VTA board approves resolution declaring climate emergency
Transit activist Monica Mallon urges the VTA board to adopt a resolution addressing climate change at a meeting February, 6, 2020. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

Two months after a multitude of environmental activists implored Silicon Valley’s mass transit agency to address the global crisis, the VTA board of directors voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency — a resolution whose chief architect says will “force the board to be more mindful” of the environmental impacts of its actions.

VTA is believed to be the first transit agency in the country to declare a climate emergency, county officials said.

The board’s decision Thursday night followed similar declarations by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the San Jose City Council last year.

“What it means in real life terms is that as the VTA board makes decisions, it should be making those decisions with climate restoration in mind,” VTA board member and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese told San José Spotlight in an interview before the board meeting.

“We’re not going to create the perfect laundry list on how to mitigate carbon emissions tonight,” continued Cortese, the resolution’s champion on the board. “The important thing is for us to be asking those questions every time, so we know that we’re doing everything we can do to restore our climate with every decision that we make.”

To that end, the resolution says VTA “staff will evaluate administrative procedures to incorporate the consideration of climate change impacts for all relevant proposed policies, programs or actions approved by the board of directors.”

But more proactively, the resolution also obligates the board to “identify specific metrics, including objectives and targets, to prioritize opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a climate action plan to guide its climate emergency response.”

Transit activist and San Jose State University student Monica Mallon praised the board for adopting the resolution. But to have a real impact, she said, the board will have to establish goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and take concrete steps to meet those benchmarks.

“The VTA will be the first transit agency to declare a climate change emergency,” Mallon said. “There is an opportunity for leadership —  the board could set an example for other agencies — but that will only happen if they follow through.”

Only time will tell whether VTA board members take their commitment to address climate change seriously enough to move the needle. But for now, Mallon says the declaration by itself is a huge win for the dozens of activists — including many students — who asked the board to adopt the resolution at its final meeting of 2019.

“This is an important step, because it is the first time since I started coming to meetings in 2018 that the VTA board voted on an action item that was suggested by the public,” Mallon told San José Spotlight. “So it is a huge step forward in terms of listening to people and responding to what they want.”

But going forward, activists and board members agree that setting a timeline to replace the VTA’s diesel-hybrid bus fleet with all-electric vehicles must be at the heart of any climate action plan the board eventually adopts.

The agency already runs five all-electric buses in its fleet of 466 vehicles. But because the electric vehicles have a range of about 200 miles and require eight hours to charge — which can only be done at one of the VTA’s depots — they are relegated to the agency’s shortest routes. For those reasons, activists and board members agree the current technology is insufficient to cover the 1,304 square-miles in the VTA’s service area.

California’s Air Resources Board set a goal two years ago for transit agencies across the state to convert their entire bus fleets to zero-carbon-emission vehicles by 2040.

Cortese, who said a green fleet would be a “top priority” for the board’s action plan, also cautioned that the VTA can’t rely on innovation to solve climate change because technology has not kept pace with the escalating crisis. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says humans must reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% in the next ten years or the catastrophic effects of climate change will become inevitable.

Despite the urgent timeline and current technological limitations, Cortese said it would be foolish for the board not to tap into the abundant resources of Silicon Valley’s tech sector to address the issue.

“We can’t innovate our way out of this, but no one is better positioned to make innovation a key feature of our approach to climate restoration,” Cortese said. “We have to challenge ourselves that way as a board.”

The resolution took effect immediately.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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