S/CAP Frequently Asked Questions

Palo Alto is just one city. What is our role in addressing climate change?

Palo Alto is uniquely positioned to identify and implement cutting-edge solutions to our shared challenge of keeping the planet habitable for future generations. We own and operate our own utilities so we can make our own choices. People who live in Palo Alto care deeply about the natural environment. We have easy access to experts in many technical fields next door at Stanford University. Together, these assets mean that we can make a difference.

Scientific consensus is that climate change is accelerating and is already having impacts that will become more severe in the coming years unless strong actions are taken soon. Megafires, loss of Sierra snowpack, severe weather events, and sea-level rise threaten our local public safety, health, economy, and natural environment. 

We cannot stop climate change ourselves, but we can and must do our part by reducing our own emissions and joining other localities to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Cities produce most of the world’s greenhouse gases, consuming 78% of the world’s energy, and emitting 60-75% of the greenhouse gases, but only taking up 2% of the land on earth .

The good news is that Palo Alto adopted one of the first municipal climate action plans in the U.S. in 2007, was one of the first cities in the world to deliver carbon neutral electricity in 2013, and is currently working on a Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Update.

Climate action planning is an opportunity and a responsibility for the City to shape our future in the face of global change, protect against climate hazards, achieve energy security, sustainably develop the economy, and ensure a continued high quality of life.

What is the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan?

Our Sustainability and Climate Action Plan (S/CAP) is an ambitious plan to reduce the City and community’s greenhouse gas emissions, while also guiding how we use our land and natural resources in ways that ensure quality of life for future generations. 

A Climate Action Plan, or CAP, is a comprehensive roadmap that lays out the specific activities that an agency will undertake to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Palo Alto, we have a Sustainability and Climate Action Plan (S/CAP) because we include sustainability areas that don’t necessarily have a direct impact on greenhouse gas reductions, but have critically important sustainability, public health and safety, regional, resource conservation, and equity benefits that contribute to overall climate action.

Palo Alto already has many climate protection strategies, including the 2007 Climate Protection Plan(PDF, 968KB), the 2016 Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Framework(PDF, 3MB), and 2018 - 2020 Sustainability Implementation Plan(PDF, 907KB). Now it is time to create and take the next step -- translating these plans into concrete actions.

Why did the City develop a Sustainability and Climate Action Plan?

Palo Alto is uniquely positioned to identify and implement cutting-edge solutions to our shared challenge of keeping the planet habitable for future generations.

Climate change is causing sea level rise, extreme weather events, climbing temperatures, and changing rainfall patterns which affect people’s lives. We can already see this happening in our own city. 

The S/CAP is an important strategic element in Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan and needs to be updated from 2016, given the dramatic climate-induced changes we have experienced in the past few years. In addition, the State of California requires us to "develop Climate Action Plans, or other comprehensive approach[es] to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions." 

What is 80 x 30?

80 x 30 is the ambitious goal that the City Council set in 2016 to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80% by 2030, relative to our 1990 baseline. In 2016, the city emitted 479,025 metric tons of greenhouse gases, so the goal is for the city to emit 156,024 metric tons in 2030. While Council accepted a framework and an implementation plan, we as a city have not yet committed to a plan that will achieve these reductions.

80 x 30 far exceeds the state of California's world-leading reduction goal of 80 percent by 2050. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32) requires the state to reduce its GHG emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and set an aspirational goal to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. 

In September 2018, Governor Brown issued California Executive Order B-55-18, setting the goal to achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible, by 2045 at the latest, and achieve and maintain net negative emissions from that point forward.

Does Palo Alto work with other cities and organizations on climate action initiatives?

Palo Alto collaborates with other cities through groups such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network, Climate Mayors, Green Cities California, the Public Sector Climate Task Force, Joint Venture Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley Green Team Network, and the Regionally Integrated Climate Action Planning Suite (RICAPS).

Palo Alto currently partners with several agencies in all Sustainability and Climate Action Plan areas. These include but are not limited to: the Bay Area Climate Adaptation Network (BayCAN), the California Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Project (CALeVIP), GreenWaste, Valley Water, Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the Santa Clara County Office of Sustainability, and the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability. 

Does the S/CAP address areas other than greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane?

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.

How does the S/CAP affect people, businesses, and the environment?

Sustainability is more than how many tons of greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere. A sustainable Palo Alto will meet the needs of today’s residents without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. It also includes:

  • How people experience these changes (social equity)
  • Economic impacts to people and businesses (fiscal sustainability)
  • Healthy ecosystem (locally and regionally)

These three pillars of “people,” “prosperity,” and “planet” are the foundation for a sustainable, strong, and healthy quality of life. 

How did we come up with 80 x 30?

When we set this goal in 2016, the state of California already had a target of 40 x 30 and an aspirational goal of 80 x 50. The City Council wanted to set an example and accelerate climate action, so chose 80 x 30.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that "we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts" from climate change, and need “substantial” emissions reductions (of 40-70% or more) by 2030. The overwhelming majority of independent climate scientists have determined that going above a 2° C (3.6° F) rise would trigger a series of catastrophic changes to life on Earth that could not be undone. Today, we are at 1.1° above Celsius, with just 0.9 degrees left before irreversible damage occurs, such as ocean waters flooding cities, extreme fires and other natural disasters, and extinction of species, along with economic, social, and political disruptions.

Is 80 x 30 enough?

80 x 30 is the science-based target that represents our fair share of the global emissions reduction required to halve emissions by 2030 and reach global net zero by 2050, in order to limit global warming to 1.5° C (2.7° F) above pre-industrial levels. Warming above 1.5°C risks further sea level rise, extreme weather, biodiversity loss and species extinction, as well as food scarcity and worsening health and poverty for millions of people worldwide.

What is net zero emissions? Is that the same as carbon neutrality?

Generally speaking, they are very similar, but not the same. Definitions of each term differ depending on who you talk to, the organization, the country, and so on. For Palo Alto, when we say “net zero,” we mean reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to as close to zero as possible, and balancing the amount of GHGs emitted against the amount of GHGs removed from the atmosphere. It’s like trying to balance a scale. If there is a bit more GHGs emitted than can be removed, “offsets” are used to balance out, or get to zero.

Offsets are actions taken to reduce – or “offset” - the amount of GHGs emitted. For example, buying into new forest growth to store GHGs in trees in one geographic area can act to offset GHG’s emissions in another area.

Carbon neutrality, which is often used interchangeably with net zero emissions, is not exactly the same. Carbon neutrality also focuses on balancing the amount of GHGs emitted against the amount of GHGs removed from the atmosphere but does not necessarily include reducing emissions to as close to zero as possible. In Palo Alto we work hard to reduce GHG emissions to achieve our 80 x 30 goal.

Does the City have a net zero emissions or carbon neutrality goal?

In October 2022 the Palo Alto City Council passed an ambitious carbon neutral by 2030 goal, building on the City's existing goal of cutting carbon emissions 80% by 2030, relative to 1990 levels.

How are we doing on reaching our climate and sustainability goals?

Even though we have carbon-neutral electricity, the highest rate of electric vehicle ownership in the nation, and stopped burning sewage sludge, the City is not on target to meet the 80 x 30 goal.

1990 and 2020 GHG Emissions by Sector

In 2020, Palo Alto emitted an estimated 385,320 metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from the residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, waste, water, and municipal sectors. In comparison to the 1990 base year of 780,119 MT CO2e, that is a 50.6 percent decrease in total community emissions, despite a population increase of 21.8 percent during that same time period. This equates to 5.7 MT CO2e per Palo Alto resident in 2020 compared to 14 MT CO2e per Palo Alto resident in 1990. The California Air Resources Board’s 2017 Scoping Plan Update recommends local government goals of 6 MT C02e per capita by 2030. 

It is important to note, however, that 2020 was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2020 GHG inventory includes pandemic-related impacts, such as shelter-in place orders and changes in how and where people worked, resulting in emissions reductions that may be temporary. Without the effects of the pandemic, emissions reductions would be closer to a 41.9 percent decrease relative to 1990 and 6.1 percent decrease relative to 2019. The full 2020 GHG Inventory can be found in the Palo Alto 2020 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report(PDF, 354KB).

We've achieved our GHG emissions reductions to date through the introduction of carbon neutral electricity in 2013, as well as on-going 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. 

Learn more about our sustainability actions and accomplishments.

What do we need to do next?

We have already completed the easier actions. Now, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and buildings. In order to do that, we need fewer gas-powered cars driving fewer miles, more electric vehicles (including e-Bikes and e-scooters) replacing gas-powered cars, and we need appliances and systems in buildings to run on electricity instead of natural gas.

About two-thirds of the City's remaining emissions come from transportation - people driving their cars into, out of, and around Palo Alto, and delivery trucks. About one-third comes from natural gas - to heat buildings and water, to cook food, and to fuel some vehicles. 

2020 GHG Emissions by Sector

What climate and sustainability programs does the City offer residents and businesses?

The City offers a wide variety of programs, incentives, and rebates that may help you take action to enhance your own sustainability efforts. A high-level overview of the City’s various programs can be found in the Sustainability Focus Areas section of our Sustainability Home Page. In addition, the Palo Alto City Council approved numerous climate and sustainability focused Plans, Policies, and Ordinances that have helped to increase the sustainability of Palo Alto. A detailed overview of the actions that can be implemented while the S/CAP Update is in progress can be found in the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Three-year Work Plan(PDF, 211KB).

What can people do now to help the City meet its goals?

Each of us can make decisions now to help reach the 80 x 30 goal in 2030. Below are eight sustainability tips to practice in daily life.

  1. Conserve water – install a rain barrel, cistern, rain garden, pervious pavement, and find landscape efficiency rebates here. Conserving and preserving water just got easier.
  2. Walk or bike around town – reducing time spent in a car creates less traffic congestion, pollution, and promotes mental and physical health. Choose to walk and bike within Palo Alto.
  3. Take the pledge to be Idle Free - Whenever you are in your car and waiting for more than two minutes, turn off your engine to save gas and cut down on emissions.
  4. Drive an electric vehicle or ride an e-Bike – moving away from fossil fuels will reduce your carbon emissions and help the City reach its 80x30 goal.
  5. Upgrade to a heat pump water heater – electrify your home appliances! Find more information, rebates, and support here. And to maximize the benefits of electrifying your home appliances, contact the Home Efficiency Genie to learn how to insulate and seal your home.
  6. Join a community garden – not all of us are able to have a garden at home. Scattered throughout Palo Alto are plots of land dedicated to providing Palo Altans with a place to dig their hands in the soil and plant veggies, flowers, and herbs. Learn more here.
  7. Compost! Home composting is easy, fun and a great learning experience for everyone in the household. Create a sustainable and healthy place for you, your family, and the environment. Find out more about home composting here.
  8. Create defensible space around your home and/or business – it’s extremely important to prepare for wildfires, and to harden your home to increase its chance of surviving a wildfire. Learn how to create defensible space here.

You can also get involved in the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Process. 

  1. Engage with other residents and share your story at the Sustainability Hub
  2.  Join our mailing list to hear about the latest sustainability and climate news.
  3. Review the ideas generated by your fellow Palo Altans and the S/CAP team at our Sustainability and Climate Action Plan page.