Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Elected leaders in San Antonio working to adopt SA Climate Ready face a serious challenge in building consensus for the 30-year plan that seeks to make the city carbon neutral by 2050.
Growing concerns in some sectors of the business community led Mayor Ron Nirenberg to table action for 30 days. That pushes the vote beyond the May 4 city elections, but a vote should happen before a new City Council is seated. After all, the very first action taken by a newly elected Nirenberg and Council in June 2017 was to pass a symbolic resolution, 9-1, supporting the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, weeks after President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. support.
“We still have to get everyone to the table in support of our plan and that is going to take more time,” Nirenberg said in an interview late last week.
One question now being asked is whether SA Climate Ready is also symbolic and aspirational in nature, or is it a regulatory roadmap guiding future policy decisions?
It’s one thing for City Council to join the now 400-plus U.S. cities whose mayors have pledged to uphold the commitments of the Paris agreement. Approving a local plan that calls for fundamental change is going to be a harder sell in a city without a strong environmental lobby.
Yet the past decade in San Antonio has seen considerable progress in building a more sustainable city without harming the economy and without generating the polarization that has come to define national politics. For that, residents can thank CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System.
CPS Energy has undergone a quiet and successful evolution – some would say revolution – since former CEO Doyle Beneby assumed command in 2010 and announced plans to shut the two-unit, coal-fired J.T. Deely Power Plant. That happened last year without incident.
Several business leaders initially opposed that move, but Beneby was able to demonstrate that the move, coupled with the acquisition of a natural gas plant, would free up hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in wind, solar, and the new energy economy.
His decisions saved money and created jobs.
That evolution has continued under current CEO Paula Gold-Williams and her team as they continue to execute the utility’s Flexible Path.
That includes adding solar and wind capacity, improved management of demand, and taking the lead in monitoring air quality. The success of CPS Energy as a business has contributed significantly to the city’s annual operating budget and kept energy costs affordable for business and residents.
The San Antonio Water System is a nationally recognized leader in water conservation and management, and its Vista Ridge project proceeds apace. The water utility’s diversification strategies over the past decade have all been successful.
It now falls on the mayor and leadership of CPS Energy and SAWS to convince business leaders that continuing efforts to reduce carbon emissions and taking other steps to build a more sustainable city can be done without doing so at their expense. Public hearings are not the forum for accomplishing such confidence-building engagement. Business leaders are too busy to attend public hearings, which are better suited to galvanize grassroots support. Direct talks accomplish more.
A second challenge is understanding the limits of municipal regulatory authority. The Texas Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott continuing to tighten the reins on home rule cities on a range of issues, many of which center around taxing and regulatory authority. San Antonio probably lacks the financial resources and political muscle to implement the changes needed to reach carbon neutrality.
“This is a perfect storm, with winds blowing in opposite directions, catching some of us in the middle,” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said, describing events that led him to oppose approval of the plan now. “You bring up the words ‘climate change’ and two tribal groups rush to their corners and put on their armor. We are not meeting in the middle.”
There probably is a lot of common ground to be found among the majority of residents, but the process over the past year, however well-intentioned, has not made everyone feel adequately represented.
“There are chamber members and businesses that support the plan and their voices need to be brought into the public conversation,” said Councilman Ana Sandoval (D7), who downplayed any suggestion that the environmental and business communities are sharply divided. “It does take a different effort on our part to engage people who we can’t expect to show up at community meetings, but we do need to honor the hundreds of people who have attended community meetings representing their neighborhoods and working on this. I think everyone in our city agrees we want to leave a better planet for our grandchildren.”
Half of the SA Climate Ready document, Sandoval points out, deals with carbon emission reductions, while the other half deals with how the city can improve readiness for extreme climate events like a Hurricane Harvey.
“There is way more common ground on this issue than is being discussed or acknowledged,” Nirenberg said last week. “The goal is to make the climate plan a consensus document that helps us grapple over the next 30 years with these issues. The document is not a set of mandates or dictates, it’s intended to be a guide.”
The City of Dallas, Nirenberg pointed out, passed its own comprehensive climate plan in January.
“I’ve been saying all along that after we pass this plan the first thing we need to do is engage in public education,” said Mario Bravo, an Environmental Defense Fund representative in Texas, acknowledging that people will have to be persuaded that change in some local practices is both necessary and will pay dividends.
Local leaders and readers certainly have a moral obligation to act; only climate change deniers favor doing nothing. Still, isn’t there an enormous gap between aspiration and what city officials can do?
Such plans traditionally have been the provenance of the federal government, with laws and policies passed down to states. Take auto emissions, for example, or clean water laws. That federal leadership, unfortunately, is no longer the case. President Trump has called climate change “a hoax.” That kind of anti-science populism is tragic, but it doesn’t mean local officials, however visionary, can fill that breach.
How quickly affordable electric vehicles become a reality, for example, is key to achieving long term-carbon reduction goals. Some auto manufacturers are adopting ambitious business plans to convert to electric vehicle manufacturing, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest gasoline-powered vehicles will remain the dominant technology for years to come. The matter is beyond local control.
Even changes within local control will prove hard to implement. Take recycling and water usage, for example.
San Antonio has mandatory residential recycling but has made no effort to implement mandatory commercial recycling of glass, cans, plastic, and organic waste. Here at the Rivard Report we load up recyclables and compost each week and take them home to recycle.
Why does this matter? There are bars in the city where the recyclable materials being dumped into landfills each week probably exceed the recycling volume of a good-sized residential street. It takes many households to generate 1,000 empty beer cans and bottles in a week. A busy dance hall can surpass that on a weekend night.
San Antonio lags way behind many cities in the percentage of total waste it recycles. The City aims to recycle 60 percent of its residential waste by 2025 but there is no talk of mandatory commercial recycling. Convincing restaurants, bars, and hotels that the time is right for commercial recycling will not be easy.
SAWS could achieve significant reductions in consumption of nonessential water with year-round landscape watering restrictions and higher fees for excess water usage to discourage use of automatic irrigation systems that keep alive non-native plantings and turf in the hot summer months.
Again, educating the public on the need to change water-wasting habits will not be easy.
“All the things CPS Energy and SAWS have done in this community actually have been money-savers and have benefitted everyone,” Sandoval noted.