Traffic at the intersection below the Loop 1604 to Highway 281 interchange.
Traffic at the intersection below the Loop 1604 to Highway 281 interchange. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Building a plan to cut fossil fuel use in a growing, car-centric Texas city with a large low-income population on the edge of the Eagle Ford Shale was never going to be an easy task. 

But after months of listening to residents, businesses, and special interest groups weigh in on the City-led Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, its strongest advocates are saying the plan’s most recent draft is a framework for helping the city grapple with climate change. 

“We are deadly serious about getting this done,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “We want it to be a document people can get behind because the hard work is coming with the decisions we have to make. If we don’t start out on the right foot together as a community, we’re certainly not going to get on the right track together.”

The plan will go before the full City Council on Thursday. A vote on the plan is scheduled for Oct. 17, Nirenberg said. If adopted, Nirenberg floated the creation of a citizen’s advisory commission to help oversee its implementation.

The document’s newest draft maintains the original’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, meaning the city would take in or offset the same amount of the greenhouse gases driving rapid global warming. However, it also stripped 10 of the 28 strategies of specific goals and deadlines to cut emissions. It also removed the cost estimate associated with individual strategies to cope with climate change.

Doug Melnick, the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer, said at a recent climate steering committee meeting that it was impossible to come up with a specific number for each strategy. It would have to consider the cost of action while also weighing the cost of inaction across three decades of uncertainty. 

“It was about identifying the costs, but we also wanted to quantify the benefits and cost avoidance,” Melnick said. “We found out that we couldn’t, so we removed those because … this is a framework and not a list of mandates.”

The plan is the result of a 2017 City Council resolution committing San Antonio to the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. Originally expected to be released in April and approved ahead of the municipal election, the final plan’s release has been repeatedly delayed. The Rivard Report obtained the plan last week after it had been distributed to the around 90 volunteer members of its steering committee and technical working groups. 

Melnick, who has led the City’s efforts in developing and explaining the plan, said he and his staff have heard “the full spectrum of opinion.”

“The goal is [to] come up with something that captures the intent of what council passed a resolution on,” Melnick said. “We need to take climate action. It needs to be passable, it needs to be implementable, and it needs to capture that broad community perspective.”

To gauge progress, the city is supposed to update its account of greenhouse gas pollution every two years and the climate plan every three to five, Melnick said. 

Nirenberg said the less-specific language in the new draft acknowledges uncertainty. It doesn’t claim to dictate consumer preferences and what technologies will be available in the future, he said. 

For example, the first draft pledges “carbon-free personal vehicles, trucks, transit, and freight to reach 100 [percent] penetration by 2050.” The second calls for the City to “encourage the accelerated adoption of and transition to cleaner and more efficient vehicle technologies.”

Nirenberg said the old language made people think the City would ban or buy back their gas or diesel cars. Instead, he called a consumer- and manufacturer-driven transition to electric vehicles “a market inevitability” over the next 31 years. 

“We know the City government is not going to invent new vehicles,” Nirenberg said. “We’re not going to invent garbage trucks that are entirely electric. … We’re going to have to depend on the market to create these innovations. But once they’re available to us, which we think they will be, we’re going to adopt them, and we’re going to prioritize electrification.”

Nirenberg and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) offered examples of policies the City is pursuing even before the plan’s passage: the City and Bexar County’s ConnectSA transportation plan, greening municipal operations by switching to clean energy and vehicles, and the adoption of property assessed clean energy financing, or PACE, which helps property owners finance energy efficiency projects. San Antonio is the only big city in Texas without a PACE program. 

Both said it would take sustained work for decades to get to carbon neutral by 2050. It would also take more people pushing for change, Sandoval said. 

“We have a great history of water conservation,” Sandoval said, describing the push to cut water consumption as a “movement.” 

“But in areas like air pollution or climate change, we don’t have that same level of movement,” Sandoval continued. “It really puts more of the lift on the City or the leaders instead of having that groundswell.” 

That’s something San Antonio’s relatively small community of environmentalists will continue to have to reckon with even if the plan is adopted. But Anita Ledbetter, co-chair of the climate plan’s steering committee and executive director of green building program Build San Antonio Green, called the work “a mission.” 

“I grew up in the energy poverty and food desert that we speak about so often,” Ledbetter said at the steering committee meeting. “That’s why I decided many years ago to dedicate my life to this pursuit, because I recognize that it will take decades to transition. For me, this is the beginning still of a long road ahead, but one that we’re going to try to go through together, in partnership.” 

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.