Sink or Strike: Alameda’s Climate Reckoning

The city has pledged to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 2030. Yet despite the ambitious goal of becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2030, all available data shows that Alameda — like California — has been on the wrong track for too long.


Photo by Megan Small

On a sunny Friday morning on March 15, Alameda high school students walked out and marched from City Hall down to Crab Cove as part of that day’s Global Climate Strike. They gathered to protest political inaction on climate change on a beach that may disappear within their lifetimes. Inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, Encinal High freshmen Emma Kohler and Olivia Brune organized the march, coordinating banners and signs, leading chants, and inviting Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft to give a keynote address.

“Our government isn’t doing much — it’s up to us as students to use our education as a platform to get them to do something,” Kohler said.

Brune agreed. “When we were trying to rally people to come, the most common thing I heard was, ‘Why is anyone going to listen to us? Why is someone going to listen to a group of students?’” she said. “We want to show that no, we can’t vote, but yes, we can make a difference; we do have a voice, and we can use that voice to make a change in this world.”

They couldn’t have timed it better: the following week, the Alameda City Council passed a Resolution Endorsing a Climate Emergency Declaration, and kicked off updating Alameda’s Climate Action and Resiliency Plan. While global action is needed, local leaders are keenly aware that Alameda has failed to do its part. Despite the ambitious goal of becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2030, all available data show that Alameda — like California — has been on the wrong track for too long.

A 2018 report by the California Air Resources Board found that California was failing to meet its emission reduction goals, and it will continue to fail without a 25 percent reduction in car travel. Electric vehicle adoption, at current projections, will not come quickly enough to bridge that gap. In Alameda, transportation accounts for 52 percent of net emissions, according to the latest Community-wide Greenhouse Gas Inventory from 2015. More alarmingly, that inventory found that Alameda’s greenhouse gas emissions had ballooned up to the equivalent of 400,000 Metric Tons of carbon dioxide — a full 100,000 metric tons higher than the city had aimed to reach by 2020.

Activists and elected officials recognize transportation as their key policy challenge.

“I am working to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles and onto public transit,” Mayor Ashcraft told the striking high school students.

But even before the climate emergency resolution was passed, the city council had already begun taking steps to tackle the automobile’s stranglehold on the Island. At that recent council meeting, the council unanimously approved a study for the Central Avenue Bike Plan, and asked staff to examine the most bike-friendly option: replacing a full lane of car traffic with a protected two-way bikeway separated by a curb.

Brian McGuire, president of Bike Walk Alameda and a member of the climate action plan task force, hopes the plan will encourage greater traffic safety while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “The City Council understands that if you leave cyclists to fend for themselves at the most dangerous intersections, like Webster and Central, you don’t get people to bike to work, or let their kids bike to school, which in turn can enable parents to choose transit,” McGuire said.

Transportation policy faces major hurdles to better implementation that other climate-friendly policies don’t face. Earlier this year, Berkeley banned single-use plastics at restaurants, buoyed by school-aged activists holding signs that read, “Straws Suck.” Alameda and Oakland are likely to follow suit, but all waste accounted for only 2 percent of Alameda’s emissions in 2015.

In energy consumption, Alameda also has smooth sailing ahead. While some members of the public are upset with Alameda Municipal Power closing its Net Energy Metering program to new subscribers, utility representatives noted that the utility plans to have a 100 percent carbon-neutral energy portfolio by 2020, according to its 2018 Strategic Report.

But reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips is much more complicated, to say the least. The intersections of local, regional, and statewide rules are difficult to disentangle, and the goals of overlapping constituencies can often conflict.

Key to reducing car dependence is reducing commute distances by encouraging greater urban density near job centers and public transit. According to research by UC Berkeley Professor Daniel Kammen, a leading climate science scholar, the most effective policy tool that many California municipalities can use to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is urban infill development.

In a landmark 2018 paper published in the journal Urban Planning, Kammen and his coauthors surveyed more than 700 California municipalities and found that “roughly 35 percent of all carbon footprint abatement potential statewide is from activities at least partially within the control of local governments.” In the same paper, researchers also found that the average California household contributes nearly a quarter of its average emissions through transportation consumption.

His research showed that Alameda, for example, could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than the equivalent of 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030 through urban infill alone. The next leading category, commercial efficiency, clocked in at around 50,000 metric tons.

On land use, too, Alameda is not waiting for the state. Shortly after the climate emergency resolution was passed, the city council heard a presentation on the so-called CASA Compact, a plan drawn up by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to tackle the region’s high housing costs. State bills inspired by the compact include just cause protections, regional funding for affordable housing, and zoning for higher densities near public transit. The council directed its interim city manager to draw up recommendations for implementing those policies at a local level.

“Every city in California that considers itself a leader on climate change is going to have to take a long, hard look at its housing, land use, and transportation policies and practices,” said Matthew Lewis, a climate and energy policy consultant in Berkeley. “The research is fairly unambiguous: cities that don’t build more housing near transit and jobs will fail to achieve their climate objectives. As of now, that includes Alameda and most coastal cities in California.”

McGuire of Bike Walk Alameda agrees. “Sitting in the geographic center of the Bay Area, we must add housing density to match the region’s job density,” he said. “If we don’t build more housing here and instead keep our car-dependent lifestyles, we are effectively creating double and triple the emissions by forcing those residents out to far-flung exurbs.”

As the climate strike wound down shortly after noon, the students packed up their signs and prepared to leave the park. Before leaving they struck up a familiar tune: it was Emma Kohler’s birthday. Facing the tides of a swelling sea, they wished her many more.