As national debates about climate change have raged and federal action has grown ever more unlikely in the shadow of -- take your pick -- economic woes, mid-term election jitters, and the blackening of the Gulf of Mexico, the State of California last week edged closer to implementing its own land use based program to curtail climate change. Per a June 30 deadline stipulated in Senate Bill 375, the staff of the California Air Resources Board (ARB) released its draft regional targets for carbon emissions reductions. 

The targets are based on what participants have said is an extraordinarily sophisticated scenario planning and modeling. 

"This body of the most comprehensive, sophisticated regional planning work...for global warming that has happened anywhere in this country and possibly anywhere in the world," said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) and member of ARB's Regional Targets Advisory Committee (RTAC).

The state's four largest metropolitan planning organizations will have to aim for per capita emissions reductions between 5 percent and 10 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. Because of unique challenges in the Central Valley, the eight largest MPOs there have been assigned "placeholder" targets of 1 - 7 percent per capita for both 2020 and 2035. 

For the target date of 2035, ARB staff referred to the ranges devised by each of the so-called "big four" MPOs: the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) of San Francisco, SACOG, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). MTC and SCAG were assigned placeholders of 3-12 percent while SANDAG and SACOG received placeholder targets of 5-19 percent and 12-17 percent, respectively. Executives of all four MPOs have informed ARB staff that more analysis and scenario planning is necessary before settling on specific targets for 2035. 

The targets outlined by ARB to comply with SB 375 are independent of the goals set by the state's other major climate change law, Assembly Bill 32. 

While Jim Wunderman, executive director of the Bay Area Council and RTAC member, said that the targets were in line with expectations and that they could "probably be a little more ambitious," the high-end targets for the Central Valley -- even as placeholders -- appear daunting to officials there. 

"I think for most of us the belief is that the 7 percent qualifies as ambitious and probably not achievable," said Andrew Chesley, executive director of the San Joaquin Council of Governments and RTAC member . "We want to work with ARB staff to identify and demonstrate targets that are achievable and are ambitious."

The state's six remaining MPOs, covering largely rural areas, were exempted from the target-setting process because of their small populations and limited planning resources. 

Once finalized, the targets will guide the MPOs' Sustainable Communities Strategies, which are designed to link land use planning with transportation planning in order to foster development that ultimately reduces vehicle miles traveled. In the report that accompanied the draft targets, ARB staff acknowledged that the long-term nature of land use changes and the duration of the current economic recession will affect regions' ability to implement new polices and realize SB 375's intended benefits. The report indicated that "it will take several four-year RTP planning cycles for the land use forecasts and transportation investments to fully reflect the changes envisioned by SB 375." 

Participants have roundly praised the target-setting process with rhetoric not typically associated with public bureaucracies. 

"The assistance they have offered, the partnerships (ARB) have developed with the regional agencies...has been nothing but positive," said Chesley. "Hopefully we'll be able to carry that through the implementation of SB 375." 

This ebullience nonetheless is set against concern from both sides of the climate change argument. On the one hand, many public officials worry that the economy -- and lack of support from the state for crucial pieces such as redevelopment funding and transit funding -- will make targets unattainable or that the targets will make local economies even worse. Others say that this is an ideal moment to raise the state's planning standards. 

"The MPOs have done some ambitious policies but we know they can do more," said Amanda Eaken, policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council and RTAC member. "We still fail to see a real substantive shift of transportation funding to support improved land use patterns that the MPOs are calling for."

Some even see these austere economic times as a mandate for, and not against, aggressive action. 

"We don't have the luxury of doing C or B quality work," said McKeever. "We owe the public A and A-plus quality work."

Over the next month ARB is holding seven workshops across the state to receive feedback from stakeholders and agencies in advance of announcing final targets at the end of September. Those numbers will be expressed not as a range but rather as specific percentages that each MPO will be expected to achieve. To have assigned a more narrow range or even tried to hone in on specific draft targets may have been premature and in contradiction with the collaborative nature of the target-setting process thus far. 

"If they [had] jumped in...and said here's a precise number for 2020 and 2035 for each of you, it really wouldn't have been as respectful of that process," said McKeever. 

Final targets are expected to be different for the so-called "Big Four" and among the eight Central Valley MPOs, but they are expected to be uniform among members of both respective groups. 

The release of the draft targets culminates a yearlong process of scoping, research, and discussion among the affected MPOs and the Regional Targets Advisory Committee, a diverse group of public, private, and nonprofit officials who made recommendations to ARB staff in a September 2009 report. The final draft targets come from a technical advisory committee that convened after the RTAC submitted its recommendations. 

The mandate to focus on regional carbon emissions forced MPOs not only to develop more complex and sophisticated models than ever before, but also to share information and collaborate in previously unheard-of ways. 

"The good that there's a good deal of true learning right now around the question of what a reasonable target is," said McKeever. "We're all pushing ourselves in harder and in different ways than we ever have in the past."

ARB's goal has been to produce "ambitious but achievable" targets that the respective regions can strive for through planning for and promotion more compact land uses, mixed uses, efficient allocation of housing, and coordination with regional transportation plans. For all the research that has gone into these strategies, a debate is likely to ensue over which end of the 5-10 percent range the ARB should settle on and whether that final number will hew too much towards ambition or not. 

"What does all that mean? That's a little bit mushier," said McKeever. "In September they're going to have to have a board action....they're going to have to have some pretty clear idea on the staff side of much more precise recommendations."

Even if the targets land on the high end -- and even if metro areas can foster the intended land use changes by 2020 -- one thing they are not expected to do is reduce overall carbon emissions. By striving for per capita changes in emissions, the targets allow for population growth, which, even with lower per-person vehicle miles traveled, may yet cause a rise in absolute amounts of CO2 released. 

That problem will be particularly acute in the Central Valley regions, where a particularly bleak economy and a relatively high growth rate portend significant increases in absolute emissions. 

"High-growth areas still tend have a greater propensity for creating (more) trips and creating longer trips," said Chesley. "Our ability to make those reductions is somewhat hampered."

This reason gave rise to the separate category for the Central Valley, which, according to Chesley, has such a backlog of entitled developments and such starkly different commuting patterns from the state's more heavily urbanized areas that the region's more modest placeholder targets are appropriate.  

Whether SB 375 ultimately spurs emissions reductions in the Central Valley or in any of the other MPOs, participants in the target-setting process have roundly praised the ARB and its approach. The advisory process was designed to be bottom-up and based on each regions' capabilities and expectations rather than on a draft target originating in Sacramento. 

"At times you think that people are pursuing the Holy Grail," said ARB Member and Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge. "But SB 375 is a process. A process of regions looking at themselves and stakeholders and asking how best to direct incentives and resources for the future." 

ARB Board Member and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts noted that the reduction of a global pollutant represents a new challenge for a board that has heretofore focused on localized air pollution. 

"What we're chasing is greenhouse gases...this is very different from what the Air Board has historically done with air pollution," said Roberts. "If you did something with air pollution, benefit accrued to your area. You may incrementally do something that's good for the planet, but it doesn't accrue to your area or to the state of California per se." 

"We really haven't looked at regions as sustainable areas before," said Loveridge. 

In part because the ARB is entering such uncharted waters, participants in the target-setting process say they welcome the public discussion that will continue through July 23, when the seven regional workshops will wrap up. And yet, the ARB may find itself lobbied in all directions at once. 

"You'll have some folks that say that CARB didn't go far enough, some folks that will say that this is going to be very difficult to achieve," said Wunderman. "And you'll probably have very few people who say they got it right." 

Even so, McKeever said that when SB 375 was being drafted in 2007 and 2008, the best ideas, and more aggressive standards, rose to the top through successive rounds of debate and discussion. He hopes the trend will continue in the workshops. 

"The bill kept getting better as it got amended and negotiated out; it didn't keep getting compromised and watered down," said McKeever. "That's what's happening right now too."

Contacts & Resources: 

ARB Draft Targets Staff Report, June 30, 2010 

ARB SB 375 Workshop Schedule & Agenda 

Andrew Chesley, Executive Director, San Joaquin Council of Governments, (209) 235-0600

Amanda Eaken, Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700

Mike McKeever, Executive Director, Sacramento Area Council of Governments, (916) 321-9000

Ron Loveridge, Mayor, City of Riverside; Board Member, Air Resources Board, (951) 826-5551

Ron Roberts, San Diego County Supervisor; Board Member, Air Resources Board, (619) 531-5544

Jim Wunderman, Executive Director, Bay Area Council, (415) 981-6600