During an emergency meeting last week, the Berkeley City Council chambers were stirring with environmental activists. Vocal and passionate, they held up signs pushing council members to vote “yes” on item 30, also known as Fossil Fuel-Free Berkeley. The item would establish a goal of making Berkeley a fossil fuel-free city by 2030.
The night ended with a sense of optimism — a sense of hope that the city would commit to doing its part in reducing its carbon footprint. Nevertheless, when item 30 is broken down and the city’s previous eco-conscious initiatives are considered, the tangible impact of Fossil Fuel-Free Berkeley comes into question.
Item 30 is no more than a plan for a plan. Considering the dire state of the environment — a state that was acknowledged by the “emergency” nature of this meeting — one would think that Berkeley City Council would come to this meeting with concrete, actionable objectives. But take away the grandiose language in the item, which establishes goals to minimize emissions and transition to 100 percent renewable energy, and there is very little for which the city can be held accountable.
The target year of 2030 and some of the other initiatives outlined in this plan look very similar to “fossil-fuel-free streets” — the commitment made in 2017 by 12 major cities to reduce fossil fuel emissions. While it’s important to move toward a more environmentally friendly city, it’s crucial that Berkeley do so through actionable objectives, not just follow a trend of eco-consciousness. During the discussion of item 30 at the City Council meeting, much of the rhetoric that arose referenced President Donald Trump’s divisive moves against sustainability, but an administration that ends in two years shouldn’t be a catalyst for a nearly decadelong initiative.
Creating a fossil fuel-free city requires not only a commitment to policy and infrastructure change but an alternative source of energy to power the city. This isn’t impossible — Burlington, Vermont, and Greensburg, Kansas, have already made the transition to being fossil fuel-free. But what all these cities have in common is massive systems of renewable energy that provide electricity to their citizens. Solar, wind and other energy alternatives necessitate a firm commitment to change. With barely a decade in front of it, can the city of Berkeley be trusted to completely overturn its energy infrastructures?
In 2005, Berkeley made a similarly ambitious goal: Divert all waste from landfills and become a zero-waste city by the year 2020. But with less than two years until its target date, the city of Berkeley’s website shows little indication that the city is on track to realizing this goal. To its credit, the initiative itself did help to spearhead efforts toward a more sustainable city — since the goal’s conception, the amount of waste dumped into landfills has decreased. But almost reaching a goal isn’t enough. Going forward, it’s imperative that Berkeley commit to a more sustainable city without compromising the quality of its actions.