Local Governments Join Forces on Climate Action Plan

Last November, staff from the County of Humboldt and the seven cities within its boundaries came together to discuss an exciting new project: a regional Climate Action Plan (CAP) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions throughout Humboldt County.

It’s not often that staff from the County and all the cities get together in the same room. Climate change, however, has no jurisdictional boundaries—it will impact us all. The diffuse causes of climate change and far-reaching effects call for coordinated action.

A regional approach makes economic sense as well. Each local jurisdiction is subject to the same state requirements to reduce GHG emissions. It will be more cost effective for local jurisdictions to combine forces, as we all share many of the same impacts and we have similar tools to address them. And, as statewide funding becomes available to address climate change, we all will be more competitive as a unified group rather than striking out on our own individually.

To date, over 40 percent of local governments in the state have completed CAPs. These plans include an analysis of current emissions, a forecast of future emissions, a greenhouse gas reduction target and a set of policies and programs to meet the target. Humboldt’s CAP will explore reducing emissions from five major sectors: grid energy use, transportation, recycling and waste, water delivery, and agriculture.

That first step in drafting the CAP—an inventory of Humboldt County’s greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2015—was recently completed by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), a joint-powers entity with participation from the county and all the cities. RCEA looked at a wide range of data from these sectors—electricity usage, vehicle trips, trash pickups—to quantify which activities in the county result in greenhouse gas emissions.

The inventory revealed that transportation is the most significant source of emissions in Humboldt County. This is to be expected for a mostly rural area like Humboldt, where people rely on cars and trucks to get around, and many travel long distances between work and home.

CAPs often include measures that reduce vehicle trips and their length. For example, the Sonoma County CAP has a goal for 50 percent of new development in the county to be mixed-use—a combination of residential and commercial use—that enables people to live close to where they work and play. Old Town Eureka, where many buildings have both store-fronts and apartments, is a good example of mixed-use development here in Humboldt County.

The second highest source of GHG emissions in Humboldt County may come as a surprise. Dairy and beef cattle are an important part of Humboldt County’s heritage, and dairy remains one of the region’s prominent industries. But a cow’s digestion process produces methane, a greenhouse gas over 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). A single dairy cow over a year produces an amount of methane equivalent to 3.96 metric tons of CO2. That’s only a little less than the average car, which emits 4.6 metric tons.

It’s not clear how to best reduce local GHG emissions from this source. In other parts of the state, advances in methane capture systems have enabled many farms to reduce their carbon footprint while generating revenue through the carbon offset market. Changing the food source for cows may also be effective in reducing emissions from this source. We will be exploring all of these options and others in partnership with local farmers and ranchers to develop the best fit for our CAP.

Beyond transportation and livestock, electricity consumption is the third-greatest source of GHG emissions in the region. Humboldt County is somewhat of an energy island. Most of our electricity is transmitted from fossil fuel-fired power plants outside of the county. Much of our natural gas, used for heating homes and powering the Humboldt Bay Generating Station, is also sourced from outside our boundaries.

In 2017, Redwood Coast Energy Authority became the sole purchaser of electricity for customers in Humboldt County. PG&E still delivers our power, but RCEA decides where that power comes from, providing savings on energy bills while purchasing more renewable energy for Humboldt County. The GHG emissions from electricity and natural gas consumption may be far lower when RCEA conducts future inventories.

Our multijurisdictional Climate Action Plan will explore ways to promote local renewable sources of energy. For instance, county and city staff will look at ways to promote the installation of rooftop solar panels by homeowners and local businesses. A number of Climate Action Plans throughout California have established online solar permitting processes to incentivize deployment of solar panels.

With a clear picture of where our emissions come from, city and county staff are now prepared to develop a plan to reduce them in the future with full citizen participation. Your ideas and suggestions will be welcomed during this process. Discussions will begin at a series of public workshops in the spring.

For more information, if you have questions about this project, or would like to receive updates, email the author at cmcguigan1@humboldt.ca.us.

Connor McGuigan is a CivicSpark Climate Fellow with the Humboldt County Planning & Building Department.