Cars travel along U.S. Highway 281 near the bridge on Stadium Drive at rush hour.
An updated version of the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan slashes the specific commitment to having only carbon-free vehicles on San Antonio roads by 2050. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

An updated version of the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan has been stripped of its most controversial strategies to cut greenhouse gas emissions while still asserting that San Antonio can be carbon-neutral by 2050. 

The plan maintains the overall goal of carbon neutrality first released in a January draft. That means the city would take in as much of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming as it emits within three decades, according to a version of the plan obtained by the Rivard Report

However, the new draft slashes specific commitments to cutting emissions at CPS Energy’s power plants, having only carbon-free vehicles on San Antonio roads by 2050, and reducing city-wide energy use in buildings by 40 percent by 2040.

The revised draft also entirely removed references to the plan’s costs. A former version included one to three dollar signs tied to each strategy. These were meant to reflect whether the costs projected for each strategy would be less than $100 million through 2030, between $100 million and $1 billion, or more than $1 billion. The new draft includes no such references.  

The softening of the most controversial parts of the plan likely reflects the intense pushback by some prominent local businesses and business organizations. NuStar Energy, Valero Energy, the SA Auto Dealers trade group, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and the San Antonio Manufacturers Association were among the groups that expressed concern or opposition to the draft plan. 

The plan stemmed from a June 2017 resolution pushed by Nirenberg and approved by all but one council member for San Antonio to do its part to uphold the international climate pact known as the Paris Agreement, meant to curtail the worst effects of global warming. At the time, President Donald Trump had announced his intent to pull the United States out of the deal, prompting hundreds of U.S. mayors to sign declarations saying their cities were still in. 

After the resolution passed, the City, CPS Energy, and the University of Texas at San Antonio convened a group of 90 volunteers from all parts of the community who met for about a year to develop the plan. UTSA’s role in the plan’s development ended up being mostly taken over by Navigant, a consulting firm that frequently works for CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and natural gas utility. 

After the first draft’s release in January, City officials and the plan’s champions on City Council, such as Nirenberg and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), stressed that the plan was simply a roadmap for future actions, each of which would have its own detailed vetting process. 

The plan includes sobering projections for the threats facing San Antonio in a warmer world. By 2040, summer temperatures in the city are likely to be 4 degrees Fahrenheit higher on average. An already-hot city would sweat through 24 additional days over 100 degrees each year while receiving an average of 3 inches less rain each year, according to an analysis of climate projections done as part of the plan. 

“Without a plan to reduce our emissions and prepare San Antonio for these impacts, our city – and our people – are at risk,” the plan states. “Climate change threatens everything we value.”

Unlike the old draft, which showed only a final goal of cutting all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the new version has interim targets: a 41 percent reduction by 2030, 71 percent by 2040, then 100 percent by 2050. 

However, the revised plan is less clear than before about how the city will reach those goals. Out of 28 greenhouse gas reduction strategies discussed in the plan, 11 had significant changes from one draft to the next. Ten of them were stripped of all specific goals and target dates originally mentioned in the January version.

For example, under a strategy formerly titled “decarbonize the grid,” the draft plan called for working with CPS Energy to “continue to reduce the emissions factor of supplied electricity to reach an emissions factor of 0.0 kg CO2e / kWh by 2050.” 

Translation: CPS Energy would have to get rid of its coal- and natural gas-fired power plants by 2050 or install expensive technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, that would render them free of greenhouse gas emissions. 

But in the new draft, the title for this strategy was changed to “reduce the carbon intensity of San Antonio’s energy supply.” The goal itself was changed to “work with CPS Energy on the implementation of their ‘Flexible Path’ to drive towards carbon neutrality by 2050.”

The phrase “drive towards carbon neutrality” is key. CPS Energy’s Flexible Path is not a carbon-neutral plan. In fact, it calls for the utility’s power generation mix to be 7 percent coal and 13 percent natural gas in the early 2040s.

Another example centers on the role of emissions that come from car and truck tailpipes. The January draft included a strategy titled “carbon-free vehicles” that called for a “transition to carbon-free transport by implementing strategies to accelerate the adoption of electric or other carbon-free personal vehicles, trucks, transit, and freight to reach 100 [percent] penetration by 2050.”

In the new version, the title has been changed to “cleaner and more efficient vehicle technologies.” The strategy now reads, “encourage the accelerated adoption of and transition to cleaner and more efficient vehicle technologies for personal vehicles, trucks, transit, and freight.”

For specific strategies, only the section of the plan that covers cutting greenhouse gas emissions saw significant changes, and of those, only for those strategies that affect the community as a whole.

The new draft maintains many of the strategies City is proposing for greening its own operations. All 13 of the municipal mitigation strategies in the plan feature the same or even more stringent language than in the January version. 

The section on adaptation also didn’t change much from one draft to the next. Only one of the 17 proposed adaptation strategies had substantially different language, and that change was only to reflect updated timing of new floodplain maps. 

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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.