It was September, and the Tournament of Roses was proud of its newly signed sponsor, American Honda Motor Co. The automaker, promoters said, not only was the first-ever presenting sponsor, it was "employing Honda's innovative environmental technologies to help the Rose Parade function more efficiently and reduce its carbon footprint."
Leading Saturday's 122nd Tournament of Roses will be a 35-foot fairy tale castle called "A World of Dreams," the first float to be powered by fuel-efficient hybrid technology. And the pace car will be the fuel-sipping Honda CR-Z.
But behind the World of Dreams will be a whirl of planet-warming emissions: 46 floats powered by V-8 engines, some supplemented with gasoline-powered motors for moving parts, that are expected to burn through about 800 gallons of gasoline by the time they finish their 2.5-mph cruise along the 5.5-mile route. Mixed in are 80 auxiliary trucks, 145 fleet cars and dozens of law enforcement vehicles — all of them powered solely by old-fashioned fossil fuels.
Festooned to the floats are an estimated 20 million flowers transported from around the world in aircraft and trucks: orchids from Asia; dried everlasts from Africa; roses from Colombia and other South American countries; and tulips from Holland.
So, what is the carbon footprint of the Tournament of Roses parade?
"We don't have that number, and we don't necessarily want to go after that number," parade spokeswoman Caryn Eaves said.
Even Honda is admitting it's a small step for the lavish event founded to boast California's balmy environment of mild weather, clear skies and bountiful crops.
"Sure, we've only got one hybrid-powered float in the parade, but you've got to start somewhere, right?" Honda spokesman Erik Wedin said.
When it comes to large-scale public events, the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl football game are well behind the international trend of taking extensive measures to reduce the environmental impact generated by the care and feeding of hundreds of thousands of fans, and cleaning up after them.
The Olympics, the Super Bowl and even the Republican and Democratic national conventions have programs to sort and recycle trash, donate used building materials and use alternative energy sources or purchase carbon offsets. The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver were the first to achieve a "carbon neutral" status for the Games and the travel of 7,000 athletes, coaches and officials.
Neither the Rose Parade nor the Rose Bowl takes any special measures in this regard, according to spokespeople for both events.
The exact "carbon footprint" of the parade and related festivities is difficult to calculate. But California growers are quick to point out that their home-grown ingredients have been forsaken for energy-intensive but still less expensive imports. Those flowers became increasingly available after 1991, when the United States struck a trade agreement with Colombia and Ecuador in an effort to curtail cultivation and processing of coca for cocaine. That gave cut-flower farmers and floral exporters duty-free access to the U.S. market, where 70% of flowers sold now hail from Colombia, according to the California Cut Flower Commission.
What volume of the flowers to be used on the floats that will roll down Colorado Boulevard on Saturday morning are from foreign locales is unclear, and unmeasured. Event organizers declined to discuss the matter, and the commission doesn't track that information. The two largest companies tapped to build parade floats — Phoenix Decorating Co. of Pasadena, and Fiesta Parade Floats of Duarte — declined to discuss the provenance of their floral materials.
Mike Mellano Sr., whose family-based farms in Oceanside have been supplying flowers to Rose Parade float makers for more than 70 years, said they simply couldn't financially compete on roses. Now, the orders to float makers are smaller. When they need roses, Mellano said, they also place orders to South American suppliers.
"It used to be two, three, four truckloads of 40-foot trucks heading up to Pasadena this time of year," said Mellano, 72. "Now, it's less than a truckload. It's still very important for us. But times change and you learn to adapt."
Some Colombian flowers travel a long road to get to Pasadena: flown on charter flights from South America to refrigerated distribution centers in Miami, then loaded onto semitrucks and driven across the country, a trip of nearly 4,000 miles.
One telling sign of this supply-chain shift: This year the Rose Bowl decided to name — for the first time — an official rose sponsor. They selected Passion Flowers, a cut-flower grower, headquartered in Miami with a distribution center in Vista, Calif. The company works solely with Ecuadorian and Colombian farmers.
Passion Flowers is a leading supplier of roses to the United States and stocks more than 5,000 retailers with flowers, including Ralphs grocery stores in California, according to company spokesman Brandon Hamm. But none of those flowers will be on a single float on Saturday, Hamm said.
The sponsorship news infuriated state officials and local farmers.
"Whether this has been an issue of inattention or economics, this parade has been shifting away from being a reflection of pride about California," said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission. "This is the first year they take it a step further, by identifying a sponsor of the rose [for the Bowl] — and it's not a rose from California."
As for the power behind the floats, there are not many ways that the enterprise can become more fuel-efficient or replace gasoline with more environmentally friendly fuels, according to its two largest float-building companies.
Seated on a workbench with his right foot resting on one of his trusty V-8 engines, Tim Estes, president of Fiesta floats, said: "I think it's great to use this new Honda technology. And if Honda wants to donate hybrid engines to us, fine. But in order to make them fit our chassis, we'll also need new transmissions, drive shafts, radiators, motor mounts, spare parts and technological expertise."
Efforts to modernize have come in fits and starts.
Two decades ago, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. proposed the idea of equipping Rose Parade floats with engines designed to run on natural gas. "That idea fell flat the moment someone asked, 'Who is going to pay for it?'" said Estes, whose company maintained an all-electric float from 1992 to 2002. "The chassis for that float was designed to accommodate batteries that weighed a total 9,900 pounds," Estes said.
A year ago, Gerald Prolman, the founder and former chief executive of Organic Bouquet, the first national online distributor of organic flowers, said he presented the American Honda Motor Co. "with an eco-friendly challenge: Why not roll in a green New Year with a float pulled by a hybrid engine and adorned with certified organic flowers?"
"The idea apparently fell on deaf ears, because I never heard back from them," Prolman said.
Even with the best of intentions, the path to a green Rose Parade can be strewn with thorns.
In a crowded and chilly tent on Thursday, scores of bleary-eyed students from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo rushed among buckets of fragrant yellow button mums, eggplant-hued carnations and bags of ground statice petals, scrambling to finish their space-themed float.
The students were determined to cover as much of their float with locally sourced flowers as possible.
Cash-strapped, the students had sought the help of the state's flower producer association, putting out a call for donations of any sort after first scrounging flowers and other blooms from their own campus. A month ago, the group realized that the "planet" on the back of the float — to be covered in roses — may not get finished because of dwindling local supplies.
Facing a deadline, the Cal Poly students placed an order for roses — shipped from South America.
Although California farmers did send a semi-trailer full of flowers, including 12,000 roses, the delivery came in the wee hours Thursday.
"We were trying our best to be eco-friendly," said Katie Castellano, 22, a nutrition major and decorations chair of the school's float committee. "We are surrounded by farmers and we wanted to help them out. We didn't think it would be that difficult."
Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report.