When Antonio Villaraigosa became mayor of Los Angeles, solar, wind, and geothermal power made up only about 4 percent of the city’s energy mix. As Villaraigosa prepares to leave office in July after his second term, that number has reached 20 percent.
That shift toward renewable energy is one big reason why many environmentalists give Villaraigosa good marks for his green record.
The dramatic increase in renewables, “Is quite an accomplishment and just an enormous pace of change,” says David Nahai, former general manager of the Department of Water and Power and now an environmental consultant.
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Villaraigosa supported specific projects, such as the Pine Tree Wind Farm in Tehachapi, which is the largest city-owned wind project in the country.
Nahai says the mayor also bucked federal inaction on climate and energy issues to set lofty goals for L.A., often before any laws required them.
When Villaraigosa took office in 2005, “I think at the federal level the administration was trying to lower expectations,” Nahai says. “And here in Los Angeles the mayor was telling everybody that we can do more, we can expect more of ourselves, that we can reach ever higher.”
The city won’t reach all of the goals Villaraigosa set. He wanted L.A. to get completely off of coal and to have 40 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. Neither of those things will happen. Recently Villaraigosa shifted the goal for ending the city’s use of coal to 2025.
Still, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Kristen Eberhard says the goal for renewables transformed the DWP and the city.
“Based on DWP’s past record of complying with regulations where they drag their feet and get extensions and don’t even get the minimum, they might not have even hit 20 percent if he didn’t have the goal out there,” she says.
LA has conserved more water under Villaraigosa, too. Conservation measures advocated by Villaraigosa and his appointees have pushed urban water use down about 20 percent from where it was when he took office.
There’s more work to be done on that front, says David Nahai, but he notes that rate hikes likely would be needed to pay for such things as wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, cleaning up the San Fernando Valley aquifer – and the mayor doesn’t have the power to make those things happen unilaterally.
Villaraigosa has advanced his environmental vision through his appointments to a number of boards that make key decisions about the city’s resources.
“Everybody works for the mayor,” says Tree People’s Andy Lipkis.
For example, he and others credit former Board of Public Works Commissioner Paula Daniels, who is now a Villaraigosa advisor, for leading development of an ordinance that promotes the capturing and cleaning of stormwater, instead of letting it drain untreated into the ocean.
Lipkis says other appointees found ways to encourage disparate agencies to work together. But he wishes Villaraigosa had pushed for even more collaboration on climate change.
The changing climate will bring “severe weather, drought, fire, [and] flooding,” along with the need to increase the community’s understanding and preparedness, says Lipkis. “So yeah, I wish there was more out of the box leadership.”
Nevertheless, Villaraigosa has used his bully pulpit to make fighting climate change a priority. Citywide, carbon emissions are down around 30 percent from where they were 20 years ago. That’s because of initiatives that include everything from promoting bicycling to putting the city’s fleet on natural gas.
Mark Gold, who headed the environmental group Heal the Bay, says Villaraigosa also deserves credit for his transportation policies, particularly for backing a half cent sales tax that has raised money for transit projects.
“You know he really exerted a great deal of political capital to make Measure R happen, and I think that’s really important for the city as a whole,” says Gold.
In 2006 Villaraigosa launched with much fanfare a project to plant 1 million trees in L.A. About seven years later, the city tallies around 380,000, planted at a rate six times faster than under the previous mayor.
Villaraigosa talks about growing up in a smog-choked city where schools regularly cancelled P.E. Former Toronto mayor David Miller worked with Villaraigosa when Miller chaired C40, an international coalition of large cities dealing with climate change. He likes that L.A.’s mayor considers cutting air pollution as important as fixing potholes.
“A mayor’s job is to make real practical change that people can see,” Miller said at an event with Villaraigosa at UCLA last month. “And if you grow up in a city at a time when there’s a significant smog problem it’s the mayor’s duty to try and change that. People can literally see it.”
The mayor’s office says you can see it at the Port of Los Angeles, where air pollution has been cut in half over the past five years. Villaraigosa says that’s mostly because of his Clean Trucks Program, which replaced older rigs with less polluting ones.
Some environmental activists say a downturn in global shipping and federal pollution rules have been just as important.
And the mayor does have some critics among environmentalists, including those who say he’s tarnishing his environmental legacy by supporting a $500 million railyard that would serve the ports.
Angelo Logan, an activist with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, says the project would worsen air pollution in nearby poor and minority neighborhoods.
“It defines environmental racism, and for this to happen under Mayor Villaraigosa’s watch is incredible,” Logan says. “It’s going to be a mark on his record for a lifetime.”
Despite the controversy over the railyard project, Villaraigosa will leave office with the reputation of being one of the “greenest” American mayors in recent times.