Why Paris Matters to LA, explained by Chief Sustainability Officer Matt Petersen

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Eiffel Tower seen from close-up is shrouded in greenery. Urban forest is part of the plan for greener cities. Photo by Frances Anderton

“The historic climate agreement adopted on Saturday in Paris breaks new ground. I got chills watching the room erupt in applause, hugs, and tears, as it was finalized. ‪Successfully implementing the agreement will require…

Paris, cropped
City leaders descended on Paris for the climate talks, but cities are part of the problem. Photo of the Eiffel Tower by Frances Anderton
“The historic climate agreement adopted on Saturday in Paris breaks new ground. I got chills watching the room erupt in applause, hugs, and tears, as it was finalized. Successfully implementing the agreement will require an enormous, collaborative effort from nations, cities, and subnational governments, alike. . . . when I stood in Paris at City Hall with Mayor Garcetti and 445 other mayors on December 4 — a better, greener, future felt possible.”

That was Matt Petersen, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Los Angeles, on the historic moment at the Paris climate talks, aka COP21, when 196 countries signed on to an accord that will, for the first time, reported the NYT, commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change.

But, continues Petersen, “this is just the beginning. We must redouble our efforts to keep up the tremendous momentum. . . and with over 400 mayors around the world who are signed on to the Compact of Mayors, I have great confidence in the power of local government speaking united from the front lines of the fight against climate change.”Why Cities and Mayors Matter to Climate Change

Petersen is the first sustainability officer for LA and his role involves supporting Mayor Eric Garcetti in helping lead 34 US mayors in the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda. Mayors of major cities are now central to action on climate change — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has even created a new post, Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, occupied by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. This is because because while its impact is global, the causes and effects of global warming are largely happening at the city level. 

Half the world’s population currently lives in cities, 1.5 million more people are migrating to cities each week, and, says Matt Petersen, “cities are responsible for up to 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world” — through transportation, industry, the construction and operation of buildings (almost 75% of all the electricity produced in the U.S. is used just to operate buildings) and the heat island effect.

Furthermore, as well as largely causing climate change, it is cities that will be most impacted by its destructive forces — sea level rise, drought and extreme weather events — and therefore cities need to adapt their buildings and infrastructure to make them more resilient in the future.

Big U Harbor Berm is part of a resiliency plan for New York by a team helmed by Bjarke Ingels.
Big U Harbor Berm is part of a resiliency plan for New York by a team helmed by Bjarke Ingels Group.

As leading resiliency expert Henk Ovink told DnA:

“Until now the climate change debate was dominated by mitigation — cutting emissions, and changing the way we get our energy from the current to renewables that puts a lesser stress on the world and the world’s environment in the future… But mitigation will not bring salvation to [countries like] Bangladesh. If we only focus on mitigation millions of people will die around the world because we forgot to adapt.”

As it turns out, Los Angeles, so long the bad guy in the environmental story, is now, along with the state of California generally, in the vanguard of sustainability efforts, even as the city and the state are booming in terms of economic growth.

According to Petersen, the city has updated their 1990 baseline inventory and their 2013 inventory, and found that “we’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions in LA by 20 percent and we’re almost halfway to our target already of 45 percent greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2025.”

 Charles Csavossy - http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/multimedia/photo_gallery/afc/field_ops/inspectors_seaports/cs_photo32.xml
Port of Long Beach is cleaning up its emissions. Photo by Charles Csavossy; courtesy wikipedia.

And earlier this year, his department issued LA’s first-ever Sustainability Plan, setting (non-binding) targets and actions in 14 categories to “improve the city’s environment, economy and equity in anticipation of 500,000 more Angelenos by 2035.” The plan commits to “zero emissions goods movement at the Port of Los Angeles, the first-ever commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and the first-ever commitment to reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled.”

And what is helping achieve these largescale goals and abstract numbers? It’s the aggregation of many smaller-scale initiatives taking place across the LA region — from bike share programs, to networked “smart” water cisterns and bus benches, to change approaches to water capture and longterm re-planning of the LA River, to the creation of all-electric cars by brilliant minds in our own back yard.

(Check out this DnA on how the Southland plans to capture 50 percent or more of its water right here.)

To get a deeper understanding of what’s at stake, DnA turned to Matt Petersen. Read on for his answers.

DnA: Urban planning is being factored into the climate change talks. Why is that important?

MP: Our land use planning, and how we build out our cities, is critical for not just livability of our communities but how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, how can we help people live closer to where they work and play and how do we help provide mobility options to not only improve the lives of the residents but reduce their emissions; and how do we make sure that we have adequate EV infrastructure throughout our city?

That’s why we’ve set a goal of a thousand publicly available EV charging stations in L.A. by 2017.

The anticipated luxury all-electric car by new Chinese-owned, LA-based company Faraday Future will generate more interest in electric cars.

DnA: Why do cities play an important role in this overall discussion?

Cities are responsible for up to 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

All the activity that happens in the city, all of the inputs that go into making a city work and thrive and run every day and so cities really have a responsibility to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and lead the way.

And mayors have been a strong voice for climate action for some time; Mayor Garcetti is committed to climate action through the Sustainable City plan, through our the mayor’s National Climate Action Agenda he co-founded with Mayors Nutter and Parker, and through C40 and the compact of mayors in the global level as well as hosting the U.S. China Summit.

So the Paris climate talks are an opportunity, not only for mayors to speak out and call for action by our national leaders around the world, but for mayors to share examples of where they’ve succeeded, where they’ve learned lessons, how they can reduce emissions how they can improve people’s lives.

Smart bus stop in South LA is part of Mayor Garcetti's Great Streets Initiative, intended to make walking and transit use more appealing
Smart bus stop in South LA is part of Mayor Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative, intended to make walking and transit use more appealing; photo by Avishay Artsy

DnA: Can you give me a couple examples of what’s in the Sustainability Plan released earlier this year that would target greenhouse gas emissions and other things that lead to climate change?

MP: We set in the Sustainable City plan targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Los Angeles by 45 percent by 2025, 60 percent by 2035, and 80 percent by 2050 and the ways that we get there include by getting LADWP off coal by 2025, putting in more EV infrastructure and more solar panels on our rooftops, setting a goal of trying to get to 1500 megawatts of solar by 2025, increasing the amount of energy efficiency we’re going to have as providing our power — 15 percent of all of our energy supply and then increasing the energy efficiency of existing buildings to achieve that.

And getting our city fleet to be pure battery electric so we’ll have the most battery electric vehicles of any city fleet in the country by the end of June of 2016.

So all these steps begin to add up to significant greenhouse gas emissions and then we also need to prepare for the reality of climate change.

Urban heat island effect is a real impact of climate as well as overall for cities. So what can we do about that? We know that we are seeing more extreme heat days for longer periods of time that add to the urban heat island effect. We can put on cool roofs. We have a cool roofs ordinance here in L.A. We can do cool surfacing on our parking lots and our streets.

And we can make sure we have a healthy robust urban forest that helps not only improve air quality but reduces emissions in the city through the urban heat island reduction goal.

We’re only the second city in the world to set a set of targets to reduce our urban heat island effect.

mage of the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Scattergood Generating Plant, two coastal assets in the City of Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project, www.Californiacoastline.org).
The Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Scattergood Generating Plant are coastal assets that could be jeopardized by rising sea levels, according to USC’s Sea Grant project. Photo credit: Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project.

DnA: How would climate change affect LA specifically? 

MP: UCLA and USC each released reports in the last couple years that identified the impacts of climate on Los Angeles. USC’s report talked about sea level rise and most of the city of L.A. sea level rise that’s going to impact our city would be in Venice and near the port and so what’s at risk there is infrastructure, stormwater infrastructure, essentially natural gas infrastructure, anything in the ground that is potentially exposed to the rising seas if we get a King Tide and a storm surge at the same time. Those are the kinds of challenges that we need to prepare for overall.

Beyond that UCLA’s Dr Alex Hall looked at increased extreme heat days for longer periods of time. The fact we’ll have increased fire seasons and after we have those fires when we do get storm events they’ll be more extreme for more intense, shorter periods of time, and we’ll see flooding and mudslides after those fires on our hillsides and mountains around LA.

And then last is the impact of worsening the drought. So we’re losing snowpack due to climate change. And not only did we had the worst lowest snowpack in decades, we know that going forward even with the wet El Nino we may not have the snowpack we need and we’re certainly not going to be solving the drought even with a wet El Nino season.

So we need to continue to conserve and really have a long term solution so we get to 50 percent of local water supply here in L.A. — as we said in the Sustainable City plan — by 2035 so we’re not vulnerable to imported water supplies which could be disrupted in an earthquake.

Santa Monica's new bike share program does its bit to reign in emissions.
Santa Monica’s new bike share program does its bit to reign in emissions. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

DnA: We’re talking also about a population growth of half a million people in the next twenty years. How does the plan factor into that the population growth that we continue to see?

MP: You know we both have to look at both absolute numbers and per capita numbers. So we’ve said on the water conservation target we’ve looked at per capita water consumption — total gallons per capita per day. And that’s been our short term target, and our long term target.

But what we’ve seen over time in Los Angeles is that we’ve added a million more people but we’re using the same amount of water today as we did 40 years ago. So we anticipate that continued leadership in conservation of water and energy.

And as we add more solar, [we’ll] not only become the city with the most solar in the country but moving to having the most part capita in the next decade and beyond.

We know that we can continue to welcome people to Los Angeles while continuing to protect our environment and reduce emissions.

Does the Eiffel Tower offer an answer? Seen from close-up, the landmark is shrouded in greenery. Urban forest is part of the plan for greener cities. Photo by Frances Anderton