As climate change reaches ‘code red,’ Irvine becomes first city in O.C. to pledge carbon neutrality

A large crowd gathered to draw attention to climate change in Irvine in September 2019.
A large crowd gathered to draw attention to climate change in Irvine in September 2019.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
Share via

With the Irvine City Council’s unanimous approval of an aggressive climate resolution on Tuesday night, the city became the first in Orange County to make a pledge of carbon neutrality.

As California begins exploring ways to become carbon neutral by 2035, cities are faced with quickly adopting their own climate action plans to help the state achieve its goal. The Irvine ACHIEVES resolution, which calls for the city to reach a zero-carbon economy by 2030, will guide its climate action plan.

In addition to being the first in the county, Irvine is only the third city in the state to set a carbon neutral goal, Irvine spokeswoman Kristina Perrigoue said.


The approval of the resolution comes just a day after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published an alarming report calling climate change a “code red for humanity” that is already being felt across the world and will only continue to accelerate.

“We really are at a crisis point right now,” said Irvine Vice Mayor Tammy Kim. “And I believe that Irvine can definitely be one of the leaders when it comes to our role in climate change.”

Mayor Farrah Khan said the resolution is a good first step. Councilman Larry Agran said achieving carbon-neutrality by 2030 is “really really aspirational.”

“To adopt and implement the policies to make that happen, it seems like we should have started five or 10 years ago,” Agran said. “... Unless we get super serious and super aggressive about solarization and electrification ... the 2030 carbon neutrality, aspirational date will appear to be a cruel joke.”

Due to the city’s ambitious climate plan, Irvine has a chance to be a part of the Cool City Challenge, which is funded by the Empowerment Institute, an international consulting and training organization specializing in empowering cities to meet their carbon reduction goals. As part of this initiative, three California cities will receive $1 million each to roll out their climate programs. The city that develops the most innovative program will receive the Carbon Neutral City Prize, along with $25 million in funding.

That funding can help the city implement its climate plans outlined in the resolution.

The resolution proposes a number of methods to help reach carbon neutrality, including considering zero-carbon standards for new buildings and making older buildings energy efficient, and installing more vehicle charging stations throughout the city. According to the city’s strategic energy plan, buildings, transportation and waste account for 56%, 33% and 11%, respectively, of Irvine’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Ayn Craciun, a policy advocate with the local Climate Action Campaign, called Irvine’s climate resolution “groundbreaking” and an important first step for the city.

“A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” she said Wednesday during a phone interview.

Craciun praised the city’s resolution for focusing on environmental justice. The resolution says that the city will strive to ensure environmental, economic and social justice in its climate policy by seeking input from community stakeholders, “protecting communities that are vulnerable to environmental damage.”

In an effort to fix social and health inequities revealed and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, a local nonprofit has partnered with Orange County to develop a map equity tool that shows which cities and neighborhoods are the most in need.

Aug. 5, 2021

“It will help ensure social justice in the city’s climate actions and protect communities that are vulnerable to environmental damage,” Craciun said. “That’s important because, while the climate crisis affects all of us, it impacts communities of color first and worst.”

Craciun said it’s a “huge reach” for the city to become carbon neutral by 2030, but it is already in a better spot as a member of the Orange County Power Authority, the county’s first community choice energy program. CCE programs provide cities with an alternative to major energy providers like Southern California Edison, the energy titan serving most of Orange County and the region. Through a CCE, local governments can retain control of purchasing power, setting rates and collecting revenue, though the local utility still maintains the electrical grid. CCE’s can choose to purchase more renewable energy sources. Irvine is a member of the power authority along with Huntington Beach, Buena Park and Fullerton.

Craciun’s group led the charge for the establishment of the O.C. Power Authority, though the agency has faced scrutiny for transparency issues and how committed it is to renewable energy.

“As long as they implement 100% renewable energy for all electricity users in this city, then that will put them well on their way,” Craciun said.

A few other representatives from local organizations showed up to the meeting to show support for the city’s climate resolution.

Suyama Bodhinayake, director of sustainability and advocacy at the American Institute of Architects Orange County, said his local group and the statewide chapter of the AIA sent a letter to the city in support of the ACHIEVES resolution.

“California cities will have to take urgent action to meet the zero emissions goals set by the state as early as 2035,” Bodhinayake said. “Cities cannot wait to pass policies to go into effect even five years from now and hope to meet these targets.”

Bodhinayake took aim at the energy consumption and emissions of Irvine’s buildings.

“This city has to urgently address ways to reduce the emissions and improve the energy efficiency of all buildings,” he said. “A readily available, cost-effective option is building decarbonization through electrification ... The AIA supports the Irvine ACHIEVES proposal for zero-net carbon building codes in all new construction and for incentivizing existing buildings to be energy efficient, and zero carb.”

Linda Kraemer, co-chair of Climate Reality Orange County, said her group supports the climate resolution.

“There is a huge opportunity here to be the leader in clean tech in Orange County and set the example for other cities,” Kraemer said.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.