San José Council Votes to Go Carbon Neutral by 2030

This blog was co-written by Sarah Elkotbeid.

San Jose, the nation’s 10th largest city, has emerged as a climate leader in recent years, including by becoming the biggest city in the United States to make almost all new buildings all-electric. But the City’s work isn’t done, as its leaders know. On November 8, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution to go carbon neutral by 2030.  

Though NRDC and partners urged the City to be clear that carbon neutral meant zero emissions, city staff said that at this point the resolution would likely include offsets. However, this will still require dramatic cuts in emissions.

Uladzik Kryhin/123RF

The global climate crisis is here; cities must act

The global climate crisis has already begun impacting millions of people. We are all feeling the effects: rising temperatures, more frequent and intense flooding, extensive wildfires, and unpredictable extreme weather. 

Just over the past year, residents of San Jose were hit by smoke from fires, record heat, heat-induced power outages, and drought. This will get worse if left unchecked. Projections for San Jose include threats from sea level rise and more frequent and severe heat waves. In San Jose as elsewhere, historically underserved communities are hit hardest. Communities of Black, brown, and Asian American residents in San Jose already bear higher asthma rates, greater exposure to extreme heat and air pollution, and more unaffordable energy costs. Climate change is making this worse. 

Now, San Jose is acting to protect its residents. City action matters. Cities can innovate and move faster, often, than states and nations. And city action adds up. San Jose is one of 25 cities selected as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge: when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate accord, these cities said “we are still in,” and together—despite a pandemic—took significant action to reduce emissions and uphold those Paris commitments.

San Jose is ready, and residents will benefit

In 2018, San Jose’s City Council passed Climate Smart San Jose, a plan for reducing emissions across sectors by 80 percent by 2050. But the pace and the power of climate change has increased faster than we all expected. That’s why San Jose, like many other cities, declared a Climate Emergency in 2019. To avoid a tipping point into disaster, as climate change accelerates, so must the speed of the response.

San Jose’s city leaders showed that they are not merely declaring an emergency, they are acting on it, by passing this carbon neutral resolution.

San Jose is not the only city taking this step; Los Angeles recently became the nation's largest city to do so. And while bold, San Jose's new goal builds on a solid foundation. San Jose has been systematically addressing its two biggest sources of emissions: buildings and transportation. It’s gotten fossil fuels largely out of new buildings and is considering programs that equitably support reducing emissions in existing buildings, the source of a third of the city’s emissions. To make transportation more sustainable, it’s building out a nation-leading 400-mile bike network and won inclusion in the Delivering Zero Emissions Communities accelerator program to cut emissions from freight.

All these climate policies are making San Jose a safer, more affordable, and healthier place to live. For example, cutting freight emissions reduces air pollution, an especially heavy burden on residents of many underserved neighborhoods. Better bike lanes and public transit also help clean up the air and reduce traffic. More efficient appliances like heat pumps help cut energy costs. Climate-friendly infrastructure projects create local jobs. 

Key components of reaching the goal

The biggest sources of emissions in San Jose are transportation and buildings. There are two areas here of particular interest. 

Freight: The City is working to cut freight emissions from trucks. By focusing on freight emissions in particular, the City will take a significant step in reducing not only climate impacts but in reducing the many other environmental harms that are concentrated in historically disadvantaged communities.

Existing buildings: San Jose has done much to ensure new construction is energy efficient and all-electric. But meeting the resolution’s big goal will demand that San Jose leaders focus attention and resources on getting fossil fuels out of existing buildings—and doing it equitably, which means planning with the community, supporting building owners who need help, and helping local workers get the training needed to do these jobs. City staff are currently working with the Building Electrification Institute and community-based organizations to co-create a Building Electrification Plan—informed by community priorities—that should go before the City Council next year. The creation, passage, and funding of this plan will be critical to ensuring that San Jose’s approach to making buildings carbon neutral is thoughtful and equitable.

To reach the goal, San Jose will need to tackle fuel use in industry as well as buildings and transportation; the use of grid-supplied energy; treatment of waste generated within the city boundaries; and the deployment more zero-emission technologies, such as heat pumps for heating and cooling, and electric vehicles.

This is just the start. The resolution commits the city to improving existing actions, evaluating the resources needed, and doing so in collaboration and partnership with environmental justice communities

In passing the resolution, the City Council called on city staff to bring back a plan to reach the goal by June 2022. City leaders will also need to find the funding to act on that plan. 

Cities in the American Cities Climate Challenge offer some excellent examples for how to move forward. For example, Denver's approach included a thoughtful plan, real community involvement, and a funding measure to achieve climate goals while prioritizing equity.

With this vote—and with the plan and funding to reach the goal—San Jose’s Mayor Liccardo and City Councilmembers will join the leaders across the nation and world who were first responders in a time of true emergency.

Though NRDC and partners urged the City to be clear that carbon neutral meant zero emissions, city staff said that at this point the resolution would likely include offsets.

However, this will still require dramatic cuts in emissions. We look forward to working with the city to deliver on this ambition.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Stampe

City Strategist, American Cities Climate Challenge

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