San Diego Joins the Ranks and Passes Plant-Forward Climate Policy

Last Tuesday, August 2, San Diego’s City Council unanimously voted to pass an updated version of the city’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). The new plan establishes a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, committing San Diego to a more accelerated reduction trajectory than in previous climate resolutions. In addition to the climate movement’s usual focus on energy and infrastructure (e.g., electrifying the municipal fleet, capturing methane at wastewater treatment plants), the comprehensive plan contains a brief but historic commitment to sustainable eating. Yes, tucked within the plan’s 200+ pages are a pledge to reduce the city’s meat- and dairy-related emissions — and water footprint — by 20 percent. Despite the sparse mentions in the body of the text, the CAP’s plant-based commitment actually has the power to achieve extraordinary results… which is exactly why we fought to make it happen.

Since the CAP draft was first posted online in November, more than 4,000 San Diegans reached out to the council with feedback, sharing their needs, concerns, and priorities. In person and in writing, birders called for wetland restoration, foresters bemoaned canopy regulatory fees, and residents of the historically neglected Logan Heights neighborhood shared tales of chronic health issues owing to air pollution. Indeed, many of the CAP’s climate solutions are directly attributable to the San Diegans fighting for their city’s future. The council’s recognition of the animal agriculture-climate link is no happy accident; it is the fruit of much labor. A broad coalition of more than 20 local organizations led by the Better Food Foundation attended meetings, submitted hundreds of comments, and published an op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune advocating for a shift to plant-based defaults. The Council listened.

Californians know all too well the consequences of climate change: over 75,000 acres have burned this summer according to Cal Fire reports, and the state government runs a website devoted specifically to drought assistance. As President Biden weighs the merits of declaring a nationwide climate emergency, many San Diegans are already living one. That’s precisely what makes tractable, high-impact climate solutions more necessary than ever.

Every meal we eat is an opportunity to live sustainably, and city leaders are starting to make use of that immense potential. San Diego follows in the footsteps of Washington, DC, which in 2021 became the nation’s first city to pass legislation targeting food-related emissions. The capital’s Green Food Purchasing Act made headlines for its explicit focus on food procurement, but dozens of cities from coast to coast have reoriented toward a more plant-forward food system in one way or another. As DC works to transform its jail and hospital food, New York City has already rolled out “plant-powered Fridays’’ in public schools, and California’s Public Employees’ Retirement System chose to divest over $600 million from factory farming.

For public health and for planetary health, community leaders are pivoting away from animal products and toward a cleaner diet. The future is plant-based, and we’re ringing it in one city at a time. As San Diego city council works to draw up implementation plans, we will continue to encourage them to enact plant-based defaults, confident that harnessing the power of defaults would help them soar past their reduction targets. A company with 1,000 employees serving a default veg lunch daily can save 350,000 kg of CO2e and 9 million gallons of water per year — a larger impact than installing low-flow toilets or solar panels. San Diego hired more than 1,000 new employees just in the past twelve months; the untapped potential is staggering.

Join us in celebrating the passage of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, and sign up for our newsletter to stay in touch as we continue to move San Diego in a plant-forward direction.

Mikhala Kaseweter is the DefaultVeg Campaigns Fellow at the Better Food Foundation

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Shifting culture towards greater acceptance of plant-based eating for our health, animals, and the planet. See more of our work at betterfoodfoundation.org!