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The same City Council members who voted in 2017 on a resolution to take aggressive action on climate change will not be voting on a plan that outlines how to get it done.
Not unless they win another term, anyway.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Wednesday said the City officials are again delaying a vote on a controversial Climate Action and Adaptation Plan until this fall. That would be months after a May 4 municipal election in which Nirenberg and six incumbent council members are up for re-election and three seats are open.
Since its release on Jan. 25, the climate plan has come under withering criticism from some local business interests and others who oppose its methods of reducing San Antonio’s carbon footprint.
“We have been getting nothing but letters from different organizations, chambers of commerce, oil industries, different individuals that are saying basically the same thing,” said Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), the only council member to vote against the resolution in 2017. He added that the plan “was not ready for prime time and I’m glad it’s being delayed.”
The City will continue to accept formal public comments on the draft version of the plan until April 25, with an updated version set to be released on May 30.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Nirenberg said the plan’s passage has to be “navigated with as much consensus as possible.”
“We could push through for a vote and count to six, maybe seven, eight, nine, I don’t know,” Nirenberg said. “But why would we do that when the whole point of this is that we have a plan that’s realistic, that can be implemented? We’re not doing this for symbolism, we’re doing this for real change.”
The plan calls for San Antonio to be carbon-neutral by 2050, meaning the city would be removing more greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming from the atmosphere than it emits within 30 years.
That specific goal – carbon-neutral by 2050 – stems from a resolution passed 9-1 by Nirenberg and other newly seated council members in June 2017. The resolution committed San Antonio to do its part to comply with the goals of the Paris Agreement, an international accord meant to limit the worst effects of climate change.
That’s the part of the plan that’s been controversial. It calls for CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned utility, to transition further away from coal and natural gas and for only electric and other zero-emitting vehicles on San Antonio roads by 2050.
Other measures like increasing San Antonio’s tree canopy, helping the city become more resistant to floods and droughts, and improving access to healthy food have drawn little attention.
Many of the plan’s proposals are the result of about a year’s worth of meetings by more than 90 volunteers, overseen by the City, CPS Energy, and Navigant Consulting. University of Texas at San Antonio faculty provided some research support but had most of their role shifted to Navigant. As of last year, CPS Energy had planned to spend $650,000 on the plan’s development.
Asked if he now regrets tying the plan to the Paris Agreement, Nirenberg said, “Not in the least.”
“The plan is best-served, our community is best-served, the future is best-served if we have a plan ratified by council in which everyone’s perspective is accounted for,” Nirenberg said. “We’re not going to compromise the goal, but we’re going to make sure everyone has had a seat at the table and has been heard.”
Many involved with the issue hope for the plan’s future, even with the delay.
“This is a historic plan of great importance for the future of our community,” said Build San Antonio Green Director Anita Ledbetter, who co-chaired the steering committee that helped guide the process. “Since the public has shown so much interest in this plan, I think that extending the commenting period to allow for that participation, my hope is that it will help to create a better plan for all of us.”
Richard Perez, president and CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, has been among the business voices calling for a slowdown in the process to more precisely calculate the costs associated with going carbon-neutral by 2050.
“We the chamber and other groups have been asking for additional time to express our concerns, in particular the costs of implementing such a plan,” Perez said. ““It gives us a good feeling in that, indeed, the mayor and the City Council are being responsible to their constituents.”
Perez also thinks the plan will live on past the election.
“I don’t foresee that big of a shift on the City Council that this thing would die,” he said. “I just don’t see that as a realistic outcome, in my opinion.”
The draft that eventually could see a vote will reflect the vision of the plan as a framework for the next 30 years, Nirenberg said, not a list of regulations that get passed with one sweep. Each measure necessary to add up to carbon neutrality will go through its own “stakeholder input, public process, and cost-benefit analysis,” he said.
“The fact that it’s not clear has created more consternation than necessary, and that can be addressed very simply,” Nirenberg said about confusion surrounding the plan’s intent.
Peter Bella, leader of the upcoming March for Science on April 6 who also served on the steering committee, said that San Antonio “cannot afford to fail” at passing this plan.
“We cannot afford to go into the kind of high-risk scenarios that science says are awaiting us,” Bella said. “We need to succeed. If the path that we have available to us includes a delay, that doesn’t mean we’ve failed, that means we have to try harder to succeed.”