Article Features Steve Sanders

California Cities Tackle Climate Change

Steve Sanders is program director for the California Climate Action Network program of the Institute for Local Government. He can be reached at <>.

Global warming poses a real threat to California and the rest of the planet. Local communities can implement the following strategies to reduce carbon emissions and combat global warming, both in their own operations and throughout the community. In most cases, these strategies not only help the environment but save money and make great economic sense as well.


  1. Conserving energy and using it more efficiently reduces the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere. It also helps cut electricity and natural gas bills, and reduces the need to build more costly power plants and pipelines.
  2. Reducing waste and recycling cuts the amount of greenhouse gases that are generated to manufacture, package, transport and dispose of products and materials. More importantly, perhaps, reducing waste and recycling lowers methane emissions from landfills. Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide and a significant contributor to global warming.
    A number of cities have instituted programs to recycle and reuse construction and demo lition (C&D) debris, which can be a big part of the waste stream. The City of San Jose estimates that about 30 percent of the trash going to its landfills is from C&D. To en courage greater recycling and reuse, applicants for city building and demolition permits are charged a deposit based on the size and type of the construction project. Materials can be taken to a certified recovery facility, reused or donated. The deposit is refunded for projects that successfully reduce the amount of debris that ends up in landfills. (For more information about C&D debris reduction, see “Deconstruction: A Practice Worth Salvaging,” July 2007, Western City; online at
  3. Buying green products and services harnesses the purchasing power of public agencies to improve environmental quality. Products that are durable, contain recycled content, conserve energy and other resources, and release fewer air and water pollutants can also result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
    Many cities have enacted environmentally preferable purchasing ordinances. For example, San Francisco requires city departments to purchase commodities from an approved list.
    Another area where cities can have a positive impact on global warming is by purchasing greener fleet vehicles. The City of Santa Monica has had a comprehensive Environmentally Preferable Purchasing program in place since 1994. In 2001, the city succeeded in reaching its goal of having 75 percent of its public works vehicle fleet operating on reduced-emission fuels. Currently, 81 percent of the city’s entire vehicle fleet is climate friendly, including more than half of the city’s Big Blue Bus transit fleet. Santa Monica is one of five Southern California cities that are participating in a pilot program to test hydrogen-fueled hybrids in their fleets.
  4. Using lower carbon fuels to power vehicles, run industries and generate electricity can cut carbon emissions substantially while creating new local industries. It can also reduce our reliance on foreign oil, which benefits both the economy and national security.
    The City of Santa Rosa has entered into a partnership with Sonoma State University Professor Michael Cohen to grow algae in ponds at the city’s sewage treatment plant. Oil will be extracted from the algae and mixed with diesel fuel to produce biodiesel for powering the city’s fleet. The byproducts from producing the biodiesel will then be used to help power the treatment plant, reducing the demand for electricity from the power grid.
    Biodiesel reduces net carbon dioxide emis sions by 78 percent compared to diesel refined from petroleum. Biodiesel also produces less carbon monoxide, particulates, unburned hydrocarbons that create smog, and cancer-causing air pollutants.
  5. Designing green buildings can reduce the substantial amount of energy it takes to construct and operate residential, commercial, industrial and public buildings, as well as the power needed to provide them with water. The energy used to heat, cool and light buildings is responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
    Many cities are beefing up their building codes to encourage environmentally sustainable development. For example, the City of Pasadena adopted a Green Building Ordinance in April 2006. The ordinance applies to municipal buildings of 5,000 square feet or more of new construction, nonresidential buildings with 25,000 square feet or more of new construction, tenant improvements of 25,000 square feet or more, and mixed-use and multifamily residential buildings four stories or more in height.
    To help implement its green building policy, the city offers free technical assistance to project designers from a professional accredited by the U.S. Green Building Council to apply the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system. The city offers financial incentives for green buildings, including a $1,000 rebate for every affordable housing unit (in addition to any other affordable housing incentives that may apply) as well as a number of energy efficiency and water conservation rebates through Pasadena Water and Power, the city’s municipal utility.
  6. Planning and building smart growth communities can cut carbon emissions by reducing travel distances and making it easier to walk, bicycle and use transit. By using land, water, energy and other resources more efficiently, smart growth helps reduce the overall carbon footprint of communities.
  7. Preserving and enhancing natural systems, such as forests, farms, parks and open space (like sports fields) with plants that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, can help combat global warming.
    The City of Sacramento has one of the most extensive urban forests in the United States. This helps reduce the ambient temperature, which can reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit or more during hot summer days in the Sacramento Valley. Shade trees counteract the “urban heat island” effect, where temperatures can rise several degrees in developed areas with extensive swaths of dark roofs and pavement that absorb heat from the sun.
    Urban forests do double duty in combat ing global warming. First, a canopy of shade trees reduces the energy needed for air conditioning, which places a major strain on the electrical grid right when demand for power peaks. Second, urban forests absorb excess carbon dioxide (as well as other unhealthy air pollutants), thereby reducing greenhouse gases in  the atmosphere.
    The City of Sacramento’s Urban Forest Services Division maintains more than 150,000 trees in city parks and along city streets. It operates its own tree nursery and partners with the nonprofit Sacramento Tree Foundation to plant trees and care for the urban forest. The city also enforces tree shading policies for all new parking lots and driveways, requiring at least 50 percent of the paved area to be shaded.
  8. Encourage the people who live, work, visit and study in the local community to reduce their impact on global warming.
    In 2001, the City of San Diego initiated its Green Schools Program. The program has since expanded to become the San Diego Regional Energy Partnership covering the whole county. The program (now known as Green Action and supported by a grant from the California Public Utilities Commission) instills in tomorrow’s leaders an awareness of how personal actions can make a difference in protecting and improving the environment that they will inherit from their parents’ generation. The program combines classroom instruction, an energy survey of their high school conducted by the students and an energy efficiency community service project to apply their new knowledge. So far, student projects have saved more than 25,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity, and 1,500 high-school students from San Diego County have participated.

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Local leaders are working together to learn from one another and leverage their efforts to prepare for and reduce global warming. By implementing proven mitigation practices at the local level, community leaders are playing a significant role in meeting the challenges posed by climate change.

To learn more about climate change programs and resources, visit the Climate Action Center on the Institute for Local Government website at e change or contact Steve Sanders, program director; phone: (916) 658- 8245; e-mail: <>.

This article appears in the August 2007 issue of Western City
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