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Draft climate plan is an imperfect start

February 9, 2019

Can San Antonio truly be carbon neutral by 2050?

The moral imperative is that it must, and most likely sooner than 2050. We have an obligation to limit the effects of man-made climate change for our children and grandchildren, who will live with the consequences of a warmer world. We have an obligation to care for this planet — we know of no other like it — and its diverse ecosystems.

Scientists have long characterized man-made climate change as the existential threat of our time. A warming world, fueled by carbon emissions, will be defined by coastal flooding, more extreme weather events, drought, famine and environmental devastation. As the unanimous faculty statement from Texas A&M University’s Atmospheric Sciences Department states, “rising temperatures risk serious challenges for human society and ecosystems.”

It is a threat most often discussed in global terms — framed by United Nations reports or commitments made (and, in our case, reneged on) under the Paris climate agreement — but it will be felt at home. Right here in San Antonio, where researchers expect hotter and hotter days, increased ozone levels and a greater risk of wildfires. Right here in Texas, home to the extreme weather event we call Hurricane Harvey. Researchers say a warmer world almost certainly means more such extreme weather events.

The economic consequences of climate inaction are also local issues. A warmer San Antonio will limit outdoor activities and work, increase electricity usage and strain water supplies. And then there is the cost of rebuilding after a natural disaster.

So, yes, climate change is very much a local issue, and the city’s recently released draft Climate Action and Adaption Plan outlines ways for San Antonio to reduce carbon emissions, eventually achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, meaning net zero carbon emissions. The city would reach this goal by reducing greenhouse gas emission by 3 percent a year.

Even now, there is debate over whether that is steep enough, or a step too far. Environmental groups say they would like a plan defined by more urgency, and several public officials have said they have concerns about costs to businesses and residents.

The plan is still being refined through public comment, but residents should look at it as an imperfect and useful start to a deeper community conversation about our energy usage, emissions and development of sustainable policies. This is the seventh-biggest city in the nation. One that is rapidly growing and grappling with pronounced income inequality. It’s a big ship to steer, but it also must turn in the right direction to mitigate climate change.

There is much to like about the plan. We are impressed with its commitment to climate equity, recognizing that San Antonio is defined by a stark economic divide and that poor people are more likely to be affected by climate change. But we also see holes.

Specifically, the draft plan needs to speak more directly to the role coal-powered energy plays in our community’s overall carbon emissions. CPS Energy recently shuttered its coal-fired J.T. Deely power plant, but the plan fails to highlight how this change will benefit San Antonio’s greenhouse gas emissions. CPS also plans to keep coal in its energy mix through 2042, thanks to the J.K. Spruce 2 unit, which opened in 2010. Is this truly compatible with being carbon neutral?

We don’t know. But we do know a more robust conversation needs to happen about closing Spruce 2 sooner than 2042.

For whatever reason, the draft plan dances around this issue. For example, it says nearly half of the community’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 came from energy use in buildings. Some of this reflects the need for greater efficiency, a low-hanging fruit. But it also begs the questions, what are the energy sources for these buildings? And how could their emissions change with the closing of the Spruce power plant? And is it fair to ratepayers to close such a new coal-fired plant?

Those are complicated questions we plan to explore in the coming months. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room. Coal-fired plants are a major source of carbon emissions, which is a key contributor to man-made climate change.

In a similar vein, the plan says 38 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation, but this draft plan is depressingly vague about the need for improved public transportation to take drivers off roads and reduce congestion and sprawl. This is a signature issue for Mayor Ron Nirenberg. It deserves more prominence.

The draft climate plan is an imperfect start to an important community conversation. It’s also a reminder that climate change isn’t just a global issue, it’s a real local issue that will burden future generations, which is exactly why we need a fuller discussion about the future of the Spruce power plant and a transit plan that takes people off roads.

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