Leading the Push Towards a Sustainable Future

Sunnyvale has long been a leader. As the city with the first female mayor, the first fruit cannery in the country, and the creator of the first video game (Pong), it seems only natural that it took charge to mitigate the effects of climate change in its community and set an example for other cities. With the Climate Action Plan (CAP) 1.0, adopted in 2014, Sunnyvale took steps to evaluate current threats to the environment, including wildfires, decreased supply of fresh water, and rising sea levels, and tackle these through community and government participation. While well-intentioned, the outline didn’t include specific implementation strategies and was merely a goal to work towards. Yet, in 2014, with the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to 15% below levels in 2008 as recommended by the state of California, the CAP 1.0 seemed enough.

As the dangers of climate change continued to be realized in the coming years due to insufficient action worldwide, California and Sunnyvale realized more needed to be done even as the city remained on track to meet targets set by the original plan. When the CAP 1.0 came up for re-evaluation in 2019, there was a public push for the new plan to be more aggressive and specific. The result was the Climate Action Playbook 2.0, with the name implying a more detailed strategy in confronting climate change, and a stronger commitment to drop GHG emissions to 80% below levels in 1990.

At the Sunnyvale City Council Meeting on August 13th 2019, the council took public comments before voting on version 2.0. The main point of contention was in how much to reduce a metric called Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT), or whether to reduce it at  all to restrict emissions. Some, like city staff, argued that in conjunction with another goal to have 75% of all vehicles to be electric by 2050, a 25% decrease in VMT would be sufficient in the same timeframe. After all, they claimed, if most of the miles travelled were zero emission, why bother to severely reduce them? Others argued that in the short term, 25% wasn’t aggressive enough— that like Los Angeles, Sunnyvale could target a 40% reduction by 2050. Even if electric vehicles were the norm, manufacturing them would produce emissions that could only be limited with the lesser demand that comes with reduced VMT. Still others noted that the benefits of reducing VMT went beyond climate and could solve issues relating to traffic congestion and physical inactivity amongst residents. With such varying opinions, the argument came down to this: a meaningful impact with either target relied on behavior changes made by residents. Could residents be counted on to switch to electric cars such that the VMT target would be insignificant with regards to carbon emissions?

As an observer in this debate, it became obvious to me that a solution required a compromise between the two opinions. Until a majority of residents switch to electric cars, Sunnyvale needs strong action to reduce the carbon emissions caused by conventional vehicles, which is where the 25% VMT reduction comes in. Despite protests about it not being aggressive enough, feasibility reviews by staff demonstrate that this target is already above what realistic projections show. If, when data shows that the 75% electric vehicle goal has been attained, carbon emissions are still alarmingly high, the VMT parameter could be re-evaluated with the CAP review, taking into account its effect on other, non climate related, aspects of life in Sunnyvale. Thus, the plan addresses short term conflict between EVs and VMT while leaving room to adjust based on changing realities. At my first city council meeting, I was excited to bring this to the councilmembers and show them how both goals worked best in conjunction: the VMT limit reduces the need for private cars, and the EV target ensures that even privately owned cars are environmentally friendly. 

The council voted unanimously to approve the Climate Action Playbook 2.0, accepting the staff’s recommendation for 75% electric vehicles on the road and a 25% decrease VMT by 2050. With that, they approved specific and swift actions to make Sunnyvale greener – and continue leading the push towards a more sustainable future. 

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