state’s greenhouse emissions by 80 percent over the next 50 years. “We know the science, we see the threat. And we know the time for action is now,” he said on World Environment Day in June. At a conference that same month, 164 U.S. mayors voted unanimously to accept the agreement developed by Nickels’ committee.

Santa Monica has been thinking seriously about global warming since at least 1994, when it adopted its first Sustainable City Plan. Perkins explains that there are three core elements to the greenhouse-gas reduction strategy: cutting down on energy consumption, improving energy efficiency and generating power from renewable sources. Six years ago, on Perkins’ advice, the City Council decided that all the city’s electricity would come from what is known as “green power.” At the time it was still possible to opt out of the big suppliers like San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison and buy electricity on the open market from smaller providers. Back then, green power was more expensive, but over the past decade, the price of regular power has increased, so the council is now getting a cheaper rate than Los Angeles and other nearby cities, which no longer have the choice of buying on the open market. (That’s another little-known consequence of the state’s disastrous electricity crisis.) According to Perkins, the city of Santa Monica is the largest purchaser of green power in the state and the 17th largest in the nation, which, he notes, “either says a lot about us or is a sorry comment on everyone else.”

The city has also been taking aggressive steps to increase overall energy efficiency. Here, it is buildings rather than cars that are the primary concern. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s buildings collectively consume more than twice as much energy as its vehicles, making buildings the number-one contributor to global warming. Cognizant of this fact, Santa Monica now requires that all new buildings meet a set of sustainability criteria. On our tour, Perkins took me to see several city constructions that have been awarded LEED ratings (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) by the U.S. Green Building Council. First stop was the new building that houses the police and fire departments; next up, an affordable-housing complex called Colorado Court that has one whole side decked out in photovoltaic panels.

Perkins notes that there are many hidden factors that contribute to global warming in ways most of us never even imagine. Consider this next time you flush a toilet: Those gallons of water have likely been pumped from hundreds of miles away, and that pumping takes energy, as does treatment at the other end of the cycle, which means that every gallon of water contributes greenhouse gases. Given this, Santa Monica has cut its water usage by 15 percent and also passed a revolutionary ordinance to allow the installation of waterless loos. Elsewhere in the nation, plumbers unions have been blocking such fixtures. Perkins says they have “calculated that every one of these we install in a city building would save 40,000 gallons a year.”

The efforts on the part of Perkins and Santa Monica are part of a burgeoning movement of city-level initiatives both here and abroad. Internationally, the movement is represented by the San Francisco–based organization known as ICLEI or Local Governments for Sustainability. (The acronym is a holdover from the group’s former incarnation as the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives.) More than 470 local governments, representing 300 million people around the world, are members. Established in 1990 under the auspices of the U.N., ICLEI is the official representative of local government groups at meetings where the global-warming treaty is hashed out.

At the Montreal meeting later this month, ICLEI will host a Municipal Leaders summit on climate change. Though national governments often have the most legal clout in formulating environmental legislation, Michelle Wyman, ICLEI’s executive director, notes that in practice, “Cities hold one of the key cards to monitor their emissions and reduce greenhouse gases.” Cities, after all, are where the majority of the world’s population now live. This month, ICLEI is also co-hosting a conference in China, which Wyman notes is currently undergoing a phase of “hyperurbanization.”

In the U.S., Seattle, Portland, Austin and Salt Lake City have all launched significant climate-change mitigation programs. But by far the greenest city in North America is north of the border. As long ago as 1989, climate scientists called for the world’s industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse emissions by 20 percent. No country embraced that target, but Toronto did. So far the city has cut emissions from its own facilities by 42 percent. Another green city is Curitiba, Brazil, where former-architect-turned-Mayor Jaime Lerner initiated a citywide program that included planting millions of trees, recruiting the urban poor to recycle garbage by offering food vouchers and bus passes in return for bags of trash, and converting a number of highways into bus-only roads.

It is hard to imagine that happening today in any U.S. city, but at a San Francisco meeting in June, a group of international mayors met to push forward an environmental accord known as Agenda 21 under which cities would be awarded points for reducing their global-warming footprint. In Santa Monica, Perkins says that doing the right thing by our atmosphere is not just the ethically principled course of action, it also makes the most economic sense. “We have never made any decision on this that wasn’t the best financial decision for the city,” he says. The trouble is that most cities, like most of Western society, have a tendency to think in the short term. “By changing the perspective to a true long-term view,” he adds, “you can really make a difference.”

Perkins is aware that not all Americans are fortunate enough to live in “the people’s republic” of Santa Monica: “We could be utopia on Earth in terms of these 8.3 square miles, but that’s not going to do any good to anyone else.” The council and Mayor O’Connor have also taken a strong line in helping to formulate public policy at state and national levels. In the end, Perkins says, “It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being better. Santa Monica certainly isn’t perfect, but we are showing that you can do better.”

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