More trees, more composting, fewer emissions: Supervisors approve trio of sustainability measures

A man in a broad-brimmed hat dumps mulch from a large bucket around a young tree
One measure would create a pilot program to plant trees in underserved areas of unincorporated parts of the county.
(Karen Pearlman / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a trio of environmental actions, San Diego County supervisors approved an updated plan to slash carbon emissions, a series of sustainability measures and expanded options for composting.

The three actions Wednesday aim to advance the county’s goals of combating climate change and reducing waste and enlist cities, businesses and other organizations in that effort.

“The scale of this effort to tackle this climate emergency cannot be achieved in siloes by an individual, government or business alone,” said Murtaza Baxamusa, program manager for regional sustainability with the county. “We are building a movement.”

In an update to the county’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the board considered steps to achieve net carbon zero, the point at which carbon removed from the atmosphere equals the amount of carbon emitted.

That plan, called the decarbonization framework, explores ways to remove carbon emissions from energy, buildings, transportation, land use and natural resources, as well as food systems and the reuse or recycling of resources.

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The first phase of the plan was released a year ago, and the newest version reflects feedback from more than 1,500 business representatives, residents and technical experts.

Participants in county workshops and meetings had expressed concern about the effects of large solar and wind farms on land conservation, called for harnessing croplands and orchards to capture carbon and asked the county to direct resources to communities most affected by climate change and related issues such as air pollution, staff said.

The updated version of the plan adds new options for installing much more rooftop and urban solar, buying power from the Imperial Valley and building new energy facilities on toxic “brownfields.”

In the next phase, the county will seek more input from experts in specific topics, convene a regional social equity working group, conduct online public workshops and hold in-person forums in each supervisor‘s district.

Next spring, planners will return with what they call an implementation playbook, or guide to making those changes on the ground. That will include recommendations for individuals, businesses and local governments, as well as steps the county can take in unincorporated areas and proposed measures for the region as a whole.

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“Collaboration is key,” board chair Nathan Fletcher said. “As a county, we don’t have jurisdiction over 18 cities. We’re all aware we have to tackle climate change. You see the horrific flooding, the intense heat, lightning strikes, wildfires. You see it in water levels, lakes, the Sierra snowpack.”

He added that transforming the region’s energy systems and economy will have repercussions for local labor markets and said the county must assist workers during that transition.

“The fossil fuel industry did a lot of damage while simultaneously providing a lot of good jobs,” he said. “We cannot simultaneously save the planet and destroy the middle class.”

SeanKeoni Ellis, a political organizer for the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters & HVAC, said his union‘s members support the plan, adding that the county should not rely exclusively on electric power but should consider “hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture and sustainable fuels.”

“We are in support of an all-of-the-above approach, and we are in support of this framework,” Ellis said.

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Vista City Councilmember Corinna Contreras said that to reduce auto emissions, leaders must encourage people to walk and bike more, which requires improving dangerous, unshaded trails and bike lanes.

“I’m really thankful for all this conversation that we’re having,” Contreras said. “If we really want to reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions, it is imperative that we fund active transportation to a higher extent than we have.”

Supervisors also approved funding for studies and pilot programs within a separate sustainability plan that aims to cut carbon emissions, reduce waste and conserve land specifically in the unincorporated county area and on county property.

The County Facilities Zero Carbon Portfolio Plan spells out steps to reduce carbon emissions from county facilities by 90 percent by 2030 by switching to 100 percent renewable energy, converting natural gas systems to electric and constructing new buildings with electric power.

Another measure in the sustainability plan would create a pilot program to plant trees in unincorporated areas, focusing on underserved areas, to “reduce the urban heat island effect, increase climate resiliency, and reduce GHG emissions.” A separate item would pilot “carbon farming” practices, which increase the rate at which farmlands sequester carbon in the soil.

The board also authorized several reports that would examine ways to improve energy resiliency and plan for power shortages in the unincorporated county, explore incentives for homeowners and businesses to electrify buildings and analyze the need for hydrogen fueling stations for mid- and heavyweight trucks and equipment.

And a board action on organic materials expanded the options for composting in unincorporated areas by allowing farms and community gardens to accept organic waste from off-site sources and reducing the cost and complexity of obtaining composting permits.

The new rules would “make composting easier for residents, farm composting and community composting,” said Tyler Farmer, a group program manager with the county. “This supports our waste diversion efforts and climate planning efforts.”