Marin's climate action goals rely on potential of carbon farming

10/14/2020

By 2030, unincorporated Marin must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 60 percent below levels recorded in 2005 and, by 2045, achieve carbon neutrality. Those are the goals set by the new Climate Action Plan, which the public can comment on through the end of the month, before supervisors finalize it in December. 

The plan will replace an earlier version from 2015 and outlines a series of mitigation measures for all the sectors that cause emissions, giving special attention to the potential for increased carbon sequestration through agricultural practices. The strategies will be broken down into implementation plans with a budget each year through 2030. 

So far, unincorporated Marin has surpassed the state’s emission reduction goals, though it lagged behind its own targets. By this year, the county had planned to reduce emissions below 1990 levels by 30 percent; the most recent calculations show that number at around 18 percent. The county met the state’s goal of returning to 1990 levels by 2020. 

The plan highlights the urgent need to address climate change on a local level. “This [plan] is grounded in the County of Marin’s understanding that climate change is already impacting California and the world and will continue to affect Marin’s residents and businesses for the foreseeable future, as well as other communities around the world,” it says. “The county also recognizes that local governments play a strong role in reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions in their municipal operations and communities and mitigating the future impacts of climate change.”

Residents played a significant role in drafting it. Two years ago, with the help of over 150 volunteers, the Community Development Agency began a planning process called Drawdown: Marin to determine new strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They identified 29 climate change solutions, seven of which were flagged for immediate implementation and are included in the plan; the rest of the solutions are also included for reference. 

But for some community members, the county has not gone far enough. Ellie Cohen, who helmed Point Blue Conservation Science for two decades and now serves as the C.E.O. of The Climate Center, commented during a county presentation on Monday night. She said that aiming for anything short of carbon neutrality by 2030 was a missed opportunity.

“If you look at the latest science about what’s happening with climate change globally, the situation is rapidly worsening and numerous scientists in studies that have come out in the last six months or so are saying that the models that they used to predict whatever it might have been—from Greenland ice melt to the slowing of the Atlantic current to melting of the permafrost to the drying of the Amazon—all were too conservative, and that the situation is worsening much more quickly,” she said. “My concern is that as a leading county in California, for what we can do, is that we need to be setting our sights higher.”

Marin’s new targets align with the state’s 2045 goal, though Ms. Cohen said the latter would likely become more ambitious. Marin’s goals are slightly ahead of California’s for 2030, however: Mitigation would bring Marin into alignment with the state’s goal of a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2030, while the additional sequestration measures would bring the county 45 percent below those levels. (The county is using 2005 as its baseline now.)

The plan focuses on several categories, including low carbon transportation, renewable energy and electrification, energy efficiency, waste reduction, water conservation, consumption-based emissions, adaptation and community resiliency, community engagement, and agriculture and working lands. 

Transportation accounts for nearly a third of the unincorporated area’s emissions today. Between 2005 and 2018, emissions in the transportation sector dropped by 16 percent. That’s not because people drive less, but because cars are more fuel-efficient: over the past 10 years, passenger vehicles became 20 percent more fuel-efficient, while vehicle miles increased by 9 percent. Meanwhile, “Surveys show that alternative transportation rates have remained stagnant, despite improvements in the bicycle and pedestrian network and public information campaigns to encourage residents to carpool, bicycle, walk and take transit,” the plan states. 

The plan sets the goal that 45 percent of passenger vehicles sold in Marin must be zero-emission by 2030. Currently, only 4 percent of the registered passenger vehicles in Marin are zero-emission, the second highest rate in the state, behind Santa Clara County. A number of actions will help achieve the goal, including the development of a countywide electric vehicle plan that will identify the number and type of chargers needed in each jurisdiction, and a rebate program for new and used vehicles. 

Among the other goals for transportation are improvements to public services, including by expanding the routes, schedules and services of Marin Transit and Golden Gate Transit. Drawdown: Marin also plans to conduct an assessment of barriers to residents using existing transport. To encourage commuting by foot and bike, the county will draw recommendations from a pedestrian and bicycle master plan released two years ago. 

As far as energy use, unincorporated Marin has made modest reductions. Since 2005, electricity consumption has declined an average of 1 percent per year and natural gas consumption has declined about 1.3 percent. The goal is to continue to reduce energy by the same amount each year. The plan contemplates banning natural gas in new residential buildings by 2023 and in new commercial buildings by 2026, among other strategies. 

The county has made significant progress in finding cleaner sources of energy. Between 2005 and 2018, emissions generated from the use of electricity in homes and commercial spaces fell by a drastic 72 percent. PG&E become 58 percent less carbon-intensive since 2018, and MCE Clean Energy, which began serving Marin in 2010, provides customers with electricity that is generated from up to 100 percent renewable sources. 

MCE hopes to provide all customers with 100 percent renewables by 2022, and the climate plan encourages residents to participate in the program. The plan also focuses on the potential for increased solar: According to an assessment by Project Sunroof, the unincorporated area has 68,000 roofs that are solar-viable and could get 38 percent of its electricity from locally produced solar by 2030, compared to 19 percent today. The plan outlines pathways to streamline permitting and to help residents obtain loans. 

Waste is another focus of the Climate Action Plan. Since 2005, waste reductions have led to a 14 percent drop in emissions in unincorporated Marin. 

The plan seeks to divert 95 percent of organics, like food scraps and yard waste, from a landfill to composting facilities by 2030. To meet the target, the county will consider an ordinance that mandates recycling and, as a last resort, set trash collection fees that enable waste haulers to invest in machinery that can sort trash and recover all compostable and recyclable materials before they are sent to the landfill.

Yet “when this conversation ends at only discussing waste, an opportunity is missed to examine Marin County’s role in an economy that is centered upon natural resource extraction,” the plan emphasizes. It adds, “There is an important role for cities and counties to play in demonstrating what is possible and leading state and federal governments to consider industry regulations that address the [impact of the] whole lifecycle of manufacturing on the environment.”

One example of possible solutions came in 2018, when the county received a grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to develop requirements for the composition of concrete that reduced emissions by minimizing cement and encouraging alternative materials. To develop new whole-building lifecycle emission targets, the plan suggests exploring similar policies for steel, glass and other materials that cause high emissions. 

Water consumption accounts for only a small amount of emissions, the majority of which originate from pumping, treating and conveying water from its source to users. Marin Municipal Water District began purchasing electricity from MCE in 2017; the Sonoma County Water Agency, which provides around 70 percent of the water for the North Marin Water District, bought into the program two years earlier. The plan outlines a goal of 1 percent energy reductions in this sector each year. 

The plan highlights the importance of continued water conservation, showing that overall use has gone down by 23 percent since 2005. Among other strategies for continued conservation, the plan says the county will “encourage the installation of greywater and rainwater collection systems and the use of recycled water where available through an ordinance and/or engagement campaigns.”

Community participation is key to success. “While the county can compel some action by adopting ordinances and building regulations, much of the success of our plan will depend on informing community members and encouraging them to take action on their own,” the plan says. 

Since 2011, the county has been partnering with the group Resilient Neighborhoods to educate residents on ways they can reduce their carbon footprint. Residents could participate in a series of workshops in which they calculate their household carbon footprint and then take actions to reduce their emissions by 25 percent. Nearly 1,500 Marin residents have participated in the program over the past decade. 

Amid a host of outreach efforts, Drawdown: Marin proposes to expand on this work with five new training programs “designed with community input, to equitably reach audiences including Spanish speakers, low-income, older adults, parents, individuals with high carbon footprints, and others, through online and offline programs that emphasize consumption, address climate anxiety, and engage everyone in achieving climate protection goals.”

The last section of the new Climate Action Plan focuses on agriculture, taking a hard look both at how the county could encourage reduced emissions in the sector and capitalize on opportunities for increased carbon sequestration. 

Agriculture accounts for around a third of emissions in unincorporated Marin, as does transportation and energy use. That amounts to the equivalent of around 115,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. Yet for the county as a whole, agriculture produces just 9 percent of emissions.

Together, enteric fermentation—the process of microbial fermentation through which methane is produced during animal digestion—and manure management—which includes all emissions from animal waste—account for 99 percent of agricultural emissions. The county outlines several strategies—methane digesters, dry scrape conversion, compost bedding pack barns—that could decrease these emissions, meeting a target of 33 percent reduction by 2030. 

The county also set a goal of expanding carbon farming, using Drawdown: Marin’s goal of engaging 180 Marin farms and ranches across 90,000 acres by 2045. The county solicited help from leading groups in the field—the University of California’s cooperative extension in Marin, the Marin Resource Conservation District, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Carbon Cycle Institute—that partner in the Marin Carbon Project.

When the plan’s previous iteration was developed, the Marin Carbon Project was in its early days and did not have extensive data on the benefits of carbon farming. But after completing 19 carbon farm plans, the team was able to measure the carbon sequestration documented in Marin to date and, by determining how much farmland remains that could benefit from carbon farming, calculate how much more carbon could be sequestered overall. 

Together, the practices that reduce operational emissions and the carbon farming opportunities to sequester excess CO2 have the potential to reduce 265,162 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the plan found. For perspective, the unincorporated county as a whole emitted 380,318 metric tons in 2018. 

The continued exploration of opportunities to enhance carbon sequestration not only on working lands but also in forests and aquatic environments was expressly supported in the plan. Should Marin pursue carbon sequestration goals, the county will surpass the state’s current targets for emission reductions.