Timothy Burroughs’ job used to be a lot easier. As one of the architects of Berkeley, California’s Climate Action Plan in 2009, his job these days is more perilous – now he has to make the plan actually work.
“My big job right now is to make sure that plan doesn’t just sit on a shelf,” he told a group of municipal professionals and elected officials at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference – Western Region in Sonoma County.
But Burroughs doesn’t spend his days vacuuming carbon emissions out of the air. Instead, his primary tool is data. He uses data to help Berkeley make informed policy decisions, establish priorities and track the progress of its strategies over time, he said.
Berkeley’s emission reduction goals are among the most ambitious in the nation. It plans to reduce its emissions 33 percent below 2000 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 – reductions that many scientists say will need to be reached worldwide to prevent excessive global warming and climate change. The city tracks its progress toward those targets on an annual basis, and so far the results are less than stellar, even though total residential energy use has gone down while the number of Berkeley households has gone up.
“Berkeley has the unique distinction of having its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets established by a vote of the people,” Burroughs said. In 2006, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly endorsed ballot Measure G, which established the 80-percent reduction by 2050 goal. “It enabled us to lead with that,” he said. “I do a lot of work within the community and I oftentimes will lead with, ‘You voted for this, you supported this, so now we need your help in making it happen.”
The operative phrase, of course, is “making it happen.”
“Now that we have the plan, we’re turning that plan into action,” Burroughs said. “As resources become available, we implement the strategies we can to address those main sources (of emissions), and very importantly, we track the impact of those strategies so we can report back to our city council and to the community.”
But, the fact is that Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions for all building types in 2010 were roughly the same as they were in 2000. The trend stopped going up, but it hasn’t significantly gone down.
“When I showed this to our city council a few weeks ago, they kind of freaked out. They were kind of shocked. You know, I think some people thought that you just adopt a climate plan and your emissions go down. But, it was really important for them to see this,” Burroughs said.
“A lot of what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of years is establish these metrics to help tell our story. And I felt, finally, a few weeks ago at this council meeting I got the wake-up call that I was looking for…. We have aggressive targets and we’re not achieving them.
“They basically said to me, and this is what I sort of wanted to hear, ‘We need you to come back in a few months, and … tell us what we have to do to get that bar down to that target line.’ And they would not have been able to tell me that if I hadn’t been tracking this. It raised the profile, it helped them understand what our trend was and it really sort of forced them to ask me to try and do more.”
The “guiding document” for Berkeley’s sustainability program is its Climate Action Plan (CAP), a 187-page document that lays out the city’s approach to sustainable transportation, land use, energy use, waste reduction, recycling, and climate adaptation, as well as its guidelines for monitoring, reporting and empowering the public to affect change.
“I think this is an important topic for a community of any size,” he said. “Taking the time up front to do your energy profile and your greenhouse gas emissions profile … really pays off in the long run, because if you effectively look at your profiles to see what your impacts are, it helps you become more strategic and efficient in directing your resources to affect the main problems and challenges you have.”
When analyzing carbon emissions, Burroughs said, it’s important to remember that every region of the country is different. In Berkeley, for instance, emissions from natural gas exceed those from electricity, partly because California generates more of its electricity from renewable sources than do other regions of the country. Locations that generate more electricity from coal might have a different outcome.
Burroughs said communities can get a tremendous amount of valuable data from their local utility companies. “We work with PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric Co.) to get under the hood of each (energy sector) and get a bit more granular information about what’s behind this consumption.” He recommends urging utilities to share as much data as possible to help communities understand how energy is being consumed locally.
“This has been a long process for us, and we’re slowly finding success at getting good connections with the right people at the utility to give us really good information that helps us target our strategies,” he said.
For instance, Burroughs said, PG&E tells him which commercial sectors use the most energy. “That helps us figure out how to get resources to that source of energy consumption to help them save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
For small businesses, Berkeley has a program called “Smart Lights,” which provides free lighting audits and educates businesses on available rebates for lighting upgrades. He said the audits also look at natural gas usage and provide help there as well.
Berkeley’s residential energy consumption declined about 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, which is a significant improvement over the trend the city had been on prior to 2000, but it hasn’t been enough improvement to keep that sector on target to reach its 2020 goal.
“That’s really important information to know,” Burroughs said, “because if we weren’t regularly gathering these data from the local utility we wouldn’t know whether what we were doing was working or not. So, this is one of those ‘manage what you measure’ type of things,” he said.
After knowing how much energy consumption has declined, the next step is knowing why, Burroughs said. Analyzing what’s working and what’s not is a key step in continuing the positive trend. In Berkeley’s case, economic factors, a residential energy conservation ordinance, a weatherization program, an increase in solar energy use and various incentives all played a role.
“What we’re trying to do now is get better data on each one of these factors to know exactly how those things are affecting this trend. So, for us, this is an ongoing process of trying to measure our strategies better,” he said.
Besides looking at “big-picture” data like utility information, Burroughs said he’s beginning to drill down to more granular data on specific programs – for example, gathering statistics on the number of new bike-rack installations and bicycle parking spaces added throughout the city.
“There’s an issue of accountability here. We said we were putting in more bicycle parking in our climate action plan, and now we’re telling you whether we’re doing it or not,” he said. In fact, the city has installed 317 new bike racks and an estimated 694 new bicycle parking spaces since 2004.
Burroughs said the city’s web site provides details on 30 or 40 different metrics that are charted to track the progress of its climate initiatives.