LOS ANGELES — It's been almost two years since Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a Green New Deal for the city. Battling climate change, he said, was not only a moral imperative but an environmental emergency and an economic opportunity. Setting an ambitious target date of 2050 to achieve a zero-carbon electrical grid, transportation system, and buildings, as well as zero waste and zero wasted water, the Green New Deal was a bold idea. So how is the city doing so far? Spectrum News 1 asked Garcetti to bring us up to speed.

This interview is the first in a weeklong series of updates on progress toward L.A.'s Green New Deal. 

What You Need To Know

  • L.A. adopted the Green New Deal in 2019

  • The plan calls for a zero-carbon electrical grid, transportation system, and buildings, as well as zero waste, by 2050

  • The goal is to combat climate change and create equitable economic opportunities simultaneously

  • COVID-19 has accelerated the accomplishment of some targets and slowed others

A lot has changed since you announced the Green New Deal, most notably COVID-19 and Joe Biden winning the presidency. Starting with COVID-19, how has that affected the city's ability to achieve some of the goals you set out?

The pandemic really laid out some of the inequities we have in our health and our neighborhoods. It's very similar because to fight a pandemic, you have to rely on professionals and data and facts and science, and it's the same thing with the climate crisis. In many ways, it lays out that we should not return to normal. We have to look at building something better. So this was a moment we could take advantage of that awareness to install more bike lanes, make more investments in zero emissions charging infrastructure, and accelerate some infrastructure projects while we were all safer at home.

When Joe Biden was running for president, he said he did not support a federal Green New Deal, but he is supporting a lot of policies to combat climate change. Do you think L.A.'s Green New Deal shows what's possible?

I think we will show our incoming president, and we'll show the world that this isn't something scary or unachievable. It will require all of us to mobilize in a way we never have before, but human beings, we want to live. We want to pass on this earth to our children and our children's children. The thing about the Green New Deal, in 2021, as part of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, we will make the biggest move of any group of government actors when 1,000 cities embrace a pledge that is actionable and is around a global Green New Deal. We'll show people that two years from now, you would laugh at anyone questioning that we would put equity and economy and environment together and that the infrastructure we need for this world to sustain it can do good for real people. This isn't just for scientists and policymakers but for people dealing with two pieces of stress: will the world still be around, and if it is, where do I fit into it? The Green New Deal shows the world a way to provide for ourselves and our families and have a great quality of life.

L.A.'s Green New Deal is pursuing four basic pillars, to reduce emissions from energy generation, transportation, and buildings, and to reduce waste to zero. What have been the easiest and most difficult pieces to tackle?

It's easy to say the goals of our Green New Deal, but they're all incredible stretch goals. The one that is the most challenging is to create an electricity grid that has no carbon emissions and that in the middle of the night or in the face of an earthquake or disaster can still be dependable. It's easy to turn on a coal or natural gas plant and have it churn out the electricity we need. Our solar project that we're building in the high desert is cheaper than a natural gas plant. It can store maybe one to two days of power. If there's an earthquake, we may need six months of power. We're proudly moving off coal at our biggest power plant in Utah with a turbine plant that can be hydrogen. We believe we'll be the first big utility to run partly on hydrogen.

Second is transportation. Everybody in this car culture of L.A. expects to go to a gas station, fill up your car, and keep going. It's just as easy to have an electric car. You can just charge it at night, and it takes two seconds to plug it in, but that draw on our grid will be immense. We have to double the amount of electricity we generate and make sure that it's renewable.

The Green New Deal is set up as a series of targets that need to be met along the way to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, including a few that were supposed to be accomplished by 2021 – phasing out styrofoam and planting 90,000 trees. Where do those stand?

There's no question the pandemic has put a lot of things on hold. Ninety-five percent of our sustainable plan goals were hit on time or early. That 5%, I'm ready to sign some things from City Council when it comes to styrofoam. We all know single-use plastics and styrofoam are terrible for our future, our water, and our health. I hope that in 2021 we can see that come forward and implement that.

And the 90,000 trees?

We are well on target to be able to get there. Whether it's 2021 or 2022, I'm not sure, but we hired our first city forest officer. The majority of trees are on private property. Street trees, we're mapping them based on what areas of town have the least tree canopy, which corresponds with income levels and communities of color. In Hancock Park, you'll see an amazing forest. Drive to the Westside, and you'll see trees everywhere in communities like Brentwood. Go to parts of the San Fernando Valley or South L.A. and Northeast parts of the city, and there's almost nothing. We're bringing equity to trees. We want to reduce the heat, and we think we can hit that goal in the next couple years.

What about phasing out natural gas appliances and moving to all-electric homes? The Green New Deal calls for all new buildings to be net-zero carbon by 2030.

We're making that commitment with our municipal buildings that we build. We're seeing cities that have started to embrace that for private and new construction, and that's something I support here too. I hope the City Council will work with us to put that forward. There's a lot of fear from people who say, 'If I'm a plumber, will I still have a job?' We want to show L.A. is not only doing the right thing for the environment but workers. I'd like not only to get victories of 'yay, we passed a law,' but have good-paying, middle class, often union jobs of today being re-trained for good, middle class, union high-paying jobs of tomorrow. We're talking to foundations and labor unions. A political victory that leaves a lot of people out of work isn't good for them or our economy. Vice versa, saying we have to preserve these old oil- and gas-based jobs will destroy our planet and make our city suffer as well. In the next year, I hope we'll see a model for private construction as well as our public buildings that also put in a model for the country of what some people call a just transition.

Part of a just transition is ensuring that workers from the fossil fuel economy still have jobs. You've said that 35,000 green jobs have been created since you've been mayor, but the Green New Deal calls for the creation of 300,000 green jobs by 2035. How does the city get to that larger goal?

We're on track to do it if we keep this pace going. Just imagine the amount of solar power we're going to be putting on rooftops around L.A. That requires new infrastructure. People have to have zero-emissions vehicles; that's mandated by the state. We'll have to build out hundreds of thousands of chargers in houses and businesses. These are great jobs. They're technical but don't require a college education. Transportation will probably be the biggest one. The question for me is who gets those jobs. Metro, we're building a school in South L.A. to prepare middle and high school students who come out of foster care or the juvenile justice system or are low income to train and prepare for green jobs of the future. People think a green job is a solar installer. These are infrastructure jobs. They maintain the system of transportation and buildings, of our electricity generation and wastewater system. We see such a transformation in these areas that we'll need these jobs. 

Your second term as mayor will end in January 2023. How confident are you that your successor will ensure the goals of the Green New Deal are met?

The Green New Deal isn't the night-time musings of Eric Garcetti, your mayor. This is and has been from the beginning a ground-up, community-driven process. We've talked to tech experts about what's achievable, and what if we doubled that, to see if we could go further than what we thought. We listened to communities in Watts and Wilmington, and Boyle Heights as part of an environmental justice movement I've worked with for years. We've listened to people who want an EV and can't afford it. I'm confident those people and the residents of L.A. will keep accountable whoever my successor is to those goals and push them even further.

This interview has been edited for brevity.