L.A.’s new era of climate leadership

by Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently launched the city’s Green New Deal, providing a template for a new era of climate leadership. Like many other C40 climate action plans from the world’s leading cities, it is built on hard data and sets goals to reduce emissions in line with the science-based target of constraining global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average. L.A.’s plan is also deeply rooted in climate justice, with a strong focus on how action to reduce pollution can also reduce inequality, create new and better jobs, develop a stronger, more sustainable economy, and improve the health and well-being of Angelenos. In short, it is a strategy to benefit the whole of society and thus moves climate change from a peripheral issue to the central organising principle of government.

The climate crisis, as the Mayor’s plan notes, is not fair. Those who have done least to cause environmental pollution, the least well off globally and within all societies, are hit hardest by its consequences. That is why, when designing policies to tackle climate change, political leaders also need to demonstrate that there will be immediate and tangible benefits for everyone. The tough decisions required to slash emissions and safeguard everyone’s future will never win popular legitimacy unless they also address the immediate concerns of voters -- feeding a family, paying the rent, and accessing health care. 

As L.A.’s Green New Deal puts it: "If we wish to build a truly fair, just, and prosperous city, we have to ensure everyone experiences the benefits of a sustainable future.” Therefore the plan will, “[Enact] sustainable policies that prioritize economic opportunity. We will mandate and incentivize the transition to a zero carbon city in a way that prioritizes the needs and opportunities of disadvantaged communities, ensuring that the new green economy fulfils the promise of a more just and equitable economy." 

Los Angeles is the third biggest city in the world measured by economy size. Yet the opening chapter of the Green New Deal acknowledges the need for ‘Environmental Justice’ and promises action to help some of the poorest communities in America. For example, there is a commitment to provide permanent drinking water facilities to an area of the city where thousands of homeless people sleep in fabric tents in the heart of downtown, overlooked by some of the wealthiest real estate in the world. Achieving the air quality goals laid out in the plan, including reduction in oil production, as well as a transition away from fossil fuels altogether will prevent approximately 1,650 premature deaths annually and save the city $16 billion in health costs.

Then there are the commitments to further extend mass transit. In the mid-twentieth century L.A. was re-designed to put the motor car first and humans second, as automotive companies bought up the trams and trains with the explicit intention of shutting them down in order to generate more demand for their products. The result is an extraordinary spaghetti of highways and elevated streets, alongside traffic congestion that is a vision of hell itself. L.A.’s Green New Deal will build on a once-in-a-generation investment in buses, metro-lines, cycle lanes and pedestrian priority that Mayor Garcetti gained public backing for through ‘Measure M’. The car, however, is not entirely forgotten, albeit in a new, quieter, zero-emission guise, with a commitment to further extend ‘ BlueLA' - an electric car hire scheme - into the least wealthy neighbourhoods. Electrifying all vehicles by 2050 not only reduces L.A.’s greenhouse gas emissions, it will prevent 980 premature deaths and save $9.5 billion in health costs by reducing air pollution.

The Plan also promises to create more than 300,000 good, green, jobs created by 2035, rising to 400,000 by mid-century. These numbers are credible because 35,000 new green jobs have already been created in Los Angeles since Mayor Garcetti took office – more than all the coal jobs lost in the USA over the same period. The data increasingly shows that low carbon economic development simply creates more and better jobs than maintaining the existing high-carbon status quo. Halving emissions in the next decade is going to take an awful lot of investment, creating a lot of work. This argument works in Los Angeles, and it should work in every part of the world. 


Photo credit: Scout Tufankjian

Mayor Garcetti’s Green New Deal will include:

• An $8 billion investment in the next 3 years by the publicly owned energy and water utility to build the country’s largest, cleanest, and most reliable urban electrical grid to power the next generation of green transportation and clean buildings;

• 100% renewable energy to the city by 2045, meanwhile cancelling plans to repower natural gas plants within the L.A. basin;

• An $860 million investment per year to expand the transportation system;

• Billions more to build clean buildings, with policies such as building code updates that mean all new buildings have to operate at net zero carbon by 2030;

• Billions invested in transit oriented development – building clean and healthy buildings near the expanding public transportation system – so more Angelenos can take public transportation while L.A.’s buildings continue to transition to net zero carbon.

This part of the Green New Deal is really interesting, but somewhat understated. Los Angeles is a city with a hugely powerful and unremittingly innovative private sector that is the envy of most in the world. But the key targets of the L.A.’s Green New Deal are firmly anchored in a publicly-led programme of investment, incentives designed to support the transition to zero emission vehicles and buildings, and tough regulation. In my view (and noting that this is not in any way stated in the L.A. Green New Deal itself), this is a recognition that climate breakdown is irrefutably the consequence of huge, global market failure and there is no (so-called) free-market-led pathway to a climate safe future. Private innovation and investment and the organisational role of markets will have a massive role to play, but if we are going to halve global emissions in a decade then governments at all levels are going to need to move well beyond the neo-classical economic maxims of passively creating a ‘level playing field’ for private companies and only intervening to fix broken markets. Instead we are going to need what economist Mariana Mazzucato calls the 'entrepreneurial state’, that creates and shape markets, leading by example through investing in the clean new economy, taking a return on that investment so that it can be recycled, and pulling private capital in behind them.

I haven’t heard Mayor Garcetti put it quite that way, but that is clearly the philosophical under-pinning of the national Green New Deal movement launched by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Perhaps it doesn’t need saying if you are in power and have the means to deliver. A pragmatic politician, Mayor Garcetti’s pitch is that while Washington talks about a Green New Deal, Los Angeles is showing what one looks like in action.

That does not mean that the LA Green New Deal is without controversy. Launching the Plan in the garden of his official residence, the Mayor had to raise his voice to speak over the sound of a noisy protest outside, staged by a trade union representing a section of workers in the city-owned utility. They fear that the decision to close down gas plants will make their specialised skills redundant.

Mayor Garcetti made clear that he is not simply committed to net job creation; in a just transition to a low-carbon Los Angeles, the specific workers who lose their jobs in the dirty economy will be re-trained and supported to find as good or better opportunities in the clean economy to come. Understandably, given a national economy where real wages are in decline and the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, a lot of trust will need to be built up for blue-collar workers to easily give up secure, well-paid jobs. C40 is working globally with the trade union-led Just Transition movement on exactly this issue. The Mayor of Oslo and former Mayor of Vancouver have already committed to create just transition task forces in their cities to work with unions and businesses on implementing their climate strategies. And now Los Angeles is creating a Jobs Cabinet, with employers, training institutions and communities, to do just that, by training people for these new jobs and opportunities. 

It takes brave and much-needed leadership to publicly acknowledge, as Mayor Garcetti did, that the transition to a climate safe world is going to be tough.

In my own remarks at L.A.’s Green New Deal launch I also pointed out that if, when the C40 group of mayors was formed 15 years ago, other political leaders had joined them in taking climate change seriously then our emissions reduction pathway could have been far less dramatic. It would have been even more straightforward if climate change had been put at the top of the agenda when James Hansen presented unequivocal evidence of looming climate disaster to the U.S. government in the 1980s, or when Exxon and the other big oil companies conducted, and then smothered, their own analysis of the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels in the 1970s. Half of all the greenhouse gases humanity has pumped into the atmosphere in our entire 200,000 year existence have occurred in the last 30 years, when we were well aware of the dangers. Now the task of avoiding climate breakdown is urgent and the emission reduction pathway grows steeper every day.

That much is clear in L.A.’s Green New Deal. In Mayor Garcetti’s words, “with flames on our hillsides and floods in our streets, cities cannot wait another moment to confront the climate crisis with everything we’ve got.''

The raw climate targets in L.A.’s Green New Deal, accordingly, sound ambitious, although in fact they are simply driven by working backwards from what science advises is the minimum necessary to avoiding global heating passing a disastrous tipping point:

• A 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2025, 73% by 2035, and carbon neutral by 2050;

• 80% renewable energy supply by 2036 and 100% renewable energy supply by 2045;

• All new buildings to be net zero carbon by 2030, and all buildings be net zero carbon by 2050;

• 25% of vehicles on the road in L.A.  be electric and zero emissions  by 2025, 80% by 2035 and 100% by 2050;

• At least 50% of all trips made by walking, biking, micro-mobility, matched rides or public transit by 2035;

• Achieving a zero waste future by phasing out styrofoam by 2021, ending the use of plastic straws and single-use takeout containers by 2028, and no longer sending any trash to landfills by 2050; 

• Recycling 100% of our wastewater by 2035; sourcing 70% of our water locally — a significant increase from our existing pathway; and nearly tripling the maximum amount of stormwater captured.

These are genuinely tough targets and C40’s analysis validates that they will be sufficient for Los Angeles to make its contribution to keeping global average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. C40 has provided funding and other resources to L.A. to help produce its Green New Deal plan, as part of our Deadline 2020 programme whereby every C40 city must publish a similar robust strategy by the end of 2020 at the latest in order to remain a member of our network. But as Mayor Garcetti pointed out at the launch, with the price of renewable energy falling by the day, “it has never been cheaper and quicker to solve this problem”.

The concept of a ‘Green New Deal’ might turn out to be peculiarly American. The memory of the achievements of the original New Deal linger long here, while it doesn’t have the same resonance elsewhere. But I am thoroughly convinced that the principle of focusing on equity and a low carbon economy together will come to underpin all of the successful climate change strategies around the world. Mayor Garcetti is by no means alone among C40 mayors in recognising this, but in launching L.A.’s Green New Deal he has made a very concrete step to demonstrating what that means in practice. It gives me massively renewed hope for the future.