Santa Clara County’s long-awaited sustainability plan prioritizes economy, environment and equity
Public comments lasted longer than 45 minutes in support of Supervisor Dave Cortese's climate emergency declaration. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Santa Clara County is doubling down on addressing climate change as an emergency, rather than a far-off threat.

At its last meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved the county’s master plan for sustainability, which has been about five years in the making. The plan commits to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, electrifying more buildings and planting 3,000 trees within the next three years to improve air quality and increase local carbon sequestration.

“Climate change, unlike the pandemic, unfolds in slow motion,” said Jasneet W. Sharma, director of the county’s Office of Sustainability. “Often it feels that individual actions don’t matter. So it’s all the more essential for action at both the policy and the individual scale.”

The plan builds on many changes the county has already made and weaves them into one, cohesive picture. For example, in 2018, the county committed to reaching net carbon neutrality by 2045. Carbon neutrality means carbon emissions are balanced with removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

Sharma told San José Spotlight that the COVID-19 pandemic was sort of a “dress rehearsal” for the climate challenges that lie ahead. And indeed, changes that have occurred because of the pandemic have informed the county’s commitments.

There was a nearly 34% increase in employee telecommuting in the South Bay since shelter-in-place orders were issued in March. The county will now continue to encourage telecommuting, according to the plan. If maintained, the approximately one-third reduction in vehicles is equivalent to removing 7,300 passenger vehicles from the road each year.

Racial and socioeconomic equity also play a big part in the county’s plans.

“Despite our explosive county growth, air and water quality have continued to improve,” Sharma told supervisors. “But we still need actions to address the challenges posed by climate change and the disparities posed by urban heat, air and water pollution, and even access to recreational resources.”

Katherine Cushing, an environmental science professor at San Jose State, said the county’s plan is “one of the more novel efforts” at creating a road map toward change.

“There is definitely a huge benefit to organize information at the level of the county,” Cushing said. “Because so often when we look at sustainability efforts, it’s so piecemeal and it’s hard to get a picture of what’s going on.”

It’s particularly difficult to paint that picture with a county as large and diverse as Santa Clara County. Achieving the plan’s goals, however, is going to require massive amounts of collaboration with community based organizations and county residents, she said.

“You need those people to engage with you to figure out what’s going on,” Cushing said.

County supervisors were largely enthusiastic about the plan, but thought it could be even better. Supervisor Otto Lee said he’d like to see the county be “a little more aggressive,” while Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said she worried sustainability and equity might not be entirely compatible.

“(Telecommuting) can be terrific environmentally and certainly benefits higher wage employees,” Ellenberg said. “But with more people telecommuting, the fewer support people we would need in our buildings, so that could lead to job loss.”

Another example, Ellenberg said, would be new standards for the county using sustainable vendors. One goal of the plan is to create incentives for county contractors to use sustainable materials, and create a sustainable purchasing policy countywide.

“We have a real commitment to choosing small, local, minority-owned vendors,” Ellenberg said. “(But) those might not be the most sustainable product.”

Sharma said some of the goals are open to change or adjustment. As for sustainable vendors, she said the county should help play a role in helping small, local businesses grow to meet the county’s sustainability goals.

The Sierra Club, a national grassroots environmental organization, supported the plan supervisors approved. In a Jan. 11 letter signed by Gladwyn d’Souza, Gita Dev and Kristel Wickham, leaders from the club’s local Loma Prieta chapter, the three highlighted the urgency of the current climate crisis.

“We live in a climate crisis that threatens the survival of organized human life on Earth,” the letter said. “However, strong climate policies from Bay Area jurisdictions are already influencing state level policy.”

Amid widespread county budget cuts, the Sierra Club letter still asked for more resources to go toward the county’s battle against climate change.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming is set to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052 if emissions run unchecked. That increase is likely to cause a sort of domino effect of climate catastrophes including extreme weather events and rising sea levels, threatening billions of lives and causing trillions in damage.

“The county should strengthen its role as a climate leader by providing increased funding, personnel and autonomy to the Office of Sustainability,” the activists wrote. “The climate crisis requires large actions to be taken quickly; the county should dedicate adequate resources to support necessary climate action.”

The sustainability office will launch a dashboard in March so residents can track the county’s progress on its sustainability goals.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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