S/CAP Frequently Asked Questions

Sustainability and Climate Action

Palo Alto is just one small city. What role can we play in addressing climate change?

Cities are responsible for producing most of the world’s greenhouse gases - consuming 73% of the world’s energy and emitting 75% of the greenhouse gases, while occupying only 5% of total land mass. As a city, we may not be able to stop climate change ourselves, but we can do our part. We can work together to reduce our own emissions and join other localities in demonstrating what can be done.
The City’s role in addressing climate change can be seen through climate action planning. Climate action planning is an opportunity for the City to shape our future in the face of global change, protect against climate hazards, achieve energy security, sustainably develop their economies, and ensure a high quality of life.

What is the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan?

Simply put, it’s our city’s plan to fight climate change. More specifically, Palo  Palo Alto's Sustainability and Climate Action Plan (S/CAP) is an ambitious plan to reduce the city and community’s greenhouse gas emissions to meet climate protection goals while considering the broader issues of sustainability, such as land use and natural resources. The S/CAP charts a path to a more sustainable future, finds ways to improve our quality of life, grow prosperity, and create a thriving and resilient community - all while dramatically reducing our carbon footprint and other environmental impacts. Palo Alto is already a world leader in climate protection strategies; the S/CAP will build on that leadership, and our successes exceeding the goals of our 2007 Climate Protection Plan(PDF, 968KB), to create the next step -- both for our city and for the many who watch us.

Why did we develop a Sustainability & Climate Action Plan?

Climate change is causing sea level rise, extreme weather events, climbing temperatures, and changing rainfall patterns - which affect our ability to meet the needs of growing local and global populations. Major cities in our region, and many leading cities around the world, have made commitments to meet the challenge of climate change with local solutions to this global issue. In fact, cities around the world are leading the response to this challenge, often with more creativity and agility than national governments. Palo Alto is uniquely positioned to identify and create cutting-edge solutions to our shared challenge.

The State of California requires us to "develop Climate Action Plans, or other comprehensive approach[es] to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions." The City Council recognized that Palo Alto's previous Climate Action Plan needed revision in light of changing conditions and the City’s ongoing sustainability actions; the S/CAP is an important strategic element in Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan.

What is 80 x 30 and what other sustainability goals has the City set?

The City of Palo Alto set an aggressive goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030 (the "80 x 30" goal). This far exceeds the state of California's world-leading reduction goal of 80 percent by 2050.

While 80 x 30 is the overarching sustainability goal, we have several equally important goals in the following areas: Energy, Mobility, Electric Vehicles, Water, Climate Adaptation and Sea Level Rise, Natural Environment, and Zero Waste.

A sustainable Palo Alto will meet the needs of today’s residents while protecting ecosystems for future generations. Sustainability can be thought of as a three-legged stool, comprised of social equity (people), economic health (prosperity), and environmental stewardship (planet). Collectively, these “legs” are the foundation for a strong and healthy quality of life. In order for its people to thrive — today and tomorrow — Palo Alto must strengthen all three pillars.

Where do the sustainability goals come from?

Our sustainability goals are driven by science, state policy, and the work of other like-minded cities. The overwhelming majority of independent climate scientists have determined that going above a 2° C (3.5° F) rise would trigger a series of catastrophic changes to life on Earth that could not be undone. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that "we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts" from climate change, and need “substantial” emissions reductions (of 40-70% or more) by 2030 and reach net zero around 2075 for “a likely chance to keep temperature change below 2° C relative to pre-industrial levels.” Palo Alto wants to do our part in addressing climate needs. 

The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32) requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and set an aspirational goal to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. In 2016, these targets were extended to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Other cities:
Cities around the world have become the leaders on climate initiative; more than 40 cities declared the goal of 80 x 50.

Where is the City at in reaching our climate and sustainability goals?

In 2019, Palo Alto reduced GHG emissions an estimated 38.2 percent* from the 1990 baseline, despite a population increase of 23.6 percent during that same time period. This equates to 7 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MT CO2e) per Palo Alto resident in 2019 compared to 14 MT CO2e per Palo Alto resident in 1990. The California Air Resources Board 2017 Scoping Plan Update recommends local government goals of 6 MT C02e per capita by 2030. The full 2019 GHG Inventory can be found in Staff Report 12009(PDF, 1MB).

(*In order to comply with the latest GHG inventory methodology, additional emissions sources were added to the 2019 GHG inventory that were not included previously. For a more direct comparison to 1990 levels, if we exclude these additional emissions sources the 2019 GHG reductions would be 41.2% or 6.7 MT CO2e per Palo Alto resident.)

We've achieved our GHG emissions reductions through the introduction of carbon neutral electricity in 2013, as well as efficiency measures in both city operations and community resource use that have resulted in declines in natural gas emissions, transportation emissions, and emissions from other sources. It’s far more than what most communities have done - but we have big challenges ahead:

  • Roughly 65% of our remaining emissions come from transportation - people driving their cars into, out of, and around Palo Alto. How could we transform transportation, making it more convenient not to drive, and electrify the driving we need to do?
  • Roughly 32% of our GHG emissions come from natural gas - to heat buildings and water, to cook food, and to fuel some vehicles. How could we reduce natural gas emissions through efficiency or electrification?

How is the City of Palo Alto determining what’s feasible?

We have used a systematic, disciplined "innovation and analysis" process in designing this plan. We have:

  • Met with Sustainability staff at regional and nation-wide cities to identify best practices
  • Cast a wide net to identify and generate a large universe of potential options
  • Filtered these options first for technical feasibility, then for financial, political, and behavioral feasibility
  • Developed a series of “roadmaps” and implementation plans for meeting each of the potential goals
  • Brought these roadmaps and plans to the community and City Council to support a grounded conversation to determine the plan and path we will choose.

How can I get involved?

  1. Take our Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Update Survey 
  2. Join our mailing list.
  3. Review the ideas generated by your fellow Palo Altans and the S/CAP team at our Sustainability and Climate Action Plan page.
  4. Sign up to participate in Cool Block