If California is truly going to reduce — in a meaningful way — its emission of the gases that contribute to global climate change, the state must change how it uses land.

That is the inescapable conclusion of virtually everyone who has analyzed the situation. But nearly every detail regarding how, when and who decides remains extremely uncertain at the start of 2008.

That uncertainty could begin to change this year as experts learn more about the connection between development patterns and greenhouse gas emissions, and as state agencies start to roll out guidelines and targets. In fact, the planning and regulatory landscape is evolving with remarkable speed, to the point that nearly every discussion of land use policy now includes some consideration of climate change.

"There are so many factors that come into play in land use," observed Pete Parkinson, vice president of policy and legislation for the California Chapter, American Planning Association (CCAPA). "If we were to have a conversation 12 or 18 months ago about what drives land use, we would have been talking about housing. That's not true today."

Now, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are starting to drive the debate. Where the GHG issue will take the debate remains to be seen, but there is a feeling — perhaps even a consensus — that it will take planning and development further and further away from the post-war suburban model that has predominated in California for 60 years. Why? Low-density, segregated-use development in outlying areas forces people to rely on automobiles, and automobiles account for about 40% of California's greenhouse gas emissions.

"The traditional sprawl, greenfield development model is falling out of favor," said Parkinson, who is also director of the Sonoma County Permit & Resource Management Department. "It's being replaced with infill, dense development. You're not going to implement that overnight in one RHNA [regional housing needs assessment] or one regional transportation plan cycle. But there is a sea change that's happening, and we're right in the middle of the wave."

At the heart of the discussion about more environmentally friendly development is AB 32, the 2006 law that requires the state to reduce its emission of GHG to 1990 levels by 2020. Global emissions at 1990 levels are commonly seen as the maximum permitted for climate stabilization. Although experts are still trying to decide precisely how to measure emissions in California from 1990, most people accept that AB 32 requires a 25% reduction from present day emission levels. The governor's Climate Action Team concluded that about 12% of the total reduction must come from changes in land-use patterns. A detailed report prepared for the California Energy Commission reached the same basic conclusion: "New land use/transportation policies, initiatives and actions at all levels of government in California could provide major energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions."

Similar discussions are ongoing around the country, especially in urbanized and fast-growing states. During a conference last fall in Boston on climate change and land use, Armando Carbonell, chair of the Lincoln Institute's Department of Planning and Urban Form, said, "It may be useful to think of cities as great carbon-reduction machines. We've got to fix the cars, but we've also got to address VMT [vehicle miles traveled] growth, and that is done by providing environments where one can walk or take transit. Planners are on the supply side of the problem, providing places for people to live with lots of amenities and diversity in housing — and, by the way, such attributes are increasingly in demand anyway."

The Urban Land Institute sounded the same theme when it published the book Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change last fall. The book's researchers found that, even after accounting for increased vehicle efficiency and more use of low-carbon fuels, motor vehicle tailpipe emissions would increase 41% from 2005 to 2030.

"Curbing emissions from cars depends on a three-legged stool: Improved vehicle efficiency, cleaner fuels and a reduction in driving," said Reid Ewing, a professor at the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth and the lead author of the ULI book. "The research shows that one of the best ways to reduce vehicle travel is to build places where people can accomplish more with less driving."

Compact, mixed-use infill development and re-use projects can have climate change benefits besides reducing VMT. Such projects frequently contain smaller living spaces, so less energy is needed for heating and cooling. In addition, they do not chew up tracks of farmland and open space that would otherwise absorb carbon.

It appears that climate change considerations will affect California planning and development in three ways: First, analyzing a plan or project's contribution to climate change — and climate change's impact on a plan or project — is going to become a routine part of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process. Second, infrastructure dollars provided by the state are likely to be more and more closely tied to land uses that minimize emission of greenhouse gases. Third, and possibly most radically, there could be some diminution of local land use authority as regional and even state land-use plans and policies start to grow teeth.

The CEQA Impact

The CEQA portion of the equation is already making an impact. Under Jerry Brown, the state attorney general's office has made clear that environmental review documents must address climate change — and include "feasible mitigation measures." Not only has Brown's office sued (and since settled with) San Bernardino County over the county general plan's handling of climate change issues, but it has also become a routine commenter on regional transportation plans (RTPs). The thrust of those comments has generally been that the plans do not do enough, if anything, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the plans are too accommodating of the single-occupant automobile.

In addition, environmental organizations, including the ultra-aggressive Center for Biological Diversity, have started filing lawsuits over the climate change impacts of plans and projects. The CBD has already sued San Bernardino County and the cities of Banning and Perris.

A law approved in 2007 (AB 97, Dutton) confirms that climate change is a subject for CEQA analysis, and charges the Resources Agency with adopting "guidelines for the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions or the effects of greenhouse gas emissions" by January 1, 2010. The Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has begun work on those guidelines and is due to make recommendations to the Resources Agency in 2009 (see CP&DR Environment Watch, October 2007). A key part of the guidelines is likely to be some form of thresholds of significance, which the state's air pollution control officers and the Air Resources Board are working on.

According to OPR, only about 5% of CEQA documents submitted to the State Clearinghouse from April through October of 2007 contained a discussion of greenhouse gas emissions or climate change. The way the documents address the topic is all over the map because there is no official guidance or standards of measurement. Some of the documents have included mitigation measures, ranging from the planting of riparian areas to offset carbon emissions, to requiring delivery truck drivers to turn off idling engines, to requiring preparation of a local climate change action plan. Other documents have concluded a project's potential impact on climate change is simply too speculative to try to mitigate.

The flip side — climate change's impact on projects — is even less well documented and understood. The idea is that potential effects of climate change, such as rising sea level, greater flood flows because less precipitation will fall as snow, prolonged droughts, more intense wildfires and loss of habitat, should be considered in plan and project reviews. So far, virtually no agency is doing this. That's understandable, according to Gary Jakobs, a principal in the Sacramento office of consulting firm EDAW.

"You're talking about blowing the doors off what we have done in the past," Jakobs said. "Do you want to strap a project with a mitigation measure that could be very expensive to implement when the effects could be 50 years off and are based on a model?"

Carrots, Sticks and Mandates

Environmentalists and proponents of "smart growth" have complained for years that the state funds infrastructure — especially roads and highways — in a way that promotes car-dominated sprawl. Those days may be winding down. Increasingly, regional transportation agencies are linking transportation plans and funding with land use, and Caltrans is headed in the same direction.

The Climate Action Team urged Caltrans to implement a climate action program, along with the governor's strategic growth and infrastructure investment plan and regional growth blueprints. To move some of this forward, Caltrans has funded a "blueprint network" in which 16 of the state's 18 metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) have participated. The basic idea is to closely coordinate transportation and land-use planning because the state needs to reduce VMT. A second round of blueprint planning is coming, and some MPOs are already talking about how to account for GHG in the new blueprints.

"You can't reduce VMT without addressing the land use question," said Joan Sollenberger, who is in charge of planning and modal programs for Caltrans. "It's recognized by everyone that we will never achieve the goals that have been set for greenhouse gas emission reductions unless we change how we grow, because of the carbon footprint involved."

"We want to make sure our investments pay off in a way we need them to," said Sollenberger.

Bob Leiter, land use and transporation planning director for the San Diego Association of Governments, added, "The whole idea of addressing regional climate change planning though the RTP makes sense." With the RTP, regional officials can figure out how better to move people and freight and, therefore, reduce emissions, he said. And in San Diego and other regions, the RTP is closely tied to the regional growth blueprint.

Caltrans' climate action program calls for "transportation strategies, plans and projects [that] as a whole contribute to the state's GHG emission reduction targets." Precisely what that means for funding decisions is unclear, although the California Transportation Commission, which makes most funding decisions, appears headed in the same direction with proposed land use criteria. The result is almost certainly going to mean more money to move people and freight in urban areas, and less money for additional freeway capacity on the suburban fringe.

And this is where things get truly interesting. Last year, the Legislature came close to approving SB 375, which would have moved some of these concepts into law. The bill would have required every MPO to adopt a "preferred growth scenario" that would show how a region would hit emission reduction targets set by the Air Resources Board. Future transportation funding would then be tied to the preferred growth scenario. The bill's author, Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), argued that this was merely an extension of the regional blueprint planning that Caltrans has subsidized. All of these blueprints emphasize infill and minimizing outward urban expansion. Steinberg's idea was that if a city or county made land-use decisions in conflict with the preferred growth scenario, the city or county would not get transportation funding.

Local government officials countered that Steinberg was trying to shift land-use authority away from cities and counties to regional agencies. Steinberg dismissed such arguments — yet many people concede that land use decisions need to be made in a regional context, something that almost never happens.

Part of the problem, said the CCAPA's Parkinson, is that California does not have the governance model to carry out these notions. Regional agencies are not used to — and don't have the capacity to — do detailed land use planning. And local agencies are not about to let a regional agency make project-level decisions.

Steinberg's bill will return in 2008, and it may not be the only bill on the subject. Other legislation may propose a "cap and trade" system in which cities or regions are given a GHG maximum, and if they do not use all of their GHG allotment, they could trade carbon credits to other jurisdictions.

In its Integrated Energy Policy Report adopted in December, the California Energy Commission (CEC) went farther than Steinberg. Finding that "decisions affecting land use directly affect energy use and the consequent production of greenhouse gases," the CEC urged:

• Adoption of "a unified statewide growth management plan, based on local and regional plans, aligning state planning, financing, infrastructure, and regulatory land-use policies and programs."

• Requiring "regional transportation planning and air quality agencies to adopt 25-year and 50-year regional growth plans that provide housing, transportation, and community services for projected population increases while reducing greenhouse gas emissions to state-determined climate change targets."

• Determining how state and local tax policies "encourage growth that is inconsistent with the state's growth management plan."

• Ensuring future federal highway programs "include energy reduction and climate stabilization considerations."

Ultimately, the Air Resources Board is responsible for most of AB 32's implementation. But the air board is not going to act in isolation, as is evidenced by the depth of policy analysis at the CEC, Caltrans and numerous other agencies. The Schwarzenegger administration wants it that way.

Where next?

Clearly, California's planners know the ground is shifting under their feet. At least some of them see this big shake up as an opportunity.

"Those of us who are planners and environmental planners are finally seeing an opportunity for the things we have been talking about for so long to come into the marketplace," said Jeff Goldman, a planner for EDAW. His colleague Jakobs agreed, adding, "We've been using this term ‘smart growth' for a while. Now people are getting religion. … We're seeing it even in some of the more conservative cities, which is nice."

The CCAPA recently issued a policy paper that, in a way, recasts the smart growth argument as a greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Among other things, the paper recommends local governments approve plans and codes that "encourage mixed land use, higher densities (especially around transit), affordable housing, compact form, non-motor vehicle circulation, water and energy conservation, microgeneration of electricity in a manner compatible with surrounding uses, and low-carbon resources for building materials."

If the smart growth movement didn't make these things commonplace, maybe the concern over climate change will.

"In my 20-plus years in the industry," said Sydney Coatsworth, who manages EDAW's Sacramento office, "I have never seen anything grab the profession with such gusto, and seen so many people thinking creatively."

Pete Parkinson, California Chapter, American Planning Association, (707) 565-1925.
Sydney Coatsworth, Gary Jakobs and Jeff Goldman, EDAW, (916) 414-5800.
Joan Sollenberger, Caltrans, (916) 653-1818.
Bob Leiter, San Diego Association of Governments, (619) 699-6980.
Governor's Office of Planning and Research, CEQA Guidelines and Greenhouse Gases: http://opr.ca.gov/index.php?a=ceqa/index.html
Caltrans Climate Action Program: http://www.caltrans.ca.gov/climateaction.htm
Governor's Climate Action Team and Climate Action Initiative: http://www.climatechange.ca.gov/climate_action_team/index.html
California Chapter, American Planning Association Climate Change Task Force: http://www.calapa.org/attachments/contentmanagers/711/ClimateChange.pdf