Kenwood Press

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View from the Valley: 02/15/2017

County’s sustainability goals are not sustainable

Well, it’s official. The year 2016 was the hottest year on record for the planet – ever. According to KOCO News 5 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, “2016 will go down in history as the hottest year since 1880 across the globe... The average temperature across the globe was two degrees higher than the 20th century average.” And this was the third year in a row that new records were set everywhere. “Everywhere” includes Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Sonoma County, California.

During the 2016 election campaign, I had the pleasure of meeting two people who have stepped up to inform the rest of us about issues that affect our environment. Tom Conlon of GeoPraxis in Sonoma is an energy expert who works to help businesses, builders, and city officials lower the output of carbon dioxide and other polluting gases that get dumped into the atmosphere. Jerry Bernhaut is an attorney with California River Watch who has filed a lawsuit against Sonoma County for submitting a GHG (GreenHouse Gases) reduction plan that cannot meet its own reduction goals. They both alerted me to the undeniable fact that most of the carbon dioxide we produce remains in the air for 100 years or more. Methane tends to cycle out of the atmosphere in about 8 to 12 years. These greenhouse gases are trapped in our atmosphere and are warming the planet.

It all started in 1750 when the human race began to burn coal to run steam engines. Before that, man had no perceptible carbon footprint.

So how does this affect our valley?

Conlon pointed me to the “CA 2020” report that estimates our current emissions and then states the risks of climate change. It also tells us how we will need to adapt. Bernhaut added that governments tend to underestimate our carbon footprint at every level. Trucking in goods, from meat to fertilizers, creates a carbon burden for the atmosphere. Even our garbage is hauled out of county. The miles traveled by visitors just to arrive at the county line are not counted, with a few exceptions for nearby points of origin. Millions of tons of CO2 are not included in the county’s calculations.

Bernhaut stated that, “The only sustainable course going forward is to shift to more self-contained local economies, for people to eat locally grown foods and buy locally made products as much as possible.” He also pointed out that our local economy is based on doing just the opposite: we grow grapes to turn into wine that is shipped worldwide via trucks and airlines. And Bernhaut also added that, “7.5 million tourists visited the County last year. That’s 15 tourists for every resident. How do you deal with all of the carbon emissions?”

So the conversation circled back to meeting the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan that the county and cities want to sign onto. The lawsuit filed by California River Watch was initiated by taking a realistic look at the numbers. Sonoma County’s 2016 plan used 2010 data to track local progress on goals set by California’s SB32 legislation. The county’s goals are based on climate data updated in 2014. Although the vast majority of county emissions come from those of us who already live and work here, additional growth, from new construction, business expansion, and rising household affluence in the county, must all be factored in. For example, the City of Sonoma (whose City Council in 2005 voluntarily signed on to work on reducing GHGs emissions) missed their goal by 62 percent.

As a reality check, Bernhaut and Conlon both explained that everyone on the planet has to reduce the number of tons of carbon dioxide and other polluting gases to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

To help meet this goal, which works out to about six percent less GHG pollution per person each year, Conlon rides his bike to work, avoids beef, bought a car with 100 percent higher mpg, and is continuing to remodel his home to reach “zero-net energy.” He also tries to factor in long trips that need to be balanced by conservation somewhere else in his life. However, this may not offset the environmental impacts of additional growth County-wide. If a project is subject to CEQA ( California’s Environmental Quality Act), developers must add up all the vehicle miles their customers, employees, and vendors will be traveling to work or to patronize the new project, and then “mitigate” an equivalent amount of GHG pollution that already exists somewhere else. Conlon clarified, “What this really means is that our elected officials decided, presumably because new growth is so important, to transfer and share the burden of mitigating the GHG emissions of new projects to the folks who already live here … in other words, current residents and businesses must cut our existing emissions EVEN MORE than we otherwise would have to if the new development project wasn’t needed.”

Given the growth in the wine and entertainment industry planned for Sonoma County, Bernhaut takes a stronger stance and believes that, “If there is an accurate accounting of GHG emissions from vehicle miles traveled, the only effective “mitigation” is limits on growth of new tourist and production for export facilities, including vineyards and wineries.”

Both men agreed that regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, local cities and Sonoma County as well as all the rest of us have to take measures NOW to reduce emissions. Conlon concluded, “If we are not actually addressing this issue with clear, accurate data, we are no better than climate deniers.”

You can make and track your own six percent per year GHG reduction commitment at

The Valley of the Moon Alliance was formed to promote the preservation, protection and maintenance of the agricultural character, natural resources and rural beauty of Sonoma Valley. We are committed to providing a forum for research, information, education and recommendations on projects that affect the environmental qualities of the valley communities.

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