Sonoma County has marked two consecutive years of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, with output reported below 1990 levels in both 2015 and 2016, due in large part to the rollout of Sonoma Clean Power and its greater reliance on cleaner sources of electricity.
That’s the brightest news out of a new report from the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection, which calculated countywide emissions from four key sectors: transportation, natural gas use, electricity and landfilled, organic waste, which produces methane as it decomposes.
The report estimated greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 at 3.4 million tons across all four sectors — a slight decline from 2015 and a solid 20 percent reduction from a peak of 4.2 million tons in 2007.
For the second year in a row, emissions also dropped slightly below the 3.5 million tons released in 1990, the baseline year against which the county and the state of California measure progress in the effort to reduce contributions to global warming. No data is available yet for 2017.
Given a 30 percent population increase in Sonoma County over the same period, even the 2.9 percent drop in 2016 emissions over 1990 levels is a measure of success, said Ann Hancock, executive director of the nonprofit climate agency.
The group spearheaded a yearslong campaign to launch Sonoma Clean Power, a public agency which began enrolling Sonoma County customers in 2014. It now serves 88 percent eligible electricity accounts in the county.
Hancock touted the results as a payoff of collective action and said Sonoma Clean Power’s part in driving down emissions was gratifying given the skepticism that existed at the time of its launch.
“It’s not individual action that makes the difference in my opinion,” she said. “It’s more about efforts that address institutional change.”
Still, climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions increased 1.4 percent globally last year, and Sonoma County remains woefully behind in its effort to meet reduction targets to which all ten local governments committed in 2005. The goal agreed to by the county and all nine cities at that time was 25 percent below 1990 levels.
“Unfortunately, transportation’s staying flat, and that’s the big Kahuna,” said sustainability consultant Ken Wells, author of report published by the Center for Climate Protection. “That’s the big guy here, in terms of our emissions in this county.”
Transportation accounts for about 70 percent of greenhouse gases in Sonoma County. Hybrid and electric vehicles are increasingly popular here, offering significant opportunities for future cuts in emissions, but likely not on par with the reductions seen recently in the electricity sector, Hancock said.
“What I like to say is that individual actions are essential but insufficient,” she said. “It’s good that people drive energy efficient cars. It’s good that people eat less meat, and it’s good that people turn their light bulbs off.”
That’s one reason the agency is working to cultivate support for state legislation that would prohibit sales of most gasoline-powered vehicles by 2040, if not sooner, confronting head-on Californians’ largely unyielding attachment to the combustion engine.
Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas use accounted for 18 percent of the county’s 2016 emissions, according to the new report. Electricity accounted for about 9 percent of the total, or about 300,000 tons — less than half of the emissions total in the same sector in 2012 and 2013, before the launch of Sonoma Clean Power.
Sonoma County greenhouse gas emissions
The Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Center estimated total Sonoma County emissions in 2016 at 3.4 million tons, compared to 3.5 million tons in 1990.
Share of 2016 emissions
Transportation: 70 percent
Natural gas use: 18 percent
Electricity: 9 percent
Solid waste: 3 percent
SOURCE: Climate Protection Center