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Newsom: 'Green' tech promises not good enough

San Francisco's mayor pushes energy independence, plug-in hybrids, and taxes on carbon and gasoline, but warns of overexuberance about clean tech.

San Francisco may have shaken some flowers from its hair since hosting the first Earth Day 38 years ago, but the city continues to be named one of America's greenest. Satirists mock its politically correct "smug cloud" of eco-hipness, but many other regions tend to follow the city's environmental lead. For instance, more than a handful of U.S. cities are now mulling a ban on plastic grocery bags, first passed in San Francisco last March.

Fresh into his second term, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newson in January set goals for the city to become carbon-neutral by 2020 by retooling laws and taxes related to energy, transportation, buildings, wildlife, waste, and environmental justice. He has come under fire for dedicating more than two dozen city jobs to fighting climate change. However, the mayor maintains that government can't be aggressive enough in cleaning up its part of the planet. Newsom discussed the promises and pitfalls of green technology with CNET at City Hall on Friday.

Don't believe politicians' environmental numbers, Newsom says.
Don't believe politicians' environmental numbers, Newsom says. Corinne Schulze/CNET

Q: You talked at the Cleantech Forum (last week) about how much work remains to be done, that we're "playing in the margins."
I was just down in L.A. talking to an environmental crowd and Indiana Jones, Harrison (Ford) was there. He was sort of the original celebrity on environment. Now everyone's trying to get on the cover of Vanity Fair. Right now we're almost seeing the movement increasingly trivialized by everything turning green...every single magazine and newspaper and TV program.

It's important and powerful because it raises awareness, but it misses the point that needs to be raised, one of accountability, transparency and measurement, the hard work that needs to be done. And it's not just buying organic cereal with a recycled tote bag. So when I talk in terms of (San Francisco's) 70 percent recycling rates, the highest in the nation, I feel good about that but not great.

When I talk about how we have the most aggressive green building standards of any city in the United States of America I feel good but not great.

When we think about what we've done a day or two ago, the solar incentives we just passed--it's really landmark--I feel good but not great.

When we do what we've done with plug-in hybrids or alternative fuel and biodiesel and hybrid buses--and partnerships with information communications and technology with Cisco--and all the things we've done on hybrid taxis and congestion pricing that we've been fancying, it just feels still in the margins.

I get a little nervous when I show up at these conferences and everyone's jumping all over me to give me their plans and talk in global terms. The 'what' is never measured, the 'how-to' is never measured. Everyone's got a plan. Who cares about these damn plans? What are you doing and how did you get there? How did you really roll back your (carbon dioxide) emissions?

It's great to have green building standards but how do you get (them) into those older buildings? It's more than just lights and tailpipes of the car. It is about deforestation, which is potentially 20 percent of the CO2 problem in the world. That's pretty profound, as much as the automobile and plane and travel CO2 problem.

A big study came out about (carbon emissions of raising) cattle and meat. At all these environmental events they're all eating meat and drinking bottled water.

Not at the Cleantech Forum.
Last night--I don't want to say which bottled water because they'll get offended, but it traveled a long way. How are we environmentalists when a billion of these go into our waste stream and they last 10,000 years? Plus, there's the environmental footprint of packaging this stuff, all the oil consumption of producing the bottled water, let alone transport it.

We say we have offsets and then I find out maybe that tree was never planted...That's why we're creating a local offset thing.

Shai Agassi is an old friend. He used to be at SAP and he's doing this incredible thing. He raised a couple hundred million bucks to take the entire country of Israel and take every single automobile out of the country, converting an entire country's fleet to electric vehicles. Now we're having a conversation about real change.

We're starting to make bolder advances on (tidal and wave energy). The plug-in hybrid commitment in terms of open orders, saying. "Look, we'll commit 250 vehicles. What will you commit Oakland, San Jose, Larkspur, Corte Madera, Greenbrae, Novato and Sonoma?" And how do we get the U.S. Congress of Mayors to say, "We'll (order) 100,000 plug-in hybrids to create a market?"

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has been pushing green building and manufacturing incentives.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has been pushing green building and manufacturing incentives. Elsa Wenzel

What other regions or cities in the United States or around the world are getting it right? If San Francisco's a leader, who are you looking to?
Look what Berlin's done on solar. I never see the sun in Berlin but Germany has leapfrogged us. With congestion pricing in Singapore, they're getting it right. Portland's doing some progressive things. In Chicago Mayor Daley's done a lot of wonderful things, like work on green roofs, really raising the bar, taking an old industrial city and really increasing awareness.

Austin's done some exciting things, and New York. What Mayor Bloomerg's offering is real exciting. Mayor Nickels in Seattle, what he's trying to do is connect the dots with our local climate plans.

What kinds of "green" things do you do in your life?
My last car was an electric car, I was one of those EV-1 sad souls. We watched it get stolen, or taken back, or returned to its owner GM, and destroyed.

My next new car is the Tesla, the new green one. I can't believe I spent that much money on a car. I did it purely for the technology, out of appreciation...I'm not sure if I want to be seen driving it.

The house is energy-efficient. I got rid of water bottles not just for the city--and plastic bags--but I do that at home...I buy offsets and couldn't figure out where they were going so we set up a local offset plan, to give it back to the city.

There have been so many efforts by mayors and other regional leaders to pick up where Washington has left off. What do you hope to see with the next administration (in Washington)?
I'd like to see a prolific foreign policy that goes like this: That we are going to be energy-independent in five years. That would be the most profound foreign policy commitment that would dominantly change the face of our planet.

How likely is that?
I don't think it is. I don't care who we've got. You could have Nader or Obama or whoever you want, I'm not convinced they can do that.

Look, Democrats were jumping up and down...on CAFE standards that get our miles per gallon up to where China has been in a few years, and that's great progress and historic? We've got some problems here. You've got to be kidding me. We're talking 30, 35 miles per gallon. Technology can get us to 125 miles per gallon on these plug-in hybrids today. It's real.

We've got the biggest plug-in hybrid fleet in America, by on--a whopping three vehicles. Three. That's embarrassing. To me the big game changer will be plug-in, if you can get on the grid. We have 65,000 vehicles a year the federal government purchases. As president, open order: all plug-in hybrids.

Do an executive order: We want all LEED Gold (ratings), not Silver, on every municipal building in the United States of America. We want a carbon tax to replace the payroll tax in this country.

That's fundamental today. You get serious about a massive investment, not $5 billion--although Hillary has been specific about (that), more than others--but even more massive R&D in green tech. Get serious about subsidies in solar, wind, tidal, geothermal exploration expansion.

That's how you start. Require every gas station in the United States to offer a menu of alternatives. A gas tax, ladies and gentlemen, yes a gas tax. There's the end of my political future. Now you're getting serious.

With the Bay Area being the epicenter of clean-tech start-ups, do you see any danger of a clean-tech bubble?
It's the third largest venture capital market. It's exciting, the promise, but I don't know if we've caught up to where the money is. I'm not sure if there's a bubble per se, but we might be overexuberant in all things green.

With new technologies there may come unanticipated side effects.
You're seeing that (with the growth of biofuels)--corn's gone up by X percent and we're hurting poor people.

What new technologies might give you pause and concern that down the road there may be harmful side effects?
We should encourage failure because that's how we learn.

Now we're talking about cellulosic ethanols, switchgrass. We're getting a little smarter about it so it's not corn-based. We may not have gotten there if we hadn't made a big mistake and gotten a little crazy on corn subsidies.

I love the debate. Five years ago, we had Gov. Schwarzenegger saying, "I want to do a hydrogen highway." I went out and drank out of the tailpipe. It didn't taste that great but it was trying to make the point that hydrogen's the future. That doesn't look like it makes any sense now. But it was exciting.

Environmental justice was one of the key items on your roadmap last month. The Bay Area is an extremely expensive place to live. What kinds of things could be done here?
The key is workforce training. As we spend all this VC money, we have billions of dollars, disproportionate up here in Northern California. Where's that money going? Who's the beneficiary? Who are the folks on the frontlines? Green-collar could replace that blue-collar job that's outsourced. Someone's got to install it, someone's got to install it here.

We're doing it with our City Build Academy, with our partners in community colleges really focusing on clean tech.

I want to create new tax incentives for businesses that hire folks coming out in these green-tech fields, not just a payroll tax incentive if you're a green-tech company, but specific credits...with heavy recruitment, emphasis, heavy focus, getting it in the high schools....I work with Van Jones, he's just the best on these things.

Four out of five toxic waste dumps are in African-American neighborhoods in this country. Even in San Francisco, where's our sewage treatment plant, our power plant? Where is the shipyard and all the contaminants?...It's an outrage.

The fact that you go (out) to dinner tonight, the meal has traveled 1,800 miles to get to your plate, is ridiculous in agriculture-rich northern California. We've got to create a narrative of health and well-being, you know, with edible schoolyards, and getting our kids good salad bars this year.

Mayor Will Wynn of Austin, Tex., is also recognized for policies to curb carbons.
Mayor Will Wynn of Austin, Tex., is also recognized for policies to curb carbons. Gregory Wenzel

What do you wish reporters would ask more about? You talk about running the numbers.
Even people like me, I don't believe some of my own numbers. It's not as if it's intentional. It's not as if my folks are just making it up--they're not.

We had this whole focus on cap and trade. You can't have a cap-and-trade system unless you have measured what you're going to trade and cap, and how you independently determine with veracity what you're admitting. There are a lot of fits and starts but how do you aggregate it?

There's the California Climate (Action) Registry and we're the first city to participate. It's not perfect but it's a great start.

(You should) say, look: "I'm impressed that you came up with a global climate action plan in 2008. Now show me the implementation plan."

We've got to walk our talk and support these emerging economies in leapfrog technologies so they don't make the same mistakes we did. But we can't do it with a straight face unless we demonstrate leadership, and this country has not.

(China is) building these green cities that are completely 100 percent net neutral carbon, hell, with some generating energy. They've still got too many power plants, too many cars now but in many respects they are leading.

With threats looming of stagflation and global recession, what role could Silicon Valley play?
What's the primary force of inflation right now? It's gas, oil. I mean, jeez, if you want to deal with stagflation, get back to the energy independence thing and not $102 dollars per gallon.

You want to deal with stagflation, then let's get serious around sustainability, about building homes where energy costs are not higher, they're lower, so people can stay in their homes even when their mortgage goes up.

The yellow dots represent buildings with solar power in San Francisco. San Francisco Solar Map

To play devil's advocate, even at the Cleantech Forum some people were saying, "Maybe global warming isn't happening." If it's not true, then what good is all of this new technology?
Why should we breathe the fumes of other people's cars? Why not clean the air? Even if there's not global warming, there's an inherent benefit that accrues in terms of health care costs. Taxpayers are all the beneficiaries.

Why wouldn't we do green buildings to reduce our energy costs? Do we like not being able to develop on Hunter's Point Shipyard? Why wouldn't we want to invest in technologies to clean up toxic waste so that at least we can create an economic stimulus and take back some of those problems?

There's nothing we're doing that we shouldn't be doing anyway. Period.

What kind of gadgets do you have?
The only thing I have is an iPod, which is my iPhone, for no other reason than I really think it's cool. I used to have a BlackBerry but then the press sunshined my e-mails. I got rid of it: no computer, no BlackBerry.

We had everything exaggerated with the Wi-Fi thing with Google. On the front page of the newspaper was the actual e-mails between Google and myself. It was horrible. Now they won't e-mail back here, I can't even communicate, it was that bad..

Are you going to get a Macbook Air?
I am. I want that.