(From left) Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined Mayor Ron Nirenberg in his office before the press conference. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Friday to announce that San Antonio will receive two full-time staffers over the next two years to help implement San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

The two staffers are part of an award from Bloomberg Philanthropies recognizing San Antonio as a winner of the American Cities Climate Challenge. The city joins Albuquerque, Austin, Denver, and Orlando as the final five cities of 25 chosen for the award. The initiative was open to the top 100 U.S. cities by population.

Nirenberg said at Friday’s press conference that rather than President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border, the real national emergency is climate change.

“The science is indisputable,” he said. The only question left is our action. We have an opportunity to lower your energy costs, create green jobs, to build a  stronger and healthier and more equitable San Antonio to enjoy.”

In a Thursday phone interview, Antha Williams, who heads the environment program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said she and her colleagues were impressed with the emphasis that Nirenberg and Doug Melnick, the City’s chief sustainability officer, have put on finding climate solutions.

“We saw both an incredible ambition from the mayor and a terrific sustainability director and real potential for impact,” Williams said. “Across the board, San Antonio really emerged as a leader and as a city that’s incredibly well-positioned to deepen efforts to combat climate change.”

Bloomberg said a large part of San Antonio’s win came from its strong City Council and mayor with a willingness to solve problems. He also emphasized that becoming more sustainable fuels the economy.

Council members listen to the annoucement by Michael R. Bloomberg.
Members of City Council listen to the announcement by Michael Bloomberg. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Climate responsibility and economic development really go together,” he said. “Companies today want to be economically friendly because their investors are demanding they are environmentally friendly.”

The selection gives San Antonio access to “additional staff capacity” and other support as part of a two-year program to assist winning cities in their work to reduce global warming greenhouse gas emissions, Williams said.

“The next step after the city’s win is working in close partnership with each city to determine what exactly the package of support will look like, but the elements of the unique package of support include additional staff capacity, technical assistance from world-class partners, and access to really intensive peer-to-peer networking among like cities,” she said.

Nirenberg said that responding to climate change includes shifting development and land-use strategies to a more sustainable path, as well as transforming San Antonio’s transportation landscape with the ConnectSA plan. Henry Cisneros, one of the tri-chairs of ConnectSA and former Mayor and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, said environmental responsibility was always behind the mobility plan.

“In all sources of carbon pollution and damage to the environment that directly impacts San Antonio, the two most [impactful] are building emissions and transportation,” he said.

ConnectSA also plans to consult with the two staff members provided by Bloomberg, Cisneros said.

Shortly after taking office, Nirenberg and new City Council members in June 2017 signed a pledge to keep San Antonio’s global warming greenhouse gas emissions within the bounds of the Paris Accord, an international agreement to curb the worst effects of climate change.

So far, the climate plan has mostly yielded data and dialogue. Technical experts produced an inventory of San Antonio’s greenhouse gas emissions and updated climate projections to show what future heat waves, droughts, and floods the city could face. Roughly 90 people representing businesses, colleges, environmental organizations, government entities, and more have been meeting regularly to discuss how best to address rapid global warming.

A draft version of the final climate plan is expected to be released Jan. 25.

San Antonio has already taken some tangible steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, such as CPS Energy’s closure of its Deely coal plant. The utility has also expanded its energy efficiency programs and its purchases of solar and wind power It continues to provide incentives for its customers to invest in rooftop solar.

A view from an access road at Calaveras Power Station of (from left) CPS Energy Spruce units and Deely units.
(from left) CPS Energy’s coal-burning Spruce units and Deely units at the Calaveras Power Station. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Forthcoming initiatives that could help shrink San Antonio’s carbon footprint are the City and Bexar County Connect SA transportation plan. More than $61 million in Volkswagen settlement funds earmarked for San Antonio could help the City, private industry, and other local governments convert their fleets to lower-emitting vehicles.

But it’s hard to imagine that these will be enough on their own to keep San Antonio within the bounds of the Paris Accord. Climate planners have said that San Antonio may have to cut its emissions by half to meet the goal.

The transportation plan faces a variety of hurdles, including funding. Changes to development codes to require more efficient buildings could face opposition from developers and the construction industry.

Soon after the climate planning process started, CPS Energy also announced it plans to continue relying heavily on natural gas and coal through the early 2040s.

Under its “Flexible Path” plan, CPS Energy’s power generation mix by then would include 50 percent wind and solar, 13 percent natural gas, 9 percent nuclear, 7 percent coal, and 5 percent energy storage, potentially through massive batteries. Another 16 percent would come from “flexible generation,” which utility officials have purposely left vague, saying they could be filled with emerging technologies.

Asked whether San Antonio’s continued reliance on fossil fuels affected Bloomberg Philanthropies’ review of the city, Williams said, “To be honest, I can’t speak to that.”

“As we looked across the application and the specific work plan, we just felt like there was a ton of opportunity in these sectors around buildings and transportation,” Williams continued. “We felt like [Nirenberg] and [Melnick] are ready to take that on, and so that’s really what pushed San Antonio to the top for us.”

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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.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.