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The Palomar Energy Center, owned by the San Diego-based utility sector giant Sempra Energy and opened for business in 2006, is by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide of the three power plants. Courtesy photo
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Climate Action Plan update kicks off with meeting at Escondido City Hall

ESCONDIDO — The Mitchell Room at Escondido City Hall was packed for the first public meeting about the rollout of the city of Escondido’s updated Climate Action Plan.

Every city in California must work to reduce emissions under the auspices of California’s 2006 California Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the development of a Scoping Plan that describes how the state will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Scoping Plan must be updated every five years and is overseen by the California Air Resources Board.  Cities generally seek out ways to reduce emissions through the preparation and implementation of a Climate Action Plan. With its initial Climate Action Plan published in 2013, Escondido is due for an update, a draft of which city of Escondido’s Assistant Planning Director Mike Strong said will be published in early 2019.

Strong, the staffer in charge of overseeing the Climate Action Plan, did not mince words when speaking about how the first five years of implementing it have gone so far. He said that the city of Escondido must accelerate actions taken in the next decade going into 2030 and 2050 if it is to meet legally mandated climate goals under the 2006 state climate change bill.

“Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you look at it — to get to those targets, you need to have some of those programs running for quite a few years so that you can actually materialize the benefits and get more people enrolled in programs,” Strong said of hitting future city emissions targets. “Like, you couldn’t wait until 2050 to have everyone install photovoltaic (solar panels) because … you’ll get the benefit by running those several years before it. The takeaway is that we’re currently not doing enough to get to the 2030 target and we’re certainly not doing enough to get to the 2050 target, so we’re going to have to step up the suite of measures, how aggressive they are and what it is that the city is going to do.”

Strong also said that the updated version will likely be legally binding, meaning that proposed development which transpires in Escondido must show that it can comply with the Climate Action Plan in order to receive city approval. It also means, according to Sophie Wolfram —  director of programs for the San Diego County environmental advocacy group Climate Action Campaign — that Escondido may be held legally accountable in civil lawsuits if it does not show progress toward meeting its goals.

Wolfram, who attended the meeting, was pleased with what Strong had to say and by the turnout for it.

“It was great to see so few empty seats and to hear pointed questions from residents that showed they’re feeling like this is an urgent issue for the city. It’s going to take that kind of pressure to get a stronger plan this time around,” Wolfram told The Coast News. “I appreciated that Strong highlighted how aggressive the emissions reductions need to be to hit the 2030 and 2050 targets. He also said that the update will need to be much more robust than the previous version of the CAP, and that we can’t just wait until the last minute to start making reductions, because it takes time to start realizing reductions from new programs or new infrastructure.”

According to the Climate Action Plan’s updated greenhouse gas inventory report for Escondido published by Nilmini Silva-Send, an adjunct professor at University of San Diego’s School of Law and Fellow in Energy Law and Policy at the university’s Energy Policy Initiatives Center, the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Escondido is the transportation sector. Transportation, according to the inventory report which will be published online within the next couple of weeks, makes up roughly half of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Silva-Send said that a more convenient and robust mass transit system is needed countywide to chip away at emissions in that area.

According to greenhouse gas data published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the highest point source greenhouse gas emitters in Escondido are the CalPeak Power, Escondido Energy Center and Palomar Energy Center power plants, all of which generate electricity from natural gas. In Escondido’s greenhouse gas inventory, electricity sits as the second-highest contributor to climate change-contributing emissions behind transportation. The Palomar Energy Center, owned by the San Diego-based utility sector giant Sempra Energy and opened for business in 2006, is by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide of the three power plants.

After Strong finished his PowerPoint presentation, attendees had the opportunity to weigh in on a survey on what they thought were the best policy ideas for meeting Escondido’s Climate Action Plan goals. Broken up into different categories such as Transportation, Carbon Sequestration, Energy and Solid Waste, some of those solutions included building more roundabouts in the city’s streets, installing more electric vehicle charging stations and implementing an urban forestry or citywide tree planting program to promote carbon sequestration, along with dozens of other proposals.

Strong also said that those who did not attend this initial meeting will still have a chance to voice their opinion on these prospective policy solutions at forthcoming Planning Commission meetings.

Blair Lee, an activist who attended the meeting and is part of the group Escondido Climate Action Alliance, said —  though Escondido has a reputation as a conservative city — that she believes the city appears serious about acting on climate change in the years to come. She and fellow Climate Action Alliance activist Marian Sedio said that they hope Escondido will see implementing the updated Climate Action Plan as something which can be done collaboratively with the city’s residents and business leaders, and not something the city feels dragged into “kicking and screaming.”

“What we would like to see implemented is effective change. I’m not going to pretend that, looking at this, I have an idea of what is going to be the most effective,” said Lee. “I would like to see Escondido really care and work to make some substantive changes in this area and not just say, ‘The state’s doing a lot. I guess we have to do it.’ It’s sad, but if the only way it can happen is some penalty system, then I think a lot of people wouldn’t be comfortable with that and I wouldn’t want to see that happen.”

For his part, Strong said he will be taking the Climate Action Plan prospective update on a “roadshow” in the coming months, doing presentations at pop-up events to stakeholder groups throughout the city and at Planning Commission meetings. After the first draft of the updated Climate Action Plan is published in early 2019, it will be subject to a public hearing and voted on by the Planning Commission in the weeks thereafter. If it passes through that committee, it then will receive a hearing and vote in front of the City Council.

Wolfram said she believes that the spate of wildfires blasting through Escondido and beyond in San Diego County has given the Climate Action Plan added urgency in the city.

“Climate change is the greatest threat facing humankind, and all of our elected officials have an obligation to offer policy solutions that reverse the trend of increasing emissions and prepare us for the wildfires, extreme heat, and other consequences coming our way,” she said. “With this CAP update, Escondido has the opportunity to put our kids’ health and safety first by enacting aggressive and equitable strategies to reduce emissions and improve quality of life. Anything less than full mobilization is unacceptable.”