When San Francisco scored top marks as the "greenest city" in the US in a survey sponsored by Siemens and conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, it came as no surprise, but I had my doubts.
San Francisco has high rates of recycling, around 75%. Go Giants! But California's incentive to recycle - 5c-10c redemption per can or bottle - acts as a de facto social safety net which either supports low-income households, or the local liquor store or drug dealer, depending on how you catch that particular prism of the issue of "scavenging".
Every City hall worker is proud to tell you that SF's trolley buses are zero emission. But never mind that they flooded the valley next to Yosemite to create the Hetch Hetchy hydropower station, which by all accounts was as beautiful as its more famous neighbour.
Electric vehicle charging points are available outside City Hall, while employees are encouraged to drive their C02 belching machines work by providing preferential parking places. City Hall itself hosts conferences where cold drinks, including water, only come from an aluminum can or plastic bottle. Perhaps it's the mayor's way of "giving something back" when the trash gets taken out for the transients to sift through…
The $20m from hard-strapped federal funds spent on an SF Park scheme * (which encourages motorists to drive into the city) while the SF Muni struggles with an $80m budget deficit and could really use the fares, is an irony of policy misalignment almost worth weeping over.
San Francisco's list of contradictions seem endless. And the fact that the city "won" this accolade from Siemens appeared to sit uneasily … even with those on the City Hall payroll.
Last month, Mayor Edwin Lee announced that SF's greenhouse gas emissions are nearly 12% below 1990 levels…
But the original target set by the Climate Action Plan 2008 requires an extra eight percentage points before the end of next year. At this rate it will miss the 20% reductions below 1990 levels by the end of 2012, and 80% by 2050.
In fact, in terms of CO2 emissions the Siemens report ranked San Francisco 8th out of 27 cities, behind Los Angeles and New York. Although according to the report, SF's GDP emissions are half that of the US average, possibly because "service industries" are favoured over manufacturing:
San Francisco emits 181 metric tons of CO2 for every $1 million of GDP, versus an Index average of 296. And on a per capita basis the city emits 11.4 metric tons of CO2 compared with an overall average of 14.5 metric tons. San Francisco has made further greenhouse gas emissions reductions a top priority. The city has made impressive headway in reducing municipal greenhouse gas emissions … and has outlined a range of carbon-reduction initiatives aimed at non-municipal sources, particularly in the areas of buildings, energy and transport.
Speaking at the Renewable Energy Markets conference in San Francisco last week, the city's green chief, Melanie Nutter, acknowledged that aggressive action would be needed to meet the 12% emissions reduction by 2020. A taskforce would report in January on its strategy, she added.
"We're very proud of what we've done, but we do recognise that we've a long way to go."
But she might have further to go than she and Mayor Lee are prepared to admit.
A Bay Citizen article reprinted in the New York Times at the weekend suggests that the "real decrease in carbon emissions may be only one-fourth the percentage cited by the city".
Mr. Lee and his environmental advisers say the main driver of San Francisco’s carbon emission reductions was the closing of inefficient fossil-fuel power plants at Hunters Point in 2006 and in the Potrero neighborhood in 2010.
We reduced our emissions because we stopped getting so much of our power from local dirty power plants,” said Melanie Nutter, director of the San Francisco Environment Department, which established the city’s carbon accounting system in 2004.
According to Environment Department records, the city’s reduction in carbon emissions from electricity use was so substantial after the plant closings that even with a rise in electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions from private vehicles over the past 20 years, the city, by 2010, had cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by 11.6 percent.
But as the article points out, these power plants were owned by PG&E and Nutter's calculations assume that the electricity produced by the two power plants was used inside the city, an assumption that is wrong.
“The grid is like a giant lake,” said Stephanie McCorkle, the spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator, which oversees PG&E’s grid. “You can’t tell one electron from another, once they jump on the grid.”
But the article rightly questions the city's methodology. The Bay Citizen analysed San Francisco's carbon footprint using measurement tools developed by Christopher Jones at the CoolClimate Network of the University of California, Berkeley. It found that SF's reductions in emissions could be as low as carbon emissions by 2.7% from 1990 to 2010.
It was a fine piece of journalism and the city's green chief would do well to apply more rigour to its metrics. There should be nothing stopping Ms Nutter from adopting methodologies employed in other world class cities such as London or publishing its inventory and celebrating successes like New York.
I spoke with Nutter before she addressed the REM 2011 conference and said that I had a question for her about policy alignment on transport (see above*). I'm still waiting almost week later for an answer I don't think I'll ever get.
But perhaps Nutter and her new mayor are concerned that the measurements don't add up… and the illusion of San Francisco as a green city will be rightly re-appraised. When it comes to cutting emissions, targets without proper metrics that are a matter of public record amount to mere greenwashing…