Villaraigosa to offer green plan for L.A.

Times Staff Writers

Joining the ranks of political leaders who are seizing the issue of climate change, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will release his own proposal today to curtail greenhouse gases in Los Angeles over the next two decades.

The plan, obtained by The Times, relies on greatly expanding renewable energy sources and providing alternatives to driving in a city well-known for its love affair with the automobile, one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the region.

Villaraigosa will declare his intention to reduce the city’s carbon dioxide emissions 35% below the 1990 level by 2030, even as the city’s population of 4 million is expected to keep growing. Carbon dioxide is the leading contributor to global warming.


“This is the most ambitious climate change plan by a major American city,” Villaraigosa said. “We can’t wait for Washington to act. As city leaders, we have a responsibility to confront the gathering climate crisis.”

Villaraigosa’s announcement comes amid meetings in New York, hosted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former President Bill Clinton, in which leaders from some of the world’s largest cities are outlining their plans for combating climate change.

Scheduled to address the New York gathering Wednesday, Villaraigosa will add his voice to dozens of other American mayors who are trying to tackle the defining environmental issue of the era, one that until recently struggled to move beyond the confines of scientific journals and environmental newsletters.

He will join other high-profile figures -- including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vice President Al Gore -- who are casting new attention on the potential consequences of a hazard that threatens to raise temperatures, undermine water supplies and alter ecosystems on which both wildlife and agriculture depend.

Schwarzenegger has touted a state law that calls for a 25% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020.

All of these efforts build on a 1997 agreement on reducing greenhouse gases -- the Kyoto Protocol -- that has won the backing of more than 170 countries, the United States not among them. President Bush has refused to push for the treaty’s ratification.


Many of Villaraigosa’s ideas are retreads from environmental speeches he has given since taking office nearly two years ago. His blueprint says little about how the changes would be paid for, and the role of technology is given far more heft than changing people’s behavior and persuading them to use less energy.

Even as Villaraigosa takes a more visible role in the climate- change debate, mayors in other big cities have begun to move more aggressively than Los Angeles.

Boston and Washington, for example, are requiring that large privately owned buildings meet certain energy efficiency standards; San Francisco is exploring harnessing tidal power to generate electricity; and Denver is pursuing a massive expansion of its rail network over the next decade.

Seattle and New York are talking about congestion pricing, which would charge people who drive in certain parts of town to raise money for mass transit projects. Such a plan is not discussed in Villaraigosa’s blueprint.

Experts believe that Los Angeles is in a unique position to act on global warming because the city owns its utility, several airports and an expansive port.

Furthermore, many activists and politicians believe that although cities may not have regulatory control over pollution sources, they can use land-use regulations to require more energy efficient buildings and create cities that enable people to drive less.

“How do you set the patterns for growth and create the change of behavior? You have to do it over a longer period of time,” said Ashok Gupta, director of the air and energy program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I don’t think that commuting behavior and transit patterns and density patterns are going to be changed quickly.”

About half the carbon dioxide produced in the city comes from cars, buses and other vehicles that jam thoroughfares and highways -- a problem of regional proportions. According to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, 77% of Southland commuters drove to work alone in 2005.

One section of Villaraigosa’s plan is titled “Focus on mobility for people, not cars.” Without offering specifics, it calls for expanding the regional rail network and also suggests offering better bus service to Los Angeles International Airport and regional airports.

Another section, titled “Create a more livable city,” pushes for more development around mass transit lines.

The Department of Water and Power, which supplies electricity for 1.4 million homes and businesses, is responsible for one-third of the total emissions because it relies heavily on burning coal at power plants in Utah and Arizona to produce electricity.

Villaraigosa’s plan calls for securing 35% of the utility’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. That would quadruple its use of renewables, which currently stands at 8% of its power mix, up from 3% in 2005, when Villaraigosa took office.

Alex Farrell, a UC Berkeley professor of energy and resources, said the good news is that there is no shortage of clean power.

“There’s a lot of wind, and there’s a lot of sunlight. I wouldn’t worry about the lack of resources,” he said. “But turning those resources into power that’s affordable is clearly a challenge.”

Villaraigosa’s plan calls for dozens of other measures, including installing solar heating at all city-owned swimming pools, distributing fluorescent light bulbs to the 1.4 million households in the city, creating 35 new parks, planting 1 million trees and fully implementing a clean-air plan for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

But Villaraigosa’s plan skirts the issue of cost.

DWP Board President David Nahai voiced confidence in the utility’s ability to meet the mayor’s goals for renewable energy, citing its vast network of transmission lines that can carry power from remote areas.

He said that the growing reliance on alternative energy sources would probably mean modest rate increases but that moving in that direction makes sense. (According to sources close to the mayor, a recent poll of city voters showed that 61% would support a significant rate hike to reduce the DWP’s reliance on coal, a major greenhouse gas producer.)

“At the end of the day, we must talk about the cost ... of inaction,” Nahai said. “After all, floods, fires, hurricanes and drought have economic effects too. We cannot afford not to act.”