Traffic lines up on Interstate 35 during rush hour.
Cars line Interstate 35 during rush hour. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

To fulfill its city council’s promise to act on climate change, San Antonio must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, according to a draft version of a climate plan released Friday.

That means within 30 years, CPS Energy would have to completely quit coal and natural gas, according to the document, the result of a more than yearlong planning effort led by the City, CPS Energy, Navigant Consulting, and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The plan also states that San Antonio must have only electric or other carbon-free vehicles on its roads by 2050.

These are two main takeaways from a plan to make good on the pledge by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and newly elected members of the City Council. Soon after taking office in June 2017, they passed a resolution saying San Antonio would do its part to help meet the goals of the Paris Accord, an international agreement meant to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“My big hope with this plan is that it’s a starting point for continued conversation with the community,” said City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick, who was instrumental in guiding the planning process. “The city needs to become overall aware of why we’re doing this, and that we need to do this, and that it’s a benefit to do it.”

San Antonio’s leadership signed onto the Paris pledge only weeks after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would abandon all its efforts to comply with the deal. Nirenberg wasn’t alone in doing so – 407 U.S. mayors have signed a pledge saying their cities would do their part.

San Antonio’s relatively tiny influence on the global climate has led some to question whether aggressive local action is worth the risk. Interim City Councilman Art Hall (D2) summed up that view in a Council committee meeting Thursday.

In “the world picture, San Antonio’s a little dot,” Hall said. “If we’re [incurring] all these costs and taking on our responsibilities and others are not, that’s a huge issue. And if other countries are not, that’s also a huge issue.”

However, if the entire world does nothing, life will get much hotter and harder in San Antonio over the coming decades, according to climate projections. By 2100, the city could see another 48 to 94 days per year when temperatures top 100 degrees, as well as annual rainfall totals 3 to 4 inches less than historical averages, according to the plan.

The plan also includes 45 specific strategies to help the city adapt to life in a warmer world. Many are already underway, including creating more green space, preparing for wildfire, and incorporating more realistic flooding standards into the City’s drainage codes.

Melnick highlighted the plan’s emphasis on equity, an attempt to ensure those most vulnerable to the ravages of extreme weather don’t bear most of the burden of solving the problem.

Some of the strategies in the plan are sure to encounter resistance, especially ideas to incorporate more energy efficiency into the City’s building codes. It calls for a 15-percent reduction in building energy use by 2030 and a 40-percent cutback by 2040.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) was wary of proposals that could make middle-income housing less available. In the committee meeting Thursday, he said that when he speaks to housing developers, “There is anxiety in that community that we’ll be making a more expensive product.”

“I’m most excited about those parts of the plan that are more carrot and less stick,” Pelaez said. “If we can focus on getting people’s buy-in, I think you have more success every time you do that.”

How CPS Energy officials will respond to the call to cut fossil fuels from their energy portfolio is also unclear.

Last year, while the climate planning process was getting started, the utility came out with a proposal to by 2040 generate 50 percent of its electricity using solar and wind. The rest of its portfolio would be 13 percent natural gas, 9 percent nuclear, 7 percent coal, and 5 percent energy storage, potentially through massive batteries. Another 16 percent would come from “flexible generation,” which officials have purposely left vague.

A view of the Akuo Energy Rocksprings Wind Farm, at sunset, along U.S. Route 377. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

Currently, its portfolio is approximately 45 percent natural gas, 22 percent wind and solar, 18 percent coal, and 14 percent nuclear.

Asked to comment on the draft climate plan, CPS Energy officials sent an emailed statement saying that Navigant “provided broad baseline analytical information.”

“Since the goals outlined in the [climate plan] may have very interesting and far-reaching impacts on our community and customers, in the spring of 2019, CPS Energy will review [Navigant’s] information more extensively and will also develop additional information and context aligned to specific applicable energy scenarios,” the statement continued. “These helpful scenarios will be shared publicly for the purpose of helping to build better understanding among all stakeholders about the [plan’s] potential future impacts that relate primarily to energy. We are excited to have an open dialogue with the public and we are proud of our history in welcoming feedback from our customers.”

Removing fossil fuels from San Antonio’s transportation system could prove even more difficult.

“Transportation I think is our big challenge,” Melnick said. “We are really large and designed around the automobile. There’s really no easy fix.”

However, many of its proposals are in line with the ConnectSA transportation plan that City and County officials revealed last month. Around $61 million in Volkswagen settlement funds earmarked for San Antonio could help provide funding to convert gasoline and diesel vehicles to electric, though they could also be used for natural gas vehicles.

Even with these and a slew of other changes proposed in the plan, carbon sequestration technology that pulls greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere will be necessary for the city to go carbon-neutral, the plan states.

The plan calls for an update every two years to San Antonio’s greenhouse gas inventory, “so we’ll know how we’re doing,” Melnick said.

After reviewing the plan, many of San Antonio’s environmentalists came out Thursday saying it doesn’t go nearly fast enough. Many in the Climate Action SA coalition of environmental and social justice groups are calling for CPS Energy to abandon coal and natural gas by 2030 and for the whole city to become a carbon sink by 2050.

“We cannot pretend that carbon-neutral by 2050 is an acceptable goal,” said Yaneth Flores, cultural organizer with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. “I am so tired of seeing this as some sort of game or joke by the City. … I want to believe there is good intent here, but I have not seen any action.”

Bill Hurley, a retired computer programmer and local representative of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, said he’s proud of this City Council for starting the process but that the plan “really needs some interim goals that are missing right now.”

Broadly, the plan calls for greenhouse gas reductions of at minimum 33 percent by 2030, 62 percent by 2040, and 88 percent by 2050. But many of the individual strategies do not include incremental milestones.

Melnick acknowledged that climate scientists are warning that time is running out to prevent the worst.

“We’re hearing and we’re reading that quicker action is needed,” Melnick said. “It’s just, how do you move that ship quickly enough?…We really need to continue this energy planning dialogue with CPS [Energy], with the community.”

Melnick and Nirenberg did recently score a major win in terms of implementing the plan. Earlier this month, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his organization would commit up to $2.5 million to San Antonio in technical and expert support.

Melnick said San Antonio will get two contract employees from Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental group, housed in City offices, for two years. One will focus on buildings and housing, the other on transportation, he said.

A 30-day public comment period on the plan begins Friday. Plans call for the draft to be presented to the Planning Commission in late February and early March, then for a final version to go to City Council for approval in mid-April.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.