The Back Story: This Earth Day, We Have Much to Do. Here’s What We’ve Done….
This Earth Day, we have plenty of grim reminders about our challenges ahead– such as a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change detailing the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by the end of this decade to avoid the disastrous impacts of a planet-warming above 1.5 degrees centigrade. The hard work ahead requires resolve.
Before we become daunted by the steep climb ahead, we can bolster that resolve by reminding ourselves of just how far we’ve come. We’ve done it with concrete, actual progress — not with flashy press releases, performative task forces, and headline-capturing announcements of goals and targets–but with nation-leading progress. Best of all, we’ve accomplished it together.
Our strategy for reducing the City’s GHG profile focused on two major priorities: (1) decarbonize the electric grid, and (2) electrify our fossil fuel-dependent economic activity–transportation, heating buildings, etc. In May 2017, after years of study, the San José City Council unanimously agreed to launch a public utility, San José Clean Energy, for the wholesale procurement of electricity. In so doing, San Jose became the largest city in the U.S. to initiate a community choice aggregation program, which provides residents and businesses a choice over the source of the electricity they purchase. We’ve seen tremendous results already: this year, San José residents and businesses will use electricity generated 95% from carbon-free sources–solar, wind, and hydroelectric. We not only lead the U.S. ten largest cities in greening our grid, but we have more than twice the rate of renewable usage of most of them. San José Clean Energy has also become a catalyst in expanding capacity for renewable energy generation and storage; more than 500 MW of solar and wind projects will come on line by the end of this year, with nearly 80 MW of battery storage to address the challenges of intermittency and reduce future costs on ratepayers. Strategy One: check.
Now that we’ve got a very green grid, we need to move the community to supplant petroleum and natural gas with our green electricity– that’s Strategy Two. In 2019, San José became the largest U.S. city to adopt mandates of all-electric new construction for all new buildings, with a few limited exceptions. We piloted electric charging stations early in the term of my predecessor, Chuck Reed, and by now, in 2022, we now see more than 1,600 publicly-accessible chargers citywide–with $16.4 million more in EV-charging infrastructure coming by 2023. Today, San Jose metro has the highest adoption rate of electric vehicles in the nation, accordingly to the International Council for Clean Transportation. In 2019, we unveiled what was then the largest electric bus fleet of any U.S. airport. We successfully forged a regional consensus with our partners to support Measure RR, which voters approved in 2020, and now funds the implementation of the electrification of CalTrain. Of course, we’ve collectively invested in efforts to bring the electric-only BART system to San Jose, through four ballot measures (I remember too well, since I worked on everyone) that more than three-quarters of our electorate supported in 2000, 2008, 2016, and 2018. Today, we have BART service up and running at the North San Jose -Berryessa Station, and the VTA is selecting the prevailing bidder to construct the tunnel through Downtown San José to Santa Clara. We’ve also seen big gains in cycling, with the launch of a regional bike-share program, the implementation of some of the first physically separated bike lanes in the nation, and a trail- and-lane bike network that now exceeds 400 miles citywide. Strategy Two: Still in progress.
Then there’s development. Back in 2016, our ClimateSmart plan provided an important insight: that our development decisions–such as densifying new housing in Downtown, expanding jobs within the city to reduce commutes for residents, and halting sprawl–may have the largest impact on our long-term GHG profile. Since then, we’ve eliminated height restrictions and reduced City fees on high-rise development Downtown, and “upzoned” in many other transit corridors. We’ve supported employers expanding their San Jose workforce, including such global brands as Adobe, Apple, Aruba Networks, Broadcom, Google, Supermicro, Splunk, Supermicro, Tivo, and Zoom, shortening the commutes for thousands of our residents.
And against the concerted efforts of a few developers, we’ve halted sprawl– starting with Coyote Valley. A decade and a half ago, the San Jose City Council was moving ahead with a plan to build corporate offices and industrial space for 50,000 workers and another 25,000 homes among the fields and farms that comprise this pastoral dale. Many environmentalists had long sought to preserve the land for wildlife habitat, open space, and recreation, however. When I served as Chair of the General Plan Task Force, environmental advocates persuaded us in 2011 to impose high thresholds to Coyote development. As I became mayor, I increasingly saw the opportunity inherent in the preservation of this remarkable area –as a bulwark for clean drinking water in the region’s largest underground aquifer, as a floodwater retention basin, as an urban buffer for wildfires, and as an ancestral homeland of our Ohlone ancestors. In 2016, I began meeting with land owners and leaders of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and the Open Space Authority to consider how to assemble large tracts of land for preservation and protection. POST had raised tens of millions in private contributions to do so, and we agreed to add public bond funding from the proposed Measure T, which more than 70% of our voters approved in November of 2018. The following year, the City, OSA, and POST consummated a transaction for nearly 1,000 acres of land, and the Council unanimously approved it.
We’ve faced our share of threats as well. In 2018, a developer sought to build a sprawling mix of 1,000 single-family luxury homes in the bucolic Evergreen foothills of San Jose, in contravention of our General Plan. The company spent $6 million to place Measure B on the ballot and to urge voters to approve what it mischaracterized as the “Evergreen Senior Homes Initiative.” With a badly underfunded but heartily spirited coalition of environmental organizations, neighborhoods, and community groups, we defeated Measure B, and then enacted Measure C, which sharply limits development in the hillsides and rural edges of the city. In approving Measure C, our voters protected San Jose against future attempts by developers to mislead the electorate with similarly hare-brained developments.
Through all of these efforts, and many others, we’ve come together as a community. I’d venture to suggest that we’ve accomplished more to protect our planet than any other American city during this time. Of course, we have much more work to do. Our shared history of success should embolden us to get it done.