June 26, 2014

Friendly approach likely for clean air effort in Merced

Merced has started to discuss its redesigned climate plan. The members of the advisory board talk about some of the challenges of implementing practices to improve air and reduce emissions.

It’s still early in the process, but officials say they are leaning toward a friendlier approach, rather than strict requirements, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Merced.

About a dozen people participated in a focus group meeting last week, where they began to iron out the best way for Merced to meet its goal by 2020 of reducing emissions to below the 1990 level.

Merced’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in late 2012, includes about 150 different ways residents, businesses and city leaders can reduce emissions and protect the city’s air and water. The focus group is charged with helping city leaders make decisions on which efforts make sense in Merced.

One of those decisions is how hard the city should pursue any changes to building codes, existing homes and transportation, among other infrastructure. The city could push for changes through simple encouragement, offering incentives or passing mandatory legislation.

Mayor Stan Thurston, who is also a member of the focus group, said some mandatory changes could be realistic without becoming too onerous on new development. For example, requiring new development to have energy- and water-efficient fixtures might be a good idea, he said. “But, we can only force so much (before) the cost gets so much that nobody wants to do it at all,” he said.

Rancho Cordova-based PMC Inc. is working for the city to help weigh the options in the plan. According to numbers from the firm, 45 percent of the emissions in Merced County come from cars and trucks, 30 percent from the energy used by buildings other than homes, and 20 percent from houses and apartments. Solid waste, water and other machinery make up the rest of the polluters.

The production of electricity creates greenhouse gases, and those emissions count against the city’s numbers.

Bill King, principal planner for the city of Merced and project manager for the city’s climate action plan, said getting people to change their habits is always a difficult task. So finding ways to make existing buildings more efficient could be the city’s best bet.

Peter Padilla, who sits on the focus group and is also a planning commissioner, said the group leaned “heavily” toward incentives or encouragement. He said mandates would likely not go over well in Merced.

Regardless, he said, residents would benefit from reducing emissions in town. “It’s hard to object to clean air, but there is a cost,” he said. “So, how far are we willing to go?”

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, a process tied to global climate change. According to a 2010 survey by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 percent of scientists agree climate change is man-made.

The city plans four more focus group meetings, but the dates remain undetermined.

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