How San Jose plans to be carbon neutral in nine years
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

    San Jose pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030, but the feasibility of this ambitious goal is still up in the air.

    The City Council voted unanimously to approve the pledge on Nov. 9. To be carbon neutral, the city needs to either offset all carbon emissions to reach a net-zero, or eliminate carbon emissions entirely.

    San Jose declared a climate emergency back in 2019 and is the largest city in the United States to set a carbon neutral goal for 2030. Other major cities like New York City plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

    The City Council adopted the Climate Smart San Jose plan in 2018 to fulfill the Paris Agreement commitment. The goal of that plan was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 80% below 1990s levels by 2050. The new, accelerated carbon neutral pledge will adapt the same strategies to meet the 2030 goal.

    There already are local laws in place requiring all-electric energy in new construction, EV charging stations at residential buildings and hotels and solar readiness on non-residential buildings.

    The city is expected to present detailed plans on going carbon neutral in June 2022. San Jose’s Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow said the city needs outside nonprofit funding to put those plans in motion. Climate Smart San Jose previously received a Bloomberg grant, which may be renewable.

    “We know that all this work can be expensive, but the cost of not doing it will be even higher. There are many potential partners out there to help cities fund this vital work, including the private sector,” San Jose Councilmember David Cohen told San José Spotlight. Cohen is confident the funding is out there because Ithaca, New York has been able to raise $100 million for its decarbonization efforts.

    Councilmember Matt Mahan is working with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services to compare gas-powered and electric leaf blowers. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Ride the green lane

    Switching to greener modes of transportation is a critical part of the carbon-neutral plan.

    “Transportation is 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in San Jose, and the city hasn’t made a lot of progress in this area at all,” said Erin Zimmerman, a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project Silicon Valley Chapter and San José Spotlight environmental columnist.

    Last week, councilmembers highlighted the importance of increasing access to electric vehicle charging stations in the city. Romanow echoed that recommendation and is optimistic about the continued adoption of electric vehicles.

    “The cost of a used electric vehicle is going down,” she said. “With high gas prices, electric vehicles are becoming the more financially sensible option.”

    The Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund is providing technical support to the city to tackle commercial vehicle emissions through a one-year accelerator program designed to help cities work toward 100% zero-emission commercial vehicles.

    “By reducing emissions from commercial vehicles, San Jose can make progress toward its ambitious climate goals and tackle air quality issues that are especially pervasive in communities near freeways and freight hubs,” said Nadia Perl, Action Fund spokesperson for western regional issues.

    The other component of reducing carbon emissions pertains to public transportation. VTA is working on minimizing its carbon footprint.

    “Some of the actions in the plan include building a network of complete streets that promote walking and biking, increasing transit frequency and reliability, and advancing projects like the BART extension to downtown San Jose,” said a statement from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority Environmental Programs Department.

    Many of these climate-friendly initiatives rely on San Joseans using alternative forms of transportation and energy sources. Public transportation has not been a go-to choice for San Jose commuters. The current infrastructure is lacking, with lengthy travel times and limited routes. At most, only 12% of the city population has used public transit, with 75% of trips taken in cars. But new federal infrastructure funds may change that. The $7 million BART to San Jose project will extend to downtown, and Caltrain will electrify its rail system with the help of $2 billion in federal funding.

    A VTA light rail train arrives at the Metro/Airport station in San Jose. Photo by Marie Louise Leone.

    Buildings need upgrades

    With the focus on transportation, Cohen wants to ensure the council doesn’t overlook buildings, which account for approximately 30% of carbon emissions. He is specifically focused on retrofitting existing buildings to be carbon-free.

    “We need to help owners of buildings find ways to reduce their impact by fixing areas of inefficiency, improving insulation, upgrading appliances and switching from gas to electric,” Cohen said.

    San Jose has seen success with other green initiatives before.

    San Jose Clean Energy started servicing homes in February 2019 and cut the carbon emissions of their electricity portfolio down by 35% in 2020. By the end of 2022, San Jose Clean Energy’s new solar, wind, and battery storage projects will produce enough renewable energy annually to power 300,000 San Jose homes. San Jose Clean Energy is projected to offer 90% carbon-free energy under its standard service used by most customers, spokesperson Kate Ziemba told San José Spotlight.

    Romanow expects changes in homes, transportation and essentials will be highly market-driven. For example, the phasing out of gas-powered utilities and tools in 2024 will force people to buy alternatives.

    “Climate change is going to affect all of us, so we all have an incentive to do our part and make these changes,” she said.

    Contact Kristen Pizzo at [email protected]

    San Jose's strategies to reach carbon neutrality by 2030

    • Switching to renewable energy for clean electricity
    • Creating low water-use landscapes
    • Densifying the city for improved walkability and bike-ability
    • Building energy-efficient, fully electric homes
    • Promoting the adoption of electric vehicles
    • Ensuring access to integrated public transportation
    • Creating local jobs to cut down on commutes
    • Making commercial buildings high performance with lower water and energy use
    • Transporting commercial goods across the city more efficiently
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