What Future Are We Building In LA?
If you’ve taken a breath in Los Angeles lately, you know we have a problem.
According to the American Lung Association, LA has the worst air quality in the country -- a dubious distinction LA has won in 19 of the 20 years that the ALA has released the study.
For a while, LA was on the path to cleaner air: smog in our city had been declining steadily since the early 2000s.
Until 2015, when things started to take a turn for the worse. Here’s a graphic from the LA Times:
Today, the situation is grim. We just went through a streak of 85 consecutive days of unhealthy air this past summer. And from 2010 to 2017, Southern California saw a 10 percent increase in deaths from ozone pollution.
One thing that helps clean our air is a healthy amount of rain. Unfortunately, we haven’t had enough of that, either -- and our dwindling access to water is becoming as urgent a crisis as our air quality.
When it comes to “water stress,” the measure of a city’s water supply insecurity, LA is once again number one in the country. And even after our recent rainy winter that took us out of drought conditions, our groundwater supply still isn’t replenished -- thanks to our poor land use policy, it’s only at about 60%.
Finally, as you’re well aware, our city and the entire state of California are now living under the constant threat of fire. Five of our state’s deadliest fires have occurred in the last two years. Last year’s Woolsey fire was most destructive in the history of the Los Angeles metro area, burning 1,643 structures.
Here’s the bad news. (We know, you thought that was the bad news).
Thanks to climate change, all of these crises are poised to get worse.
Smog production is accelerated by heat, and Los Angeles is going to get a lot hotter: the number of extreme heat days we experience could nearly triple by 2050. That’s going to make cleaning our air even more of a challenge, even if we reduce emissions.
Climate change also leads to drought -- in California, it already has. And LA is especially vulnerable to reduced water supply: we import about 80% of our water supply, meaning that as droughts increase and prices go up, LA could be too strapped for cash to pay for an essential resource for life. The water we import also crosses earthquake fault lines, so in the event of a major quake, we could be forced to put out thousands of fires with access to only 20% of our water.
And as climate change lengthens our fire season, fires are going to get even more frequent. Research shows that by 2050, the amount of land in the Western US burned by fires annually could double or even quadruple due to rising temperatures and increased drought.
These changes aren’t coming to LA -- they’re here. Our city is one of the few regions in the United States that has already experienced an increase of two degrees Celsius in average temperature -- double the average of the rest of the United States.
As part of his Green New Deal, Mayor Garcetti has announced a plan to get LA to carbon neutral by 2050. We don’t have that kind of time.
The IPCC report tells us that if we don’t drastically reduce global carbon emissions by 2030, we’re facing catastrophic climate change. And as developing nations increase their carbon output, cities like LA have an obligation to mobilize even more quickly.
Luckily, we can.
We can get to carbon neutral by 2030.
We can clean our air.
We can replenish our groundwater supply, creating a self-sustaining water source locally.
Not only can we do these things: we must do them.
Los Angeles has the potential to be a leader when it comes to clean energy. We can get our power grid to 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2030, meeting not just the state’s energy goals put forth by SB100, but also the more pressing deadlines put forward by the scientific community.
A Clean Grid By 2030
A publicly owned utility gives us an advantage.
The Department of Water and Power (DWP) manages Los Angeles’s power grid. Unlike the private utility companies in the rest of the state, the DWP is publicly owned -- meaning that not only does it not operate for profit, but it is also controlled by the city.
The DWP is the largest public utility in the country, serving over 4 million people with an annual budget of 4.1 billion dollars.
Right now, only about a third of the DWP’s energy comes from renewable sources. Here’s a DWP graphic showing where we get our energy now, and how it’s expected to change in the coming years:
While our current energy mix is by no means clean, the city and the DWP have taken steps to move away from fossil fuels, including transitioning off of coal by 2025, deciding not to repower three gas plants over the next ten years, and researching how to get our power grid to 100 percent clean energy.
These are good steps taken by the city, but they are not enough to ensure a livable future for all Angelenos.
The city can, and should, get to 100 percent real clean energy by 2030.
But how do we do that? Research shows that we can get our energy grid to 100 percent clean energy by 2030 if we invest in energy efficiency and solar energy.
Not only that, but if we do it right, we can create thousands of new jobs in the process -- and it will cost the same amount of money as the city’s current climate goals.
But what do we mean when we say real clean renewable energy? While the DWP is currently considering renewable energy credits and “renewable” natural gas as part of the solution, neither of these are real options.
Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) allow companies to pay to keep polluting: the credits they buy offset emissions through various programs often run out of state. These credit systems have proven to be ineffective. Emissions actually went up during California’s statewide cap-and-trade program, as companies simply paid more to pollute more, and ended up doing most of their polluting in low-income areas and communities of color.
But we can get to 100 percent clean energy without natural gas or RECs -- if we invest in solar and energy efficiency.
Utility Scale and Distributed Solar
Solar energy is already cheaper than natural gas. We just need to build it at scale.
The city must invest in solar projects -- both out of the LA basin, and distributed throughout the city. Utility solar projects located out of the basin, like the Eland solar project, can help meet our city’s energy demand at a price cheaper than natural gas.
The city should also expand on its distributed solar programs, to ensure that all homeowners and renters have access to solar panels. The majority of people in Los Angeles do not own their homes, creating a barrier when it comes to scaling rooftop solar programs in the city. However, there are already programs in place making it possible for renters to invest in cheap solar. The DWP shared solar program, for example, allows renters to invest in community solar projects at no upfront cost.
We have to do more to invest in and promote programs like shared solar, and remove any cost barriers when it comes to investing in rooftop solar panels. And for customers who generate more power than they consume, the utility should pay them in cash for the extra power sent back to the grid. That’s the least we can do for people helping power our city renewably.
Solar isn’t just a climate solution: it’s a fire safety solution. By building out solar microgrids and battery storage in high fire-risk neighborhoods, LADWP can safely shut off their equipment during high winds, and homes can continue running off solar power.
But investing in clean solar is not enough. In order to fully transition off of fossil fuel energy, we must decrease our demand for energy itself.
Energy Efficiency: A Win-Win-Win For Los Angeles
When it comes to investing in energy efficiency, Los Angeles has a long way to go. The majority of our buildings are old and inefficient -- having been built between 1945 and 1973, before Title 24 required energy efficiency in new construction. Currently, our buildings contribute to 40 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions -- and just four percent of buildings use 50 percent of our energy.
While larger homes use more energy, homes and apartments in low income communities are in the most need of upgrades. Data from UCLA’s Energy Atlas, for example, found that even though homes in Compton used less total energy, they used significantly more energy per square foot than homes in Malibu.
We already have the solutions for improving energy efficiency (weatherization, attic restoration, better appliances). We now need to expand the implementation of free upgrades to low income communities.
Existing programs that allow for free energy efficiency upgrades in low income homes and apartments (such as Home Efficiency Improvement Program) need to be promoted and scaled, ensuring that everyone can receive the benefits.
Not only will these programs save ratepayers money (on average $280 dollars a year) and save the city energy, they also can create thousands of high paying manufacturing and construction jobs.
We can also put more money in customer’s pockets by paying them to consume less. “Demand response” programs compensate people, businesses, and city agencies for reducing their energy consumption during peak demand hours. Energy reduction initiatives like that are expanding all over the country -- it’s time for LA to join the movement.
Electrify New Buildings
If we are going to meet our climate goals, we must also update our building codes. Following the lead of Berkeley, it’s time to require that all new buildings be equipped with electrification and zero-emission appliances. All electric buildings will cut down on both outdoor and indoor smog and reduce our need for natural gas.
But our buildings and power grids are only part of the problem. If we truly want to address climate change, smog, and environmental justice, we also must stop drilling in our backyard.
2,500 Foot Setbacks on Oil Drilling
Los Angeles is an urban oil field -- there are thousands of active oil wells across the city, mostly in low income neighborhoods and communities of color:
Over 3.5 million people in Los Angeles County live within a mile of an active well. These oil wells emit a variety of dangerous chemicals and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde, causing health effects like bloody noses, loss of smell, persistent cough, swollen joints, asthma, headaches, congenital heart defects in newborns, and cancer.
In order to ensure all Angelinos a right to good health and clean air, we support a 2,500 foot buffer zone, as suggested by health professionals, between communities in Los Angeles and all existing drill sites. Over the long term, we should close all of these wells.
A Just Transition for Ratepayers and Workers
As we transition to clean energy, it’s vitally important that we seize the opportunity to revitalize low-income neighborhoods and uplift our city’s workforce.
City programs should ensure that low income communities, who are already bearing the weight of climate change, are not also bearing the financial costs of improving electrification and energy efficiency in their homes.
We currently have 100 million dollars set aside to make low income multi-family housing more energy efficient. Now we need to ensure that this money is spent on real programs -- programs that transition us to clean energy, not marginal improvements in gas infrastructure.
Transitioning to clean energy in the next decade will not be any easy task, and it will be very labor intensive. That’s why we must make sure that the people doing this work— labor groups and union members— are at the center of this process and allowed to lead it. Union members need to have a say in their own retraining programs, and any new jobs created must be well-paying and unionized.
Cleaning Our Air
Like we said: LA has the worst ozone pollution in the country, and it’s poised to get worse along with climate change.
The reason isn’t a mystery. We know the cause of our dirty air, and it’s exactly the one you’d expect: cars.
Cars and trucks cause 90 percent of smog-forming pollution in Southern California. We cannot reach our climate goals and create a livable, sustainable city without getting people to drive less.
Creating space for other modes of transportation is an urgent, inescapable part of any viable climate solution -- and it will make our city a healthier, happier place in the bargain.
Yes, electric vehicles are part of the solution -- but not all of it. About half of the particulate matter released into the air by driving (and a quarter of all the smog) comes from tire residue and brake pads, not tailpipe emissions. Electric cars will still produce particulate matter -- they won’t clean our air enough to make it safe to breathe.
Here’s what will.
1. Protected bus and bike lanes
LA is perfectly built for buses and bikes.
Our street network is a simple grid, built around a few evenly-spaced high-capacity boulevards -- like Sunset and Wilshire in our Council District 4. These major streets are also where most of our smog comes from: sixty percent of the road emissions in LA come from only ten percent of the road surface.
The big streets are where we need to make the biggest changes to how we get around. Specifically, we need to create protected, dedicated lanes for buses and bikes along as many of our major roadways as possible.
Protected lanes would help buses travel a lot faster than cars, moving as much as 40 times as many people than a normal lane. And when cities build bike lanes, people use them: New York’s investment in bike infrastructure nearly tripled the number of riders from 2005 to 2017.
Encouraging more bus and bike ridership with better lanes would also make our streets a lot safer: cities with a higher percentage of bicycle riders actually show a much lower risk of fatal crashes for everyone on the road, and bus travel is four times safer than riding in a car.
Improvements like these are also the only way we’re going to stop traffic from getting worse. We don’t have any more space for cars on our streets, and there’s no way to expand them without ripping out sidewalks and buildings. If we don’t make room for buses and bikes as our city grows, traffic is going to become even more of a nightmare -- along with our air quality.
On some of our major streets, we wouldn’t even have to take out driving lanes to make room for buses and bikes: instead, we’d open up lanes by limiting on-street parking on streets like Sunset Boulevard. We already don’t need as much parking as we have: there are 3.3 spaces for every car in Los Angeles. And since more people have started using rideshare, we have less and less need for parking -- parking lot owners are already being forced to adapt by converting their properties into pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farms.
Protected lanes are not a radical idea. In fact, the city has already laid out a plan for these changes: it’s called Mobility Plan 2035. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s probably because the city isn’t implementing it. Instead, all over Los Angeles, councilmembers are killing the recommended safety improvements put forward by LADOT and the Mobility Plan.
The reason is obvious: they’re scared. Our politicians are terrified of getting pushback from drivers. This year, one councilmember actually said that if the city did anything to add space for bikes instead of cars, voters would “have our heads on a rail.”
It’s time for our city leaders to grow a spine. The people we elect to run Los Angeles have to start making the case that bus and bike lanes will benefit everyone on the road -- including drivers.
We can also encourage transit not just with bus and bike lanes, but better transit infrastructure overall, including bus shelters at every stop. Right now more than 75% of bus stops in LA are unsheltered: it’s no wonder bus ridership is falling as the climate gets hotter.
2. Better street design for pedestrians
Getting people to walk instead of drive would be a huge step toward meeting our climate goals. But right now, LA’s streets are just not a friendly place for pedestrians. Because of decades of planning that has prioritized speed for cars, 127 walkers were killed by cars last year.
Los Angeles knows there’s a problem: in 2015, Mayor Garcetti introduced Vision Zero, a street safety program designed to eliminate traffic deaths in the City of LA by 2025. But instead of falling, the number of cyclist and pedestrian deaths have risen sharply since Vision Zero was introduced. In that time, significantly more people in LA have died in fatal car crashes than have been shot to death.
So why isn’t Vision Zero working? Because in almost all of the city, it’s being implemented sparingly or not at all.
Vision Zero analysts gave us a list of the streets of LA that see the most pedestrian injuries and deaths -- it’s known as the High Injury Network. Many of these streets are in our district, CD4 -- Hollywood Boulevard, Western Ave, and Ventura Boulevard among them. But on all of these High Injury streets, rather than implementing serious street improvements that would save pedestrian lives, the city has gone with minor fixes or nothing at all. And instead of working to slow down traffic, our local government has increased speed limits all over the city.
Luckily, we know how to make pedestrians safer. We know where the dangerous streets are. We must re-design roads to discourage speeding and other forms of unsafe driving. There are a number of evidence-backed methods at our disposal, including road diets, raised medians, bulb-outs, and daylighting intersections, just to name a few.
There’s another addition to our streetscape that would make it more pleasant to walk, and help our city become a much healthier place in the bargain...
3. Trees. A lot more trees.
Trees are so vital to our city’s environmental efforts, it’s hard to list all the reasons why here. But we’ll try:
But instead of planting more trees, we’re ripping them out and letting them die. LA’s mature tree canopy is shrinking, and the ones we have left are threatened by climate change, fires, diseases, and invasive species.
The answer is obvious: plant more. Developers used to be required to replace any trees they ripped out with two new ones.
Until last year -- when the City Council voted to allow developers to pay a fee instead.
Sure, some trees need to be taken down to allow for sidewalk improvements and new housing. But it’s absolutely urgent that we replace them just as quickly, and add new ones at the same time.
Trees can have the biggest impact in the low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally been deprived of them. These same neighborhoods often tend to have the worst air quality in the city, and street trees do a lot to make the air more breathable.
Mayor Garcetti has announced an initiative to plant 90,000 more trees by 2021, and appointed an Urban Forestry Officer to concentrate the new trees in low-income neighborhoods that currently have the least shade. These are welcome developments, but we can be even more ambitious.
By returning to policies that protect our trees better and encourage massive new planting -- including companion planting of ground-level vegetation like bushes and hedges that are critical to reducing nighttime temperatures -- we can turn our streets from furnaces into oases of leafy shade.
Let’s talk about the future of water in LA.
A lot of people think LA is a desert. It’s not -- it’s a semi-arid Mediterranean climate.
But LA isn’t not water-rich, either. It’s one of the top five driest big cities in the country.
For the last 100 years, LA has historically imported most of its water (remember Chinatown?). Today, LA brings in about 80% of its water from outside sources, at a cost of $1 billion a year.
But as the planet heats up and fresh water becomes more scarce and expensive, we can’t just rely on imported water anymore -- we have to make better use of the rain we get. We’ve got to capture more of our stormwater.
But capturing stormwater is going to get harder, too. Under climate change, we’re not only going to see longer periods without rain: we’re also going to see more intense storms. When rain falls in larger bursts, that leads to more runoff into the ocean, and less captured in our reservoirs and aquifers.
But with decisive action, not only can we capture more of our stormwater: we can use it to become a fully water-independent city.
That’s right. We can capture our stormwater to make LA completely self-sufficient. That’s the conclusion UCLA came to in a recent study.
We’re sitting on a gold-mine in LA: an enormous aquifer of fresh water. It’s only at 60% capacity right now, even after our last rainy year. But with better policies, we can fill it up, and use it to nourish our city for years to come.
Using Less Water
Water conscious people tend to guilt-trip themselves about taking long showers or flushing twice. But indoor use isn’t even close to the biggest burden on our local water supply.
About half of our water in LA County is used for landscaping.
In 2010, Los Angeles used enough water just irrigating lawns to meet the needs of half a million average households for an entire year.
This has got to change, and it’s an easy fix. We need to replace more of our lawns with drought-tolerant landscapes. They’re less thirsty, they’re native to LA, and they look amazing.
How do we make this happen? We’ve tried in the past: during the drought years of 2014 and 2015, the Metropolitan Water District paid homeowners to rip out their grass and replace it with water-conserving surfaces. Then the program was so popular it ran out of money. An improved version was brought back recently, but we can do even better. By paying property owners more, promoting lawn-removal programs more aggressively, and charging the heavy users (like mansion owners and golf courses) much more, we can make the city more drought-tolerant for years to come.
You might be asking how we can save water and plant a lot more trees at the same time -- don’t trees need water? They do, but not nearly as much as lawns, and can actually help households save water overall by reducing solar radiation to other plants.
Many street trees can also thrive on local rainfall if their root systems have access to it. Incorporating curb cuts and parkway basins into our planning for street trees and sidewalk repair programs can help capture more water, while making streets safer for pedestrians at the same time.
Lastly, the City needs to encourage and incentivize the use of residential greywater systems to support trees and landscapes -- this will also help save customers money on their water and sewer bills.
While LA isn’t an especially rainy place, we still get trillions of gallons of water dumped on our city every year. We’re just not doing much with it.
City officials estimate that 60% of our stormwater runs into the ocean -- about 7.6 billion gallons per average storm. That’s not just a huge waste of water -- it’s a threat to the oceans themselves. Stormwater gathers toxic runoff from the streets as it goes, making it dangerous for swimmers and ocean life alike. That’s why you’re not supposed to swim after it rains.
The city is working on ways to better harness the water from our storms. LADWP came out with a Stormwater Capture Master Plan back in 2015. There are lots of great ideas in it, including helping homeowners retrofit their houses with rain grading, permeable surfaces, infiltration trenches, and parkway basins to help infiltrate rainwater to groundwater, and rain tanks to catch water for landscaping.
The problem is: it hasn’t been implemented.
Under the “Aggressive” scenario (which is what we need to pursue in our current state of climate emergency), LADWP recommends retrofitting 4.5% of homes in LA with water-capturing strategies every year. The “Conservative” scenario called for 1% each year.
Four years later, they’ve done less than one tenth of one percent, total. That’s obviously not going to get the job done.
We can spend a lot more money on promoting and subsidizing these programs, because capturing stormwater actually saves the city money compared to imported water. As with so many crises in LA, a little money spent now equals a lot of money saved later. Not only can we afford to do it: we can’t afford not to.
As we’ve established, the biggest burden on our water supply in LA isn’t the water that we drink, bathe in, or flush -- it’s everything we expend outside the house. So it makes sense for LA to implement a dual-meter system that distinguishes inside water and outside water -- keeping the water we use for basic life activities cheap, and charging more for water used on lawns and landscaping.
Separate pricing for water use will help encourage property owners to convert to climate-appropriate landscaping, and will avoid punishing low-income households by raising rates for the water people need to live.
Natural Climate Solutions
Saving water shouldn’t be about concrete rivers and reservoirs. As we think about preserving this natural resource for the future, we need to focus on restoring our natural ecosystem in the process. Focusing on natural climate solutions reduces our carbon output, improves biodiversity and sequesters greenhouse gas emissions in the process -- helping our city and its animal inhabitants thrive for generations to come.
We don’t need new technologies to solve most of our problems. We can return to some of the strategies used by the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years, while taking care of our ecosystem.
More trees, less grass.
More habitat and biodiversity, less monoculture.
More carbon sequestered, less water and air pollution.
More water in our aquifers for the things we really need.
Planning For The Future
Transforming our energy infrastructure and reducing our consumption.
Reshaping our streets for people, not cars.
Becoming a water-independent city.
We can’t just pick one. We have to implement all of these strategies, and we must do it as soon as possible.
If we’re not acting with urgency, we’re giving up.
And because these changes will help limit the costly effects of climate change-induced drought, fires, and air pollution, they’ll save our city much more money than they’ll cost.
Let’s become a model of equitable climate adaptation that creates a healthy, livable city for all — a city with a future.
Los Angeles can do it. And we can show the rest of the nation how.