Cars key to addressing climate change in Sonoma County

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If Sonoma County plans to follow through on its plans to combat climate change, its leaders will need to focus on gasoline burned by cars and trucks, as well as electricity and natural gas consumed by homes and offices.

A new report, Climate Action 2020 and Beyond, identifies transportation as the county’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, with vehicle tailpipes emitting nearly 2 million metric tons a year, about half — 52 percent — of the county’s total.

Electricity and natural gas burned to heat, cool, light and run appliances in homes, offices and other buildings generates more than 1.2 million metric tons, one-third of the county’s total annual emissions of about 3.7 million metric tons, the report said.

Statewide, greenhouse gas emissions were 459 million metric tons in 2013, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Reducing emissions, primarily carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, “has become an environmental and societal imperative” in the campaign to forestall “the projected catastrophic effects” from global warming, the county’s report said.

The report, released by the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority, sets a goal of reducing emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and putting the county on a path to hit 80 percent below those levels by 2050.

The first step is a more ambitious goal than California’s target of cutting back to 1990 levels by 2020, said Lauren Casey, director of climate programs for the authority, which was established in 2009. It was the nation’s first local government agency created specifically to address climate change.

Many of the emissions-curbing steps outlined in the report are “already happening,” she said, noting there is “generally broad support for addressing climate change in our communities.”

To hit the 2020 goal, the county would have to cut about 1 million metric tons of emissions from the baseline level of nearly 4 million tons in 1990, she said.

Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at or above 479 parts per million, putting natural systems and human health and well-being at “high risk,” the report said. In Sonoma County, those risks include “increased flooding, wildland fires and economic disruption,” it said.

Experts have called for stabilizing the atmospheric concentration at 450 parts per million, a goal that would require industrialized nations like the United States to push emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, chairman of the climate protection authority board of directors, which includes representatives from the county and all nine cities. “You can see the (emissions) trends continue to go up.”

Had the county done nothing since 1990, emissions would have risen from 4 million metric tons that year to 4.4 million tons in 2020 and would exceed 5 million tons in 2050 under what the report calls a “business as usual” scenario.

The report, which uses data from 2010, outlines a Climate Action Plan with broad steps to curb emissions and specific steps recommended for each community to consider, but none are mandatory and there are no penalties involved, Rabbitt said.

“It identifies all the areas where we can make some improvements,” he said, including more recycling to divert waste from conventional disposal. One problem there, Rabbitt noted, is the “bottom falling out” of the recycling market.

By 2050, the action plan envisions the county having “zero waste” due to recycling and waste reduction.

County motorists traveled more than 11 million miles a day in 2010, primarily in passenger vehicles and almost equally divided between motorists driving alone and with others on board, according to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. Cutting back on commuter traffic, which accounts for most of the single-passenger trips, is difficult because Sonoma is a suburban county at the edge of the job-rich Bay Area, Rabbitt said.

The action plan calls for putting more fuel-efficient, hybrid and electric vehicles on the road, a goal that Casey said looks more promising as more of those vehicles become available at more affordable prices.

More than 1,900 electric vehicles have been purchased in Sonoma County since 2010, offsetting about 7,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions that would have been produced by traditional fuel-burning cars, the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection said last year.

To curb the emissions related to homes and offices, the community action plan calls for greater efficiencies, such as insulation and lighting, more use of wind and solar power, and a conversion from natural gas to electricity for heating water and interior spaces, Casey said.

“The focus of this plan is to try to figure out how local government can make it easier,” she said, referring to possible subsidies, financing and rebates for energy-saving systems.

The county has a relatively older housing stock, which is generally less energy efficient than new structures built according to green design standards, Rabbitt said.

Sonoma County had the second smallest household greenhouse gas footprint of the nine Bay Area counties, and 11 local cities and towns accounted for carbon-related emissions below the statewide average, according to a UC Berkeley report in January.

The average Sonoma County household had a footprint of 40.4 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, well below the statewide average of 45.7 tons per household and the Bay Area average of 44.3 tons, the report said.

Among its broad long-term goals, the action plan envisions that the state will establish “zero net energy” standards for new homes by 2020 and new commercial buildings by 2030. It also foresees electric and alternative fuel vehicles “across all vehicle types” by 2050, along with self-driving cars to reduce congestion and improve fuel efficiency.

Emissions cuts would also come from an end to the use of fossil-based fertilizer in agriculture, as well as winery and dairy operations running on electricity from renewable sources or sustainable biofuels.

The report is available online at rcpa.ca.gov/projects/climate-action-2020.

The plan will be presented at a series of public meetings, including one at Santa Rosa City Hall at 4 p.m. April 5.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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