A view of CPS Energy Spruce units.
CPS Energy Spruce units in December 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In 1973, with mounting and clear scientific evidence about the impact of lead on health and children’s development, the federal government called for a phase-out of all lead in gasoline.

In retrospect, it seemed straightforward: produce gas without lead. However, more than 22 years passed before the United States completed the shift to unleaded gas.

Refineries needed to be modified, new pumps added at stations. Most families had to buy new cars that used unleaded gas. Simply put, there were too many political, consumer, and financial complexities to fully eradicate lead, despite consumer fears about its impact on children.

Today, as the world seeks to mitigate and address the effects of climate change, history – and the unpredictability of our future – should serve to set realistic expectations and help guide public policy. As obvious as this may seem, there is a growing public impatience for action.

Scientists are finding increasing evidence that climate change is not only occurring now, but its effects are also accelerating. Experts expect that San Antonio will begin to see increasingly longer hot summers coupled with more extreme rainfall and flooding events throughout the year. Worried about weather-related disasters, people want responses from their elected leaders.

However, public policy and action cannot be reactionary – it must be informed, realistic, and strategic. That is why the City of San Antonio has produced its draft Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP).

Constructed over the past year and informed by experts and industry, the CAAP proposes a variety of strategies to mitigate weather impacts on our city and reduce the carbon-based emissions that contribute to climate change. The timeline for action is phased over the next 30 years.

The CAAP should be viewed as an initial framework of goals and strategies rather than a rigid path forward. Once City Council adopts the CAAP, much more complicated policy conversations will begin. Some have criticized the CAAP as “imperfect,” because it lacks specific implementation details or timelines. This is by design.

The CAAP must be both strategic and flexible. There are too many uncertainties before us that will impact our ability to reduce local carbon-based emissions. Over the next 30 years, we will have no less than four presidential administrations. Legislatures will change, as will laws affecting environmental policies. Technologies and efficiencies will change dramatically. Some argue that we will all be riding in autonomous electric vehicles within the next 20 years.

At some point, new technologies (such as better battery storage technology) will become commercially available, permitting the adoption of more renewable energy. All of these will have dramatic influences on our energy use and emissions once they occur.

I can appreciate the desire to settle the uncertainties in the CAAP today; however, we must resist the temptation of fixed solutions to scenarios that will change in the coming years and decades.

While the overall climate action goals of the CAAP should be constant, our local policies must remain adaptive and smart so as to not cost-burden our citizens or businesses. We also must understand the implications and challenges for pursuing these strategies.

One prominent example of this is CPS Energy’s J.K. Spruce coal-fired generating plant. While removing the emissions would dramatically advance the CAAP goals, any proposal to close the plant must consider how the utility would replace the 2,000-plus megawatts of electricity generated at Spruce with another reliable, on-demand source of power.

Such decisions must be carefully and thoughtfully evaluated, with a transparent understanding of costs.

Like the removal of leaded gas, implementation of CAAP strategies will be complicated.  Many of the CAAP strategies will take many years to plan and smartly implement.

That type of long-term commitment to policy goals requires broad support from the entire community, and we will work to ensure that voices from throughout the community are heard in this process.

Ron Nirenberg is the mayor of San Antonio.