San Antonio’s plan to address climate change has already encountered significant delays due to COVID. Now faced with inflation and an unstable economy, city staff is facing pushback about implementing even some of the plan’s more modest proposals aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick presented plans to the council on Wednesday for a benchmark program that would require owners of large buildings to report their energy consumption to the local government — something the council identified as a strategy it would use in its 2019 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.
Much like other elements of the 2019 plan that have been stripped, the proposal was met with pushback from members who said it would create too much of a burden on businesses.
“If we keep saying, ‘Oh, we can’t ask businesses to do anything,’ then we won’t move forward,” said Councilman John Courage (D9), who expressed disappointment over the lack of progress implementing the climate plan. “I want to see us move forward on this. I want my grandkids to breathe clean air.”
Wednesday’s proposal would require businesses with buildings over 100,000 square feet to log their energy consumption annually starting in January, through a free online program used by other major cities. The information would then be used to assign the business a score of 1-100, and the ratings would be available to the public.
Melnick said the benchmark standard was identified as an element of the plan that the city could start work on without disrupting the economy. Other proposals focus on energy-efficient building codes and the city transitioning to electric vehicles.
“I think that’s that’s the key. What are the tools in our toolbox that are reasonable, that are going to help move the needle without being a burden,” Melnick told council members Wednesday.
After feedback from five meetings with an advisory committee of business leaders, Melnick said his office had reached an agreement that the benchmark plan would be rolled out as a voluntary program for the first two years. After that, businesses would be required to comply, but there would be no penalty for those that don’t report their energy consumption in the first year. Fines would be assessed for business that fail to comply in the following years, but exceptions could be made in some circumstances, including businesses that demonstrate financial hardship.
Those concessions didn’t appease Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and Manny Pelaez (D8), who said the plan would hurt businesses that are already facing rising inflation. Perry voted against the overall climate plan when it passed in 2019, while Pelaez supported it.
“Everybody on this council talks about San Antonio being the poorest city … but yet we keep driving costs into goods, services and products here in San Antonio. And this is a prime example of that,” said Perry.
Pelaez argued that the council was overreaching into the private information of businesses. He suggested the city should offer incentives to businesses that comply, instead of punishing those that don’t.
Four council members were absent from Wednesday’s discussion: Phyllis Viagran (D3), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) and Ana Sandoval (D7). Sandoval, who is a major proponent of the climate plan, gave birth to a daughter Sunday night.
Among the council’s progressive bloc, several members made impassioned pitches to keep moving forward on a climate plan that’s already faced major delays due to COVID.
“I do not believe that this goes far enough, but what this is is a compromise, it’s us not sitting on our hands,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5).
Data provided by the city showed community emissions had decreased .2% between 2016 and 2019. City officials said data on the past two years was not yet available.
The 2019 climate plan set a goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2050, with a reduction of 41% of greenhouse gases expected by 2030.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said implementation of many of the plan’s roughly 80 proposed climate solutions had been delayed by the pandemic. He urged the council not to “rip defeat out of the jaws of victory” by derailing parts that could move forward.
In a nod to concerns about the impact inflation might have on those goals, however, Nirenberg said economic insecurity was the “greatest threat” to efforts to curb climate change.
“If we take our eye off the ball on that, we can kiss all of our global climate goals goodbye,” he said.
This article has been updated to correct that buildings over 100,000 square feet will be required to log energy consumption annually starting in January.