LA County and UCLA could face similar obstacles in plans to go carbon neutral
(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations director)
Sept. 9, 2019 12:52 a.m.
This post was updated Sept. 9 at 9:40 a.m.
When it comes to phasing out fossil fuels, Los Angeles County’s newest plans may eventually face the same problems as UCLA.
The LA County Board of Supervisors approved “the most ambitious plan yet” earlier this month to promote sustainability in LA County, said Kristen Pawling, sustainability program director for the LA County Chief Sustainability Office.
The plan, called OurCounty, addresses the county’s fossil fuel use, among other sustainability issues. It calls for the county to reach complete carbon neutrality by 2050.
It might face the same problems as UCLA, which is still reliant on fossil fuels after a 2013 pledge to be completely carbon neutral by 2025.
OurCounty contains 12 major goals to increase the environmental sustainability of LA County, including completely phasing out fossil fuels. The plan, in the works for over 18 months, was created with the help of a team of UCLA researchers.
LA County’s board of supervisors put the Chief Sustainability Office together in late 2016 to draft a plan for long-term sustainability for the region. The result was the 220-page OurCounty initiative, which sets goals for sustainable land use, biodiversity and more affordable and accessible food systems, among other issues.
Goal No. 7 asks the county to reach complete carbon neutrality by 2050. The initiative has not yet fully defined the term “carbon neutrality,” according to OurCounty.
Pawling said the county may have to allow a certain level of fossil fuels and make up for it in other ways.
“It could mean (zero carbon emissions),” Pawling said. “It could also mean there might be 1% or 2% emissions that just need to be mitigated in some other way. Sometimes that’s with offsets. … We haven’t fully done the analysis to say what percent might be unerasable by that date.”
Phasing out fossil fuels in LA County will be challenging for several reasons, one of which is the county’s historical legacy of oil drilling, said Stephanie Pincetl, professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, whose research was used to develop the plan.
Despite the difficulties, transitioning to an alternate energy source might have long-term benefits for the community, especially for low-income residents, Pincetl said.
“As it turns out, many of those drilling rigs happen to be surrounded by neighborhoods,” Pincetl said. “Many of those neighborhoods are low-income, and people are being exposed to the (toxins) that come off of those drilling fields and those wells.”
Another hurdle for Goal No. 7 is the challenge of collecting and storing the energy intended to replace fossil fuels in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment, Pincetl said.
“The utilities are really pushing for big solar installations out in the desert, because they have their power lines out there and it’s just easier for them to manage,” Pincetl said. “Now if we’re building more big solar in places like the desert, we’re transforming that landscape.”
How LA County plans to develop the infrastructure for the transition away from fossil fuels has mostly been left up for future deliberation, Pincetl said. She said this is due both to the need to develop the technology for alternative energy sources on a countywide scale and the difficulty of coordinating with different alternative energy utility companies, who set up their own infrastructure in different ways.
“There’s a huge tension around where we’re going to be generating more electricity, and what the infrastructure looks like,” she said. “All of this is part of what we don’t know, relative to this ‘fossil-free LA.’”
The CSO will be reporting to the county’s board of supervisors on the plan’s progress. For county citizens who want to track OurCounty’s headway themselves, the plan’s website, ourcountyla.org, will soon display indicators of the project’s progress, Pawling said.
However, the University of California’s Office of the President has had an even closer deadline for the UC system since 2013, pledging to be carbon neutral by 2025.
This, according to the UCOP website, means “emitting net zero greenhouse gases from its buildings and vehicle fleet.”
Six years after the pledge was made, UCLA’s campus is still highly reliant on fossil fuels. According to the UCLA Facilities Management website, 85% of UCLA’s electric power is produced by a plant known as the Energy Systems Facility.
The Energy Systems Facility produces over 250 gigawatt hours of electricity annually. It runs on natural gas, both purchased and acquired in the form of methane from a local landfill, according to their website.
“I think UCLA has a big conundrum on its hands with its power plant on campus. … It’s pretty critical to all the operations on campus, including the hospital, and everything else, and how to move beyond fossil fuel (for) the plant is going to be very difficult,” Pincetl said.
Nurit Katz, UCLA’s chief sustainability officer, said UCLA will pursue buying renewable energy credits, or “offsets,” if it cannot buy enough renewable or bio gas to transition fully to carbon neutrality.
Offsets allow the buyer to “offset” their carbon emissions by investing in conservation efforts somewhere else.
But the offset system can fall short of an exact science, said Pincetl. She said their ability to accurately counterbalance carbon emissions over time is undetermined.
“People can be paid to plant trees, but what does that mean in the context of a global economy when the US has people in far-flung places plant trees to offset their carbon emissions?” Pincetl said. “(First,) I’m not convinced that (offsets) work for actually reducing the carbon that ends up in the atmosphere, and secondly, I think that’s politically and economically very, very fraught.”
For now, offsets remain the only solution to counteract foreseeably irreducible carbon emissions on campus. Katz is confident the offsets would provide benefits beyond their intended use.
“The UC system is working on developing offsets that would help support UC research, and make sure that we have the highest standard in terms of what offsets we would work with,” Katz said.