Q&A with Anne Stausboll

In 2018, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and then-West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon launched the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change to develop a comprehensive strategy for helping their cities achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. Anne Stausboll, the retired CEO of CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System), was tapped to lead the effort. In addition to heading up the largest public pension fund in the United States from 2009 to 2016, she served a decade as chair of the Boston-headquartered nonprofit Ceres, which seeks to combat climate change through financial markets. The 19-person climate commission presented its findings to the Sacramento City Council last August, unanimously adopting a report Stausboll calls “ambitious” in its recommendations.
Stausboll Anne Webres Final
Portrait courtesy of CALPERS

In their charge to the commission, the two mayors described climate change as an “existential crisis.” How did you go about breaking down such a massive threat into individual problems to be solved?

Our mandate was to come up with high-level strategies that would enable the cities to reach carbon zero. So we broke that down by looking at the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In Sacramento, over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, and close to 40% are from buildings, so we focused on those two areas as ways of getting the biggest bang for the buck in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And then the third area that we focused on, we called “community health and resiliency,” and that’s really about adaptation to the impacts of climate change that are coming—really preparing the city, especially our vulnerable communities, for that. Whether or not we reduce emissions, there will be impacts. We’re already seeing them.

When people hear “reducing vehicle emissions,” electric cars are often the first thing they think of—maybe followed by buses or light rail. Is it really just about transitioning away from gas-burning cars or is it more complex than that?
I’d go broader than transitioning away from gas-burning cars. The vision of the commission is really to move away from a car-centric transportation policy. What we recommended was something we call a green mobility hierarchy—that the first priority should be on active transportation, which is walking, biking or any kind of [self-propelled] rolling. The next level would be public transit and shared transit, and striving for that to be electric. And the third level would be the zero-emission vehicles. But as you say, it’s not as simple as just replacing the cars on the road with electric vehicles. You want to end up with fewer cars on the road.

At the Nov. 10 Sacramento City Council meeting, Mayor Steinberg cited his desire to move forward with “slow streets” [which prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists over vehicles on select streets by prohibiting through-traffic] and pop-up protected bike lanes [paths with a physical barrier from car traffic], but most major cities installed these at the beginning of the pandemic last spring. Why do you think this is an aspect of carbon reduction Sacramento has been slow to embrace?
It sounds like it’s because of funding. At that meeting, the mayor asked the city to identify $100,000 to get a start, I think with the hope that the neighborhood associations would also contribute. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the community for slow streets. There’s one little block in midtown right now that’s been shut down [20th Street between J and K streets] and the restaurants have seating out in the street, and it’s a very vibrant block. The other benefit of slow streets is that, besides making it easier for people to walk and bike, it’s an advantage to the business owners because they can use the street space during Covid.

It’s an idyllic kind of vision! It’s a European sidewalk cafe sort of feeling.
Very much so. Just to clarify the process: The commission recommended the high-level strategies, and then these implementation tactics—things like slow streets— were recommended by the three technical expert groups that we put together. There were over 100 experts involved. On top of slow streets, they also recommended doing car-free districts on the weekends in areas where there are businesses, restaurants and arts and culture, similar to the slow streets idea. It’s like the vision we have of a place like Amsterdam.

That’s exactly the city that popped into my head.
And we have the right climate for it—not climate in the “climate change” sense, but we can be outside close to year-round here, so it’s really the right venue.

Did the protected bike lane idea come up in any of the smaller groups that you had formed?
There was a lot of focus on the fact that creating the infrastructure for that should be a priority. I’m fortunate to live in the Pocket neighborhood, where we have a lot of bike lanes and parks and greenbelt space, but there are a lot of neighborhoods in the city where the streets are not safe for or conducive to walking or biking and other forms of active transportation. So something we would really like the city to do is assess the neighborhoods to identify where that infrastructure for active transportation is inadequate and to take steps there.

I know that building electrification is a big part of the recommendations from the commission. What does that look like? Why is electricity so much better than natural gas?
In Sacramento, electricity comes from SMUD. I don’t know the exact percentage, but a fair amount comes from renewables, as opposed to gas, and SMUD has made a commitment to be 100% renewable by 2040. So the electricity within a couple of decades will be fully powered by renewable energy, and that’s why it makes sense to go electric.

We want to start transitioning now, because if we keep building with gas lines, we’ll have all these buildings that are exuding greenhouse gas emissions with a fairly long life attached to them, so it makes more sense to build them electric from the get-go. And the great news is that SMUD reports that currently for low-rise buildings, which we defined as three stories and under, it’s more cost-effective for the builder to build electric because they don’t have to put in the gas line—and it’s also less expensive for the residents in terms of their monthly bills. [Converting from gas to electric can lower utility bills by an average of over $500 per year, according to SMUD.] So the exciting thing is that the city is moving ahead with a building electrification ordinance, and I think the current schedule for that is they hope to bring it to the council in March.

And we’re talking about both residential buildings and office buildings?
Everybody. The idea is that as you replace your HVAC, your water heater, your stove, your washer-dryer, everything goes to electric. For example, if people replace their stove right now, it would be great to get an induction cooktop because it’s electric and it cooks really well. I don’t think people know about all the SMUD rebates available. [The utility company currently offers a $750 rebate for those who replace their gas ranges with induction cooktops.] So there’s a lot of education needed to make these things happen.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as the chair of the commission?
The commission, from the very beginning, made a determination that we wanted to review and consider everything through a lens of [racial and income] equity. Where do you do the slow streets? We don’t want them to just be done in the affluent neighborhoods. That’s one of our recommendations to the cities: that they need to do so also, and that equity really comes first and foremost. What was tricky about it was really figuring out what that meant [in the context of climate change], and how should that be operationalized, and how to do it in a way that was meaningful to the people who are affected.

Mayor Steinberg described the “green workforce” as a concept to put more “oomph” on and said it was “our signature activity to meld economic development and climate.” What are some ways you think the city can spotlight this effort? After all, you need people to actually plant the trees and electrify the buildings.
Those are really good examples. I would add to it building infill affordable housing, because we need the housing and we want it to be in existing development areas so that we don’t increase sprawl. It really hits three issues: the need for housing, the need for jobs and climate change.

How is climate change affecting Sacramento specifically?
The air quality in the Sacramento region is the fifth worst in the country. We already have the wildfires [all around us], which are so bad for the air, and the greenhouse gas emissions are a huge contributor to the air quality. And then we’re going to continue to see rising temperatures. The last couple of summers in particular, we’ve seen how hot it’s been. 

What do you think is going to be the city’s biggest hurdle to achieving carbon neutrality by 2045?
The council has a lot of competing considerations that they’re working on, and the challenge for them is to really envision a transformation in the city and to embrace the idea that by acting on these climate recommendations, they are simultaneously addressing a lot of other issues, including the housing crisis and need for jobs and need for improved health. The challenge is seeing all of those things as being integrated, as opposed to competing for the same money.

Do you have hope that we’re going to turn things around?
Yes, I have hope. One thing that gives me hope is seeing how many people are working on this issue locally, statewide and nationally. There’s a lot of passion around it. And I think it’s becoming more real to people, unfortunately. I think as people have lived through the heat and the fires, it feels pretty real.

I saw the word “urgent” used many times throughout the climate change commission’s report. Was that choice of language deliberate?

Would you mind elaborating on that?
Well, it is a crisis situation, and we need to act now. We want the city to start seriously adopting and acting on the recommendations. Now. It’s not something that can wait.