Zimmerman: San Jose needs your help tackling climate change
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

San Jose recently announced that it is aiming for carbon neutrality in 2030, instead of a goal for 2050 as other cities are setting. This gives the city eight short years to change habits and policies that people have developed over many decades.

Unsurprisingly, when asked if I thought this goal was achievable, I answered “no.”

Reaching carbon neutrality is a huge ask and such an ambitious goal appeared, at least to me, to be based on hope rather than actual plans. But, as it turns out, there are plans. And good ones.

After a long conversation with Kerrie Romanow, the city’s chief sustainability officer, I am changing my answer to a hopeful “maybe.”

As director of San Jose’s Environmental Services Department, Romanow is in charge of Climate Smart San Jose, the city’s climate action plan. Climate Smart San Jose was adopted by the City Council in 2018 and designated by the city as “how we are doing our part to address climate change.”

That is a very broad mandate, but Romanow is no stranger to large projects. She currently oversees 570 employees and the city’s garbage/recycling services and wastewater treatment facility, among other programs. San Jose also has a strong history of leading on climate. In fact, the only reason my answer isn’t an emphatic “yes” is the people of San Jose haven’t yet stepped up.

Climate Smart San Jose has already made progress

Romanow noted attitudes toward climate change are evolving.

“People thought we had more time than we do,” she told me.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, recent weather and more frequent natural disasters have started to change these views. Now, she said, the belief that “we need to do more, faster, is prevalent in the community.” It’s up to Climate Smart San Jose to create the framework on how the city will reach the new goal of 2030, and to do so, the focus has shifted to few, but larger and more impactful, actions.

The initiative has already successfully pushed the city to ban natural gas in new buildings, pass reach codes requiring solar readiness in non-residential buildings and enact a heat pump water heater rebate program. The next goal is to fast-track building retrofits. Existing buildings account for 30% of the city’s carbon emissions, so retrofitting buildings with better insulation and all-electric appliances would create local jobs, reduce electricity costs and have a measurable reduction on carbon emissions.

There are also broader issues that Climate Smart San Jose seeks to address. San Jose is still a “bedroom community” and many residents commute long distances to work. The job to housing ratio in the city needs balance to make it easier for people to work where they live.

This can be done through the densification of jobs in the city, either filling in existing space with a mix of homes and businesses, building on already zoned land with less emphasis on parking and more access to public transport or by building on already zoned land. Less commuting equals lower carbon emissions as well as an improved quality of life.

San Jose residents are the key to success

While Climate Smart San Jose is doing a lot, to succeed the city needs the support of residents. Right now, residents could do more.

Only 750 households signed up for the Climate Smart Challenge, far short of the goal of 1,000. This challenge helps households and commercial or municipal properties take simple steps to reduce climate impact. If you haven’t already, go renewable with 100% carbon free energy. The Climate Smart Challenge has a host of other ways to reduce your climate impact.

Residents can also take part in a GoGreen Team, the City’s new team-based community engagement strategy to support Climate Smart. The city is looking to recruit 50 more leaders over the next month to teach their neighborhoods about climate solutions, disaster preparedness and take action to create a healthier and more resilient community. Are you up to the challenge?

If you are able, consider hosting a house party in a non-English language and advocating to your community and neighbors. There are currently supporting materials in both Spanish and Vietnamese.

“The climate crisis requires urgent action, and our community is ready for the challenge,” said Romanow. “We’re all in this together. Our success depends upon the city, residents, businesses and community-based organizations to work together, and I know we can do it.”

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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