Opinion: A Berkeley reckoning on climate change

Berkeley is on track to fail on its most urgent climate policy imperative: reducing pollution from cars.

The City of Berkeley is probably home to more climate science and clean-energy experts, per capita, than any other city on earth. The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Berkeley Earth, the Energy and Resources Group at Cal, Haas’s Energy Institute, the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute — no matter where you go in the expansive world of climate and energy policy, everyone knows someone in Berkeley, California.

This distinction should make us proud. In our relatively small city, thousands of people wake up every day and work on their own small piece of a solution to the climate crisis. Philanthropists, industrial analysts, technology innovators, clean technology investors, carbon removal researchers, grassroots activists, and even the leaders of international climate organizations all call Berkeley their home.

So it’s no small irony that, in a place where you can run into a climate scientist or clean-energy activist at nearly every café, most of the City of Berkeley’s elected leaders can’t seem to find one. Perhaps that’s why Berkeley is on track to fail on its most urgent climate policy imperative: reducing pollution from cars.

The challenges Berkeley faces to addressing car pollution are substantial. According to the city’s own inventory, cars are responsible for 56% of our city’s climate emissions — and both the relative and absolute amount of pollution are increasing. Despite substantial progress in other realms, like improving the efficiency of our buildings, better waste management practices, and electrifying city fleets, Berkeley’s emissions from cars are up 5% since 2000. Current trends in this area, and the policies being advanced by our City Council, are not promising.

Like all cities, Berkeley has no say in what kind of cars people buy and drive; we encourage electric vehicle use, but can not require it. Despite the surging interest in electric vehicles, that interest isn’t transforming into actual market share. As of the end of 2017, there were around 1,200 EVs registered in Berkeley. Berkeley’s sluggish transition to EVs is no anomaly — recent research from the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis found that consumers across California are showing no signs of letting up their love of gasoline cars. The current share of purely electric vehicles in our state is around 2.7%.

To be sure, this is decent progress. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that achieving full-scale electrification of the vehicle fleet is just around the corner; turning over the entire fleet is likely to take decades.

Given the long time scales involved, there’s only one way to reduce pollution from cars in time to avert a climate catastrophe. Climate and energy policy experts know it very well: we must give people alternatives to cars. And to do that, we must build more housing near mass transit and our places of work.

It’s impossible to find a climate study that suggests otherwise. Looking close to home, organizations such as the California Air Resources Board, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at Haas, and Energy Innovation, LLC, have all reached the same conclusion — our carbon emissions from transportation will continue to climb until we add more housing near transit:

“California can no longer ignore another inconvenient truth: its climate goals are being undermined by land use regulations that block infill, while sprawl remains easier and less costly and is therefore growing more quickly.”

Sadly, like too many of California’s cities, Berkeley is aggressively ignoring this inconvenient truth. The housing crisis is forcing people to move further away from work; we’re not building adequate mass transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian infrastructure to give commuters an alternative to driving; and “super commutes” of up to 90 minutes each way are becoming the norm.

Even Berkeley’s own climate action plan confirms this, and lays out a suggested pathway:

Goal 4: Increase compact development patterns (especially along transit corridors)
Encouraging sustainable modes of travel such as cycling, walking, and public transit, is fundamentally tied to compact development patterns and the mix of land uses near transit hubs and jobs. For example, evidence shows that people who live near transit drive between 20% and 40% less than those who do not.

Our city’s leaders recently had the chance to show they were truly committed to our own climate goals, but they punted. State Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 827, derided by Mayor Jesse Arreguín as a “declaration of war against our neighborhoods,” was actually a vital piece of climate legislation. It would have allowed California cities, including Berkeley, to create significantly more housing near transit, and made it easier to get around without a car. It included aggressive protections for renters, requirements for the creation of more affordable housing, and rules that would ensure new developments wouldn’t result in the displacement of long-term residents – measures that are also vital to solving the climate problem.

In short: It would have helped us achieve our climate goals as spelled out in our city’s own plan, and provided some relief for the housing crisis.

This week, we got a sense of just how put off Mayor Arreguin is by the notion of sticking to Berkeley’s climate plan. As it happens, SB 827 went down to defeat last week. But the Mayor, backed by an embarrassingly large cohort of his colleagues, voted anyway to have the city formally oppose SB 827. The bill was already dead; they just had to make sure to spit on its grave.

As a 20-year climate professional who resides in one of Berkeley’s neighborhoods, I was offended by Mayor Arreguin’s pronouncement that climate legislation represents a “declaration of war against our neighborhoods.” Surely, the Mayor is aware of who is waging the real war: The oil companies and car companies and fossil fuel lobbyists who are hindering our progress on clean transport and climate action. Does the City of Berkeley, California, truly see them as allies, and transit-oriented housing as the enemy?

To be fair to the Mayor, he has been remarkably consistent in his opposition to transit-related projects and the infill housing that make them economically feasible. He was one of several city councilors to kill a bus rapid transit system on Telegraph Avenue that would have relieved congestion and pollution on one of our most important corridors. He worked feverishly to undermine the downtown plan that would have allowed for taller, denser buildings near the transit infrastructure in our urban core. He’s also cast a “no” vote for hundreds, if not thousands, of in-fill apartments, small-scale up-zonings, and other pro-housing, pro-transit measures that are necessary if Berkeley is to take its climate commitments seriously.

The Mayor may well be playing to his constituency. There are a disturbingly large number of Berkeley residents who seem to feel that the climate crisis is someone else’s problem, and that what we really need is to preserve our downtown parking for gasoline vehicles. In a sense, this is how democracy is supposed to work: Those who show up and participate get to influence the outcome. And if there’s one thing the defenders of Berkeley car culture do, in droves, is show up at public meetings.

But those of us in climate and energy policy who live and work in Berkeley can no longer afford to yield to this constituency. The climate crisis is not something happening somewhere else, to someone else; the cause of the problem isn’t just distant coal plants and oil wells: it’s our own cars, right here in Berkeley.

I hold out hope that, with appropriate pressure from Berkeley’s climate and energy community, we can help Mayor Arreguín and other council members get back on track with our climate plan. There’s plenty of room in Berkeley for more housing near BART stations and bus stops, and along bike routes and pedestrian paths. When it comes to pollution from cars, we can’t fix every city in California, but we can and should fix our own. Perhaps, in doing so, we can show the rest of our state what it really means to be a climate-safe community.

Matthew Lewis is a climate and energy policy consultant in Berkeley.