Berkeley residents have been wearing masks due to poor air quality, Oct. 11, 2017. Photo: Pete Rosos
Poor air quality due to wildfires is becoming more common locally. Here a man wears a mask on a Berkeley street in October 2017. Photo: Pete Rosos

Devastating Northern California wildfires the past two years has Berkeley talking about accelerating its Climate Action Plan to head off the greater impacts of climate change.

At a special Dec. 6 work session, city staff members told the City Council that Berkeley’s 2009 plan to reduce greenhouse emissions 80% below 2000 levels by 2050 was right on track.

“The horrible fires reminded us of the urgency of the problem,” said Billi Romain, the city’s sustainability program manager. “Berkeley has never wavered in our commitments. We maintained a leadership role by implementing innovative policies and by organizing regional and state coalitions to accelerate action.

“It’s clear the situation is more urgent than ever.”

The annual report was based on numbers compiled through the end of 2016.

Since 2000, Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 15%, despite population growing at an 18% clip during the same time. That number includes pollution from transportation, energy use in buildings and solid waste disposal.

Since 2000, Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 15%, despite population growing at an 18% clip during the same time.

But the city isn’t stopping long to pat itself on the back.

“Our efforts to protect the climate have successfully reduced emissions,” Romain said. “However, we need to accelerate these efforts to address climate change.”

The city is focusing on reducing energy use in construction of new buildings, minimizing landfill waste and converting to cleaner electricity use citywide, as well as taking those cleaner electric methods — literally — to the streets.

Transportation was continuously mentioned as an area needing heavy focus. Even if the city already has the nation’s highest percentage of residents riding their bicycles to work, and the second highest rate of residents walking to work (among cities with populations of more than 100,000), council and staff agreed that’s not enough.

“We need to do more to reduce the number of cars on the road,” Romain said.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other council members recently proposed a citywide goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050, which Arreguín pledged at the most recent Global Climate Summit. They’ve also said the city will become fossil fuel-free, and will only be using renewable energy by mid-century.

“We knew by the fires that occurred, which have literally choked (us), the emergency is real,” said Arreguín. While we are doing a lot, we do need to accelerate the pace at which we are addressing the climate.”

The most recent data shows transportation accounts for 60% of Berkeley’s emissions, while residential and commercial buildings account for 37% (landfill waste sits at 3%, while municipal buildings only account for 0.4% of citywide emissions).

2016 community-wide GHG emissions inventory by sector and fuel. See chart in the city report

Numbers produced by UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory weren’t included in the city tally, though both had representatives at the meeting to report how each is reducing pollution.

“Any new building that we build going forward after June 2019 needs to be zero net carbon (emissions), either through a climate action plan process, or an electrification process” said Kira Stoll, UC Berkeley’s director of sustainability, who added that 35% of the university’s vehicle fleet is powered by alternative fuel.

“We have more work to do,” she said.

John Elliott, Berkeley Lab’s chief sustainability officer, said the lab has a team of experts continuously examining its buildings for ways to improve their energy efficiency. He said the lab’s conversion to LED lighting has changed things dramatically.

“The savings were almost 95%,” Elliott said. “It’s almost laughable, I know. It’s a big savings from new technology.”

He also pointed out that the lab is committed to sustainable practices when it breaks ground — all future buildings will be built in the footprint of previous structures.

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn pointed out that, while the university and the laboratory efforts are laudable, both have “captive audiences and highly motivated” employees. More needs to be done to get residents on board. Among their options is the city’s agreement with East Bay Community Energy to provide more renewable energy as an alternative to PG&E (which still owns the infrastructure).

“The city has the heaviest lifting to do,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot.”

Councilwoman Kate Harrison said, while it’s “incredibly important that we declare it a climate emergency,” she said all the ideas and effort boil down to one thing.

“What’s more important to me is, at the end of the day, how much better our lives are going to be.”

Tony Hicks

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...

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  1. The buses, both the routes and the schedules, do not permit this. For example, Berkeley has schools assigned to mix up the resident-students to other neighborhood districts, but does nothing to transport them!! Kids must take the AC Transit bus from one end of the city to the next! Using schedules that are not synchronized with the start of school. So either kids are chronically late by ten minutes or early by twenty. What’s with that? And if you mention it to Council, they do NOTHING.

  2. How do we teach bicyclists to walk their bikes across the crosswalks and to stop at stop signs and obey the other traffic laws they feel entitled to break. Don’t come after vehicle drivers when bicyclists show no regard to safety. They have a right to a full lane if they aren’t causing a safety hazard by going half the speed limit. If you want more respect from cars then obey the laws.

  3. The bay area has had a good economy for the last 50 years? What do you consider bad? You obviously missed the collapse and the nation wide housing collapse that took us parallel to the depression’s economy. What do you consider bad? We have had 2 of the worst times for the bay area economy in the last 50 years and that was after we became a technology titan.

  4. You have your “second-class citizenship” argument exactly backwards. Our current car-priority approach to people creates second-class citizens of those who can’t or don’t have cars yet must contend with everything built for cars. Build different to be more inclusive.

  5. Increasing population induces the need for more housing and more parking and more transportation. Addressing all of those issues are together the YIMBY #1 priority. Population is increasing, our region’s economy is beyond good, so people are moving here, where socioeconomic mobility is high but expensive (it is the major barrier). Current residents have no legitimate right to retain more benefits for themselves compared to new residents, we have enough class pressures as it is.

    The appropriate reaction to our circumstances is to focus on improving our transportation infrastructure while new housing is built (which needs to include parking now as those residents will generally need to drive given inadequate alternatives).

    Creating second class citizens (those who are denied parking and thus denied the use of cars) is simply wrong, those with such privileges should not be allowed to continue while others, generally less well off, are left to fend for themselves for transportation. It is incumbent on all of us to press for the transportation and housing that we all (including new residents) need. Like you, new residents with soon be “us”.

  6. The problem is people who think it is someone else’s problem (to the extent that they influence policy). It is always the case in good economies (which has been the case in the Bay Area at all times in the past 50 years, even at the lowest points), that business grows faster than infrastructure. As a consequence, the stress extends outward, putting pressure to increase infrastructure, including housing and transportation, to surrounding areas (including Berkeley).

    All that San Francisco HAS to do is the minimum to enable its businesses to operate. Its housing, plus regional housing, roads, and public transportation currently satisfy that minimum requirement, although improvements in infrastructure would improve its economy (as it would for others). Since satisfying that need impacts Berkeley (and all other Bay Area cities), it is also our unavoidable problem.

    In any case, Salesforce and whoever the big employers are at a given time will locate in San Francisco until it is not feasible or desirable. Meanwhile, the entire region, which also have good jobs of their own, are subject to the housing, transportation, and other infrastructure pressures. We are all in this together, putting our heads in the sand is done at our own peril (think about Mexico’s problems living next door to the world’s biggest drug addict and their failure to plan accordingly, they can righteously blame the US all they want, but it doesn’t do anything to solve their problems).

    We are one, big urban area, thinking of Berkeley as a completely separate city will increase the problems we already have (including ever decreasing affordable housing to current residents, with the consequent ongoing displacement of current residents and exclusion of many others who would have otherwise moved here).

    So, Berkeley, like all cities around the Bay, needs more dense housing and we have not yet provided our share. We also need better public transportation. Being “right” (even if you are sure it) is not good enough.

    Perhaps Bay Area Cities could agree on a local corporate tax on companies, based on a census of employees who work in their city but live in another. This census already exists. The tax would be deductible by the corporation on their federal tax and I would advocate that it be deductible on their state tax return as well. This tax could be used for public transportation, such as improving BART so that it becomes the fastest way to get to and from work for almost everyone (like in other major cities).

    There could also be an agreement for local personal taxes, deductible as a credit from state income taxes. Each city could agree that a 100% credit would apply for local taxes on your wages earned in the city you live in. So, if you live in Berkeley and work in San Francisco, making $200,000/year, and the local tax is 10%, then you save $20,000/year living in San Francisco or pay $20,000/year in taxes to Berkeley. If you live and work in the same city, no local taxes. In exchange for the state agreeing to the credit for local taxes, cities would take more responsibility for local infrastructure. The regional agreement could mandate allocation of those funds for regional benefit.

  7. Berkeley’s climate action efforts are noble and set a good example for other cities, but they have little effect overall.
    Real change must take place regionally, nationally, and most importantly internationally, for there to be any reduction in CO2.
    Let’s concentrate our efforts on national and world solutions-instead of making people feel guilty for not being perfectly green.
    How many Berkeley residents have given up air travel, which is one of the most polluting activities humans engage in?

  8. Exactly. There have been fires here since prehistoric times, and those fires reduced fuel loads by turning trees back into ashes. We will either reduce fuel loads mechanically with equipment and grazing animals, by prescribed burns, by unexpected wildfires, or a combination of all three.The fuel load in the Regional Parks is many times greater than it was in 1923, and if a fire follows a similar pattern, it will likely be much more destructive. Berkeley could suffer a fate similar to Paradise on a hot day with winds from the northeast and humid under 20%.
    Large flammable trees increase the risks exponentially, and spread any fire that starts farther and faster.

  9. Riding bicycles and preaching about global warming isn’t going to prevent fire danger to Berkeley. We need to adapt programs to pressure hill dwellers to remove their gigantic trees. We need to create a buffer zone between trees and residences along the eastern perimeter. This is not just a hills problem. Remember that in 1923 the fire in the hills spread to downtown Berkeley.

  10. I’d love it if someone would tell me how to judge a distance of three feet when I’m in a car lane traveling past a bicyclist. Is there some easy-to-remember visual key? Right now, I just use my indicator and get somewhat into the lane to the left of me or hang out behind the bicyclist if that isn’t a safe option.

  11. The YIMBYs make overtures towards transit-oriented development, but I’ve not seen a lot of follow-through. If housing people is their #1 priority, they should be pushing hard to maximize living space over car storage.

    Building parking induces traffic. Building housing where parking would be ameliorates that.

  12. And China burns half the coal consumed in the world…to make products to export to the US and other countries.

  13. Australia generates 60% of its power from coal. France is having gas tax riots. The population of the Sahel is going up by 3% a year.

    Shuffle deck chairs all you like, but this ship is going down.

  14. I think maybe that is SF’s problem. They are the ones with a shortfall of housing of about 150,000. We are not going to solve that problem no matter how many towering glass boxes we squeeze into Berkeley. If anything, we just facilitate another expansion by Salesforce.

  15. Getting people out of cars and onto bikes (or walking) would be a significant help. At least we’d be doing our part. Many of the other initiatives are just posturing.

  16. It’s not how many cars, but how much they drive. Lack of housing that places people closer to where they spend their days, whether it’s work or school or whatever, is why we need more dense housing and better public transportation. The best jobs and schools are in places where many, perhaps most, of the people can not afford to live. This needs to be addressed without further delay.

    Highway 80 can easily be our local yardstick (or the toll plaza on the Bay Area bridges). See the inexorable increase in bridge traffic every year, as lack of housing forces more and more sprawl.

    Approximately a quarter of a million cars cross the Bay Bridge every day.

  17. If Berkeley wants to reduce cars on the road, then kids need to be assigned to the school closest to their home so they can walk to and from school (which will also have the benefits of exercise and being much more social as they stop in parks and play all around town, no doubt like many parents reading this did when they were kids).

    There are over 1 million car trips per year in Berkeley driving kids to and from school due to the social engineering of school assignments (carefully crafted to minimize those eligible for public bus transportation). No independent analysis has been made of the benefits and drawbacks of this program which I assume are minimal.

    Let’s end that experiment and send kids to neighborhood schools, and save 1 million car trips per year in Berkeley.

  18. When trees catch on fire all that stored CO2 is released into the atmosphere. When structures catch on fire toxic particulates are also released into the atmosphere. This is what we were breathing for two weeks in November.
    The New York Times recently published an article noting the amount of CO2 released from the 2018 California wildfires is equal to a year’s worth of auto emissions in the state.
    We have to do whatever we can on every possible front to slow temperature rise if we hope to successfully adapt to this new reality. And, we have to do whatever we can to mitigate the now devastating risk of wildfire that can all too easily reach deep into Berkeley.

  19. Yes , safe cyling routes are important, but the rampant bike theft is another huge issue. Unless we deeply criminalize bike theft, no amount of bike Lanes will be enough.

    Additionally , motorists need to be responsible and not so entitled to run cyclists off the road in instances where bike Lanes don’t exist. It’s dangerous out there! Most motorists have no idea that they’re speeding, what the speed limit is, the 3ft pass law and that cyclists have a right to a full Lane in the absence of a safe cyling lane. How do we teach motorists that?!?

  20. “Since 2000, Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 15%, despite population growing at an 18% clip during the same time.”

    Can we get a breakdown of what drove the reduction in emissions?

    My understanding is many of the reductions were driven by state mandates, not anything done by the city. I think the readers would like to know if their leaders are helping or not. The story implies our leaders passed policies to get the reduction, but what is the basis for that implication?

  21. Thank you, Eric. Let me add that, when it comes to emissions from transportation, promoting bicycling is the low-hanging fruit. Berkeley’s Bicycle Plan began by surveying residents and found that about 70% would like to bicycle more but do not feel that it is safe. That tells me that a lot of people would prefer to shift some of their trips from driving to bicycling would do so if we provided safe bike routes.

    We are making some progress, but if we want to speed up our progress in reducing ghg emissions, then we should speed up our progress in providing safe bikeways.

  22. Wait a minute here… Berkeley can do absolutely nothing to impact global warming other than join the voices of discontent. This is a huge problem exasperated by China and the US energy demands.

    Why, oh Why is our City Council focused on a discourse of rhetoric when the immediate focus should be on how the city can defend itself against the horrible fires we saw in the last 2 years.

    We face the exact same geography and dynamics of that occurred in the Campfire: Just Northeast of the city, are miles of untamed wild vegetation, lots of dead underbrush, dead and dying trees. Further, there is limited access and egress out of the city; with narrow roads, and old homes with wood shingles and towering groves of eucalyptus and pine.

    The horror of a Northeast wind event and a fire in the canyons of San Pablo could lead to another horrific event.

    Walk up over the ridge-line of grizzly peak and imagine fire tornadoes coming down the hillsides as the embers hopscotch from roof top to roof top… citizens clogging the three small narrow roads in desperate attempt to escape, and the first responders prevented from coming up the hill to save us. This will make the campfire look like a small conflagration!

    Focus on what should be done for us today! Its far to easy for our city council to bluster about macro issues that they will never be able to solve… do something difficult that you can fix and make our community safer.

  23. Adapted from twitter:

    Love you, Berkeleyside, but y’all could’ve dug so much deeper. If you look at the data, you see that much (though not all) of Berkeley’s progress is due to State-mandated changes in electricity sources. What’s more galling is that transportation-related emissions have risen 8.5%

    Yes, the rise in transportation emissions could be attributed mostly to population growth, but this still means Berkeley has made little to no progress on promoting active and public transportation over cars, even as transport remains the source of 60% of local emissions.

    I don’t see how the City of Berkeley can claim to be on track to meet its GHG reduction goals when the largest source of locally-generated GHGs is moving in the wrong direction. What this really seems to show is that Berkeley has already picked the low-hanging fruit.

  24. We absolutely need to focus on the fire risk – that should be the Council’s main priority. As part of this, we need to determine how our fire department will put out fires when the water mains are busted after an earthquake. It will be weeks-months before we have water after the quake.

  25. I have to say I’m a bit surprised by the double standard displayed by the CoB.

    On one hand we get top grades for environmental efforts putting us at the top of the nation, yet the conclusion there is we need to put in more effort and spend more money. On the other hand, our streets are in atrocious condition and we get the lowest scores in the Bay Area. Yet here the response is “whatever”.

    If you want people to walk and ride bikes you need to make sure sidewalks and streets are in good condition. Paving streets might not sound as sexy as bioswales and Hyperloop, but if you really want to make a dent in our environmental footprint you need to reach the masses (as CM Hahn correctly pointed out). Getting our sidewalks and roads into decent condition would be a great start.

  26. Far more than climate change? So why is it that, in the past, there was never a fire in California as destructive as bad as the Camp Fire? I have heard the estimate that roughly doubles the size of wildfires in California — and we should be trying hard to prevent that from becoming even worse, in addition to adapting to the climate change that has already occurred by clearing areas around homes and by restricting new home building in locations that are most vulnerable to fire. .

  27. We should focus on both. Manage the forests to reduce the risk of fire. At the same time, do all we can to control global warming — otherwise the forests will continue to become drier and more susceptible to fires that are even worse than the Camp Fire.

  28. Absolutely, why can’t we be the bicycle capital of the US, we’re a university town, we should be. Send the City Council to Amsterdam to see what’s possible. Their central train station seems to have a million bikes and the streets appear to have many more bike riders than cars.

  29. I wonder, do the calculations of emissions take into account the extra emissions due to the increasing traffic congestion. Let’s see: 57 new units at 2701 Shattuck; 274 units at the Shattuck Terrace Green Apartments (parking for 100 cars); 205 apartments at 2145 University Ave; and the recently approved 23-unit co-housing project at 3000 Shattuck. We will increasingly have cars just sitting in traffic jams emitting CO2.

    I also wonder if the calculations take into account the decrease in watering of plants and trees by the residents and also the City. Trees capture large amounts of carbon (trees are about 50% carbon, dry weight). The more they grow, the more carbon they capture. The soil biome also captures and stores carbon. Letting it dry out and die means that at least some of this carbon is released. Adding compost to soils also helps to sequester carbon and is being currently studied at UC.