The man who made Santa Monica a leader in sustainability and helped the city prepare for climate change is retiring July 1.
Dean Kubani, the city’s chief sustainability officer, is responsible for Santa Monica’s reputation as a laboratory for innovative environmental policies that larger cities across the nation and world adopt and build upon. But after working for a quarter of a century to put Santa Monica on the path to carbon neutrality, he’s ready to take a step back from policy, start training the next generation of climate leaders and take a little time for himself.
“I’ve been at a desk for 25 years and I want to spend more time in the environment I’m working to save,” he said.
Kubani was the first person the city hired to work on sustainability. At the time, he said, most people weren’t even familiar with the concept.
“I had a lot of work to do in figuring out how to talk to people about sustainability,” he said.
Kubani’s focus on public awareness resulted in Santa Monica getting to many sustainability “firsts” before the rest of the country. Many policies Kubani spearheaded paved the way for efforts in larger cities, from Los Angeles to New York.
Soon after he started working for the city of Santa Monica, he developed the city’s sustainability plan. Adopted in 1994, it was the first such plan to link the environment with the economy and social equity, he said. A couple of years later, he began publishing an annual report card on how well the city was meeting the plan’s goals.
“Having letter grades attached to it helped people understand, and a lot of other cities have used that as a model,” he said.
Kubani knew he had to engage the city’s economy to meet the sustainability plan’s goals of diverting waste from landfills, reducing energy use and cutting down water consumption. In 1995, he worked with the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce to establish the Sustainable Quality Awards, which reward businesses for making their operations more sustainable.
“Businesses weren’t sure what sustainability was, so we made it educational,” he said. “Now, businesses one-up each other each year on who can be more sustainable.”
Although Kubani’s work is a testament to the role of individual communities in addressing climate change, his impact has been felt far beyond Santa Monica. He helped found the coaliation Green Cities California in 2007 and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network in 2008, which now encompasses 200 cities in North America.
Most recently, he played a role in creating the Clean Power Alliance, a regional coalition of cities that provides 100% renewable electricity to homes and businesses. Santa Monica opted into the CPA just this year.
And just before he retires, Kubani is leaving the city with a roadmap for the next 10 years: the Climate Action & Adaptation Plan (CAAP). The plan estimates it will take $800 million to achieve an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% below their 1990 levels by 2030 and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
“We’ve done all of the easy stuff and we’re now doing things a little less badly,” he said. “But to get to an 80% reduction in emissions, we’re going to have to transform our society.”
The CAAP aims to wean both existing and new buildings off fossil fuels, recycle or compost all waste and get drivers out of their cars. Santa Monica will stop importing water by 2023 to avoid being impacted by regional droughts, buffer the coast against flooding and protect the city’s population from extreme heat and natural disasters.
While achieving the plan’s goals will require radical societal changes, Kubani said he has no illusions that people will, for instance, start taking public transportation to prevent climate change. They will only take it if it’s easier and cheaper than driving a car — and that’s something to keep in mind about all sustainability goals, he said.
Similarly, Kubani said, the public needs to understand that while the CAAP has a high sticker price, reducing carbon emissions and planning for climate change will save money and preserve the economy in the long run.
“The city is going to spend that money anyway, but without the CAAP, it wouldn’t be spent as efficiently,” he said.
While Kubani is retiring, he won’t stop working to advance sustainability. He plans to teach and work with students in the field to launch their careers.
“When I started, I was one of the only people working on this,” he said. “People at the same career stage now are so smart and committed. Whatever I can do to get their careers going will take up most of my time.”