A year ago, Irvine became the first city in Orange County to pledge carbon neutrality in response to a growing climate crisis.
Only a handful of other California cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, have made similar pledges.
The move garnered praise from climate activists. But now, the city is facing calls to do more to ensure that its goal of becoming a zero-carbon economy by 2030 is met.
“There’s a plan to get a plan,” said Dr. Kev Abazajian, a UC Irvine physics professor and member of the city’s environmental committee. “The lack of actual concrete action towards carbon neutrality is very frustrating.”
The resolution passed by the City Council last Aug. 10 promised to set deadlines for greenhouse gas reduction and to implement measures such as energy efficient building standards and expanding biking and public transit options.
Earlier this year, Irvine became the largest city in O.C. to choose to receive its energy from 100% renewable sources. But there has been little movement on the other goals in last year’s resolution — including developing a detailed plan.
Local climate activists say a year of inaction has put the 2030 goal in jeopardy. In an Aug. 10 letter endorsed by more than 20 organizations, they criticized the lack of progress as well as Irvine’s “notable” absence among dozens of cities that have adopted policies phasing out natural gas in new homes and businesses.
Councilman Larry Agran takes pride in the city’s reputation as an environmental leader. When he served as mayor in 1989, Irvine restricted chlorofluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer. He calls the activists’ criticisms “fair.”
“The mayor, in particular, but the council as a whole has been big on aspirations, declarations and proclamations,” he said. “It has failed on any significant follow through.”
Mayor Farrah Khan said that Irvine has taken several steps toward its climate pledge by offering green home grants, solar power group discounts and exploring greener transportation options.
“Achieving our goal of carbon neutrality is an ambitious undertaking that requires thoughtful planning,” she said in a written statement. “We look forward to finalizing details related to our climate action plan during the next several months.”
At a meeting of the city’s environmental committee, City Manager Oliver Chi cautioned against Irvine outpacing the state’s own climate efforts. Without progress in surrounding communities, Irvine’s efforts would have limited impact, he said.
“If you accelerate on what the state is doing, are we, in effect, really moving the needle from a sustainability perspective?” Chi said. “It’s like squeezing air in a balloon. You’re shifting the problem somewhere else in the state.”
But some say that action from both the state and the city are necessary.
“We absolutely need action at the state level to help combat climate change, and we need the city to do its part, as well,” said Dr. Kathleen Treseder, a UC Irvine biology professor, environmental committee member and city council candidate.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s climate package, which is expected to come before the state legislature this week, calls for carbon neutrality in the state by no later than 2045.
While the city’s climate plan is being developed, Chi suggested that Irvine could reduce vehicle emissions by funding alternative fueling stations and turning the police department’s fleet electric. He also expressed an interest in hydrogen fuel.
“The city is absolutely considering clean hydrogen as part of our strategy for achieving a carbon neutral Irvine,” said Jaimee Bourgeois, Irvine’s director of public works and transportation.
According to a new study released last week, the number of “hot days” above 92 degrees in Irvine will triple by 2053.
Before the end of the year, the Irvine City Council is expected to discuss transitioning new homes and businesses away from natural gas. The city has also promised to give an update on its sustainability efforts.
On the steps of Irvine City Hall two weeks ago, climate activists — including some city officials — called for the state to take stronger measures against climate change.
“It’s just increasingly apparent that this can’t be done on a city-by-city basis and certainly can’t be done when cities make lofty pledges, but when it comes right down to it, we’re making no progress,” said Agran, the city councilman.