After more than two years of sometimes-heated debate about the future of San Antonio in a rapidly warming world, the City Council on Thursday passed a pledge for the city to do its part to stop the effects of global climate change.

City Council voted 10-1 to adopt the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which says the city will reduce its emissions of the greenhouse gases driving global warming to net zero by 2050. 

“We declare that we will not be bystanders,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “In no simpler terms, here and around the world, we are in a climate emergency.” 

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) voted no. Perry has acknowledged the climate is changing, but he’s also questioned whether humans are currently driving that change.

“I haven’t changed my stripes one bit since day one,” said Perry, citing his continued concerns over the plan’s costs. Perry also voted no two years ago on a resolution that called for local climate action.

The plan states that the city as a whole must within three decades be taking in or offsetting more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than it’s emitting. Such a feat would require shifting almost entirely away from fossil fuels in power supply and transportation or using currently expensive technologies to keep emissions out of the atmosphere. 

The move makes San Antonio the second major Texas city to adopt the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Austin passed such a climate plan in 2014. Houston and Dallas are working on their own climate planning efforts. 

San Antonio’s climate plan localized the global issue, making it a political hot button in the May municipal election and forcing leaders at the City, CPS Energy, and other local governments to go on-record about their stance on local climate action. It also broadened the coalition of environmentalists pushing for local change, with many different groups joining to form a collective they call Climate Action SA. 

However, the path to getting to carbon-neutral is fraught with challenges, many of which City officials have essentially put off until later. 

“There was no true buy-in from the business community,” David Fry, director of administration at Cox Manufacturing, told council members. “There is none now. Information abounds as to the false ideas of extreme climate change. If the science is so clear, there would be much greater unanimity, but there is a tremendous amount of debate, because it’s more of an ideology than it is science.”

The vast majority of climate scientists and scientific organizations say Earth’s average temperature is rising and that warming trends over the last century are due to human activities.

The plan has no solid deadlines about moving away from coal and natural gas, which make up the bulk of the generation capacity that supplies power to San Antonio. In a statement Thursday, CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams said that “we do not recommend isolated and premature plant closures.

“However, we continue to believe there must be a comprehensive plan with thorough assessments and community-wide discussions,” Gold-Williams continued. “For example, accelerating the closure of plants could leave the community in the position of paying twice for energy capacity.”

The newest draft also softened language in a previous draft about the need to shift away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles, which would be necessary to meet the 2050 goal. 

After opposition from some business groups and residents to the plan’s initial draft, an August second draft of the plan dropped many of the hard targets associated with getting off of fossil fuel. Even the plan’s strongest proponents took to calling it a “framework” in the months ahead of Thursday’s vote. 

Officials with CPS Energy, whose electricity generation plants and natural gas lines power and heat San Antonio homes and business and are responsible for the largest share of emissions, also has signaled that they may take the climate plan into consideration, but they won’t be formally bound by its targets. 

“The issue of climate change and clean air is a worldwide issue, and while much progress has been made, we believe it is currently unclear when in the future technologies will progress and mature to the point that renewable energy can be relied upon for all our electricity needs,” Gold-Williams wrote in a Monday op-ed in the Rivard Report. 

CPS Energy has nearly 3,400 megawatts of natural gas generation and 1,350 megawatts of coal capacity, compared to capacity of just over 1,000 megawatts of wind and nearly 550 megawatts of large-scale solar. It also has about 1,035 megawatts of nuclear power. One megawatt can power about 200 homes on a Texas summer day.

A second prong of local efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions also remains mostly in the idea phase. The City’s and County’s ConnectSA plan to expand bus service, improve bike lanes, and reduce congestion is largely unfunded. Recent ideas to shift sales tax revenue toward ConnectSA and away from other environmental policies are likely to encounter stiff opposition. 

The San Antonio City Council listens as members of the community speak about the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP).

Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick told council members the City can get to work on the plan’s goals immediately by continuing to make municipal operations more climate-friendly through energy efficiency and renewables, switching to clean energy and vehicles, and adopting 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.

Much of the plan focuses on ideas to adapt to a changing climate, which have proven less controversial. Ideas include adding more trees and green space and making sure San Antonio’s drainage and flood control systems are properly sized for the storms of the future.

The climate plan originated more than two years ago in the context of President Donald Trump’s June 2017 pledge to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, a nonbinding international accord meant to stymie the worst effects of climate change. Trump’s move prompted hundreds of U.S. mayors to sign pledges saying their cities supported the accord’s aims. 

One of them was Nirenberg, who made passing the resolution the first move of the mostly new, mostly progressive City Council elected June 2017. That resolution committed San Antonio to reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in step with the Paris Agreement. 

At the time, few understood what that commitment truly meant. Through most of 2018, around 90 volunteers representing businesses, engineers and architects, government bodies, environmentalists, social justice groups, and neighborhoods met multiple times a month to go over all aspects of how San Antonio could do its part to reduce emissions. 

Navigant Consulting, an international contractor that has worked with CPS Energy on environmental issues in the past, did most of the number-crunching after it absorbed most of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s role in the plan. 

One exception was UTSA professor Hatim Sharif’s climate projections. They showed that by 2100, the city could see another 48 to 94 days per year when temperatures would top 100 degrees, as well as annual rainfall totals 3 to 4 inches less than historical averages.

Even as the climate planning process was underway, CPS Energy came out with its own vision of the future. The utility would shift even further towards wind and solar to receive half of its power from renewable sources by 2042, though it plans to still be burning coal at its newer J.K. Spruce coal unit by then. Gold-Williams has said that CPS Energy will keep the plant until its useful life ends in the 2060s, unless energy storage technology improves or economics on the Texas power grid make the coal plant too expensive to run. 

Not until January 2019, when the first draft came out, did most City leaders and business executives fully understand what it means to have a Paris-compliant climate plan.

In 30 years, San Antonio would have to shift completely away coal and natural gas in CPS Energy’s fleet of power plants. That would significantly reduce the emissions from heating, cooling, and lighting buildings, which account for half of San Antonio’s emissions. To deal with the next big chunk of emissions from transportation, about 38 percent, the city would have to shift completely away from gasoline, diesel, and natural-gas powered vehicles by 2050. 

Those conclusions led to an outcry and a five-month delay in a City Council vote on the plan, which was originally set to be voted on before the May municipal election. City officials also repeatedly delayed the release of the plan’s final draft, which was leaked to news media in August. 

In the end, changes to the draft proved enough to quell opposition. The only chamber of commerce group to formally support the plan has been the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, whose largest members are mostly government entities and whose CEO Kristi Villanueva participated in the planning process. Others told City leaders they wouldn’t oppose it.

CPS Energy, the San Antonio Water System, the San Antonio River Authority, and VIA Metropolitan Transit all formally endorsed it. 

At the meeting, Nirenberg called the plan a “living document” that “won’t have time to gather dust.”

“Just because a strategy is not included in this draft doesn’t mean it’s been excluded from our future,” Nirenberg said. “Going forward, everything is on the table. Issues like coal must be addressed and done so in an equitable manner that doesn’t burden our community.” 

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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.