Sustainable LA: Now there's a grand challenge

jc-mg-200-names.jpgWhen we started writing this column for LA Observed earlier this fall, we promised our editor, our readers, and ourselves that we would not write too much about our day jobs at UCLA, where we're both in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. But we have a big, hairy, audacious goal we just have to share with you.

Last week, UCLA announced a grand challenge--a major research initiative throwing the full weight of the university behind an effort to wean LA completely of imported water and become fully reliant on renewable energy by 2050, while preserving biodiversity and improving the quality of life in the city. More than 70 researchers from all over campus--from law, policy, conservation biology, engineering, humanities, climate science, public health, urban planning, and other disciplines--are lined up to contribute to the multi-disciplinary research required to develop a plan, technologies, and public engagement strategies for "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles" that will all be delivered to the city in 2019 and will map out the path ahead for the following decades.

royce300.jpgObviously, this is not something the university can do alone. Getting there will also require partnerships and collaborations with local, state, and federal government, businesses, other universities, and community groups. Those partnerships and collaborations are already starting to come together. Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged the city's full support for this grand challenge last week, and he was joined by county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and city council member Paul Koretz, as well businessman and philanthropist Tony Pritzker. "Let's get it done!" Garcetti told UCLA chancellor Gene Block and a group of university leaders, researchers, and donors gathered to kick off the $150 million fund-raising campaign.

Can we get it done? With the pending impacts of a hotter climate and sea level rise, more wildfires, and less water from snowpack, one could simply argue that we have no choice. We have to get it done.

UCLA climate scientist Alex Hall is already working with the city to bring climate change predictions down to the neighborhood level. His research indicates that LA will get hotter between now and 2050--and inland areas will get much hotter--no matter what we do to reduce our carbon emissions. So we have to adapt to make our cities more livable in a hotter climate and protect the biodiversity and natural areas we have in the region. But we also need to do more to reduce emissions between now and 2050 or things will get much, much hotter after that.

We're on track to meet California's 2020 renewable portfolio standard requirement that 33 percent of our energy comes from renewables, and to phase out coal in the next decade or so, but we need a strategy to kick fossil fuels completely. Despite an incredible success story in reducing smog here in LA, we still have the worst air quality of any major city in the United States. And our metropolitan region has far too many communities suffering from disproportionate environmental health risks. We need to develop a diverse portfolio of clean, renewable energy-- solar, wind, geothermal, waste to energy, renewable gases--and a smarter distribution system with enhanced storage, smart grids, and electrified transportation.

Approximately 89 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away and those supplies are threatened by climate change, as well as the increasing need to protect the environment in those places: Owens Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the Colorado River. LA residents use less water than other residents of big cities in the United States, but we still use more water than other comparable cities in Europe. We need to figure out how to capture much more stormwater and store it locally, clean up contaminated groundwater in the San Fernando Valley, recycle and reuse wastewater, develop economical, environmentally sound desalination, and conserve even more.

LA is a global biodiversity hotspot. Our Mediterranean ecosystems support amazingly diverse animal and plant life, both native and non-native. But too many of our native animal and plant species are threatened, and climate change will endanger even more. We need better strategies to assess and manage species and habitat in metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles, using tools such as remote sensing, conservation genomics, and citizen science.

Right now LA is a living laboratory for the challenges facing large urban areas all over the world. Our goal is to make LA a model. Urban sustainability is one of the grand challenges of our time. More than half of the people on Earth now live in cities. And virtually all of the population growth expected between now and 2050 will be absorbed by cities. That means the urban built environment on the planet will double in that time. How that happens will fundamentally shape how people live with each other and with nature in the future here in LA and around the world.

UCLA's Royce Hall turns green. Todd Cheney/UCLA Photography.

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