Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Green New Deal — an update to the “Sustainable City pLAn” released in April — sets out three broad goal categories: increase the quality of life; reduce pollution that harms people; and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
L.A.’s quality of life challenges are nothing new to any person familiar with the nation’s second-largest city. Among his extensive list of goals, the mayor proposes a few modest objectives, such as build and repair 200 water fountains (called “hydration stations” to make them sound cool) and creating or preserving 50,000 affordable housing units by 2035.
There are a few whoppers as well: end street homelessness by 2028 (Garcetti is termed-out in 2022, so that goal will fall to his successor) and create 400,000 “green” jobs by 2050 (the definition of “green jobs” has included working at a landfill in support of recycling — the term is politically malleable).
The mayor’s pollution reduction goals will prove to be far more difficult to attain, the salient one being zero days of unhealthy air quality by 2025.
The American Lung Association ranks the Los Angeles metropolitan area as having the worst air in the nation for ozone — smog. The L.A.-Long Beach area was out of compliance on ozone an average of 143 days per year in the most recent report. In 2018, city residents labored through a stretch of 87 days in a row of unhealthy air quality.
Reducing Los Angeles’ high ozone days from 143 to zero is impossible anytime soon, but not for the reasons some believe.
First, the very factors that bestow a beautiful climate on L.A., the cool Pacific waters and the soaring mountains that overlook the city, act to create a persistent inversion layer that traps the basin’s air pollution.
Second, and completely out of the mayor’s control, there’s a growing ozone problem — from Asia. Scientists estimate that Asian countries, mostly China and India, are emitting three times the amount of nitrogen oxides as they did in 1990. Sunlight breaks these NOx molecules down, producing ozone, which, at ground level, is harmful to health. This Asian pollution is so plentiful on the West Coast that it has cut the air quality gains by half of what they would have been had Asian emissions remained the same.
L.A.’s persistent air pollution problem and its link to the rise of living standards in China and India points to an even greater challenge on the greenhouse gas front — which is what made L.A.’s Green New Deal noteworthy in the first place.
Garcetti calls for the city to lead the climate change charge, with a plan to have every vehicle on L.A.’s streets by 2050 be “zero-emission,” with 100% of the city’s electricity from renewables by 2045. The ultimate goal is to make L.A. a “fossil fuel-free zone.”
And herein is the problem for Garcetti and for the Green New Deal’s proponents at large: leakage.
The price of electricity for industrial users in Beijing last year was 12 cents per kWh, about the same as for industrial users in California in February, both more than double the 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour industrial users pay in Texas.
As Los Angeles moves to “carbon neutrality” by 2045, it will see far higher costs for energy as it comes to rely on massive battery storage systems to remedy the unreliable nature of renewable electricity. Of course, the mining and processing required to manufacture about 150,000 tons of high capacity batteries (enough to power L.A. for a day) isn’t calculated in the “zero carbon” equation.
As power costs soar, two things will happen: the middle class and working people of the city will see an erosion of their standard of living as more economic activity, especially energy-intensive manufacturing, moves out of the region to places like Texas, or even high-polluting China or India; and, overall carbon dioxide emissions will increase, not decrease, as Angelenos increasingly purchase goods manufactured abroad, then shipped to them from overseas.
And with China doubling down on coal-fired power plants, all the green energy virtue signaling in the world won’t dissuade China’s leaders from working to make power more abundant, reliable, and affordable.
Instead, the better move for both planet and people is to make energy both affordable and clean — and use it to make as much stuff in America as possible, where our economic output per unit of energy is among the world’s most efficient and non-polluting. To do so, clean fossil fuels must be a significant part of the equation.
This commentary originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News on May 7, 2019.