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Cutting Carbon Without Costing People

City commission’s initial recommendations for plan to become carbon neutral by 2040 promises changes that could help, or hurt, Santa Fe’s poorest residents

May 9, 2017, 2:00 pm

The city’s work to advance its goal of easing impacts on the climate could dramatically reshape our built infrastructure for decades to come, with ramifications that either increase equity or widen that gap.

“The days of sprawl may be at an end if we’re going to overcome a lot of our greenhouse gas emissions and make the city a place where people can actually live and work—as in, they live in proximity to their job and take public transportation or walk to where they need to work,” says John Alejandro, renewable energy planner for the City of Santa Fe.

The Sustainable Santa Fe Commission, a volunteer citizen advisory board, has begun sharing its recommendations for the 25-year sustainability plan expected to map the course toward meeting the city’s goal of being carbon-neutral by 2040, which is, yes, just 23 years away. That goal was set in November 2014 by a City Council resolution. 

The plan is still in a lofty, big-picture phase. Materials presented at Sustainable Santa Fe’s ongoing public meetings and available on its website, sustainablesantafe2040.com, speak in loose terms under the umbrellas of about a dozen focus areas, including transportation, energy, water and food security. All points are assessed based on environment, equity and the economy. 

At this stage, there’s no more detail than identifying the problems and setting some aspirational solutions for them. Those goals dive into some of the city’s deeply entrenched issues. Carbon-neutral status will rely in large part on more affordable housing, more mixed-use development and fewer cars on the road. Solar projects for low-income residents and nonprofits are to be encouraged and perhaps financially aided by the city. All businesses and multi-family homes should be enrolled in recycling programs—and city offices should be required to show a 100 percent recycling rate. The plan even floats the notion of a regional utility coalition, as well as the idea of legislation to mandate a cleanup of legacy waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Part of the public input the city is soliciting will be used to develop strategies for how to achieve these goals, and prioritizing which to undertake first.

“That’s the next step of the plan: taking those overarching goals and those wish lists, and really getting down on paper how these things would be practically implemented, how they could be paid for and who would actually work on getting these things done—is it the city, the private sector, is it a public-private partnership?” Alejandro says. 

Transportation was identified as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions through the city's baseline survey. With 75 percent of Santa Feans driving to work alone, 1 percent of the population riding buses, and more than 60 percent of the Santa Fe workforce living outside the city and commuting into it, middle income families sometimes spend more than half of their money on transportation and housing. Those costs tally up in public health as well, with carbon dioxide a contributor to lung disease. 

So the plan sets a goal of increasing frequency of buses on key routes and reducing transit times, as well as encouraging the purchase of electric vehicles and fostering of more live/work spaces and higher density development, which would require more flexible zoning.

The other snag will be installing retrofits in homes in the Historic District, where residents can’t even re-stucco a house without city approval. How will they be persuaded to install solar panels? 

“It’s a delicate balance,” Alejandro says, “but there are things we can do.”

Without knowing the details, it’s tough to assess how they’ll affect the city’s low-income residents, says Tomás Rivera of Chainbreaker Collective, which will host one of the upcoming meetings. He argues that the city could simultaneously reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and serve its poorest residents through strategic applications of these programs. The buses make for an example: Expanding service in the Airport Road corridor would both decrease emissions and serve a population that’s more often dependent on mass transportation. 

“When we talk about sustainability, we think of it not only in terms of environment but also equity,” he says. “We want to lead with equity, not think of it as an afterthought.”

Any approach that aims to reduce carbon first and expects to address equity second, he says, will likely leave the city’s poorest residents behind. 

One of the ideas pioneered in the plan, as it is, aims to address both simultaneously by creating “eco-districts” in low-income neighborhoods. Alejandro lists Hopewell-Mann and the area near the Genoveva Chavez Community Center as possible sites for neighborhood-wide efforts to upgrade old homes to energy-efficient windows and roofs, and distributed solar energy.

These environmentally friendly retrofits that reduce a home’s carbon footprint can cut utility costs for its residents. For people, particularly retirees on fixed incomes, who have been in their homes for 30 years or more, utilities are often the principle drain on their bank accounts. Given ongoing rate hikes, as well as the increasing prices for medication and food, winter sometimes leaves them deciding which expenses to prioritize. More energy-efficient appliances, better insulation and better windows would all help spare them that choice. The question with that program, and with all of the plan’s components, will be how to pay for it. 

The city might look to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for more help on energy efficiency programs, specifically with low-income and multi-family housing units, Alejandro says. “I have no idea what’s going to happen with those. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t pursue it, but those federal grants definitely would have helped.”

So, too, does support from the state Legislature look tough to come by. Every bill related to solar energy failed this year. At this point, Alejandro says, the city needs to lead. 

More meetings on the plan are expected over the summer. 

“It’s a 25-year plan,” Alejandro says, “so it’s a generation of Santa Feans who are going to be impacted, and we want to hear from everyone.” 

“Sustainability is not this upperclass context or white-led movement, it’s something that affects all of us and decisions need to be made within the community and by the community,” says Mariajosé Alcázar, associate director of Earth Care, which works to drive environmental and social justice projects in Santa Fe and will also co-host one of the upcoming meetings. “What we try to teach about the environmental movement in general is that, in its framework, it has isolated the most important people who should be front and center.”

SUSTAINABLE SANTA FE MEETINGS 

5:30-7:30 pm Tuesday, May 9at Hotel Santa Fe, Kiva Rooms, 1501 Paseo De Peralta; 1 pm Saturday May 13. Free. Santa Fe Public Library Southside Branch, 6599 Jaguar Drive, 955-2820 (co-hosted by Earth Care);  2 pm Saturday May 20. Free. Chainbreaker Collective, 1515 Fifth St,, 989-3858 (co-hosted by Chainbreaker Collective) For more information visit sustainablesantafe2040.com.

 


 

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