The California Air Resources Board's long-awaited greenhouse gas emissions targets probably are not perfect, to say the least. But they may be the closest thing California has to a consensus these days.

After two years' worth of recommendations, staff reports, committee meetings, research, computer modeling and input from literally all corners of the state, the ARB approved greenhouse gas emissions targets pursuant to SB 375 late last month. Many have called the target-setting process � resulting in goals of at least 7% per capita emissions reductions for the state's four biggest metropolitan planning organizations by 2020 � the most exhaustive, collaborative, and data-driven regional planning process in the history of the state, if not the country. 

"I think that with these ambitious targets California absolutely may be on the verge of a paradigm shift where planning for sprawl that has dominated since the 1950s is on its way out," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of smart growth advocacy ground TransForm and member of the ARB's now-disbanded Regional Targets Advisory Committee. "These targets are ushering in a new focus on how we reduce not just GHGs � that's the leading indicator � but also a range of co-benefits."

Whether the shift is definitive is another story.

"SB 375 isn't like looking for the Holy Grail -- as if you go to enough meetings you may find it," said Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, president of the National League of Cities and ARB member. "But there is no Holy Grail there. This is a developmental process."

The resulting targets direct the state's four largest MPOs to devise plans to reduce vehicle miles traveled (at least on a per-capita basis) and, in turn, limit their per-capita greenhouse gas emissions. The targets may turn out not to be prescriptions so much as benchmarks in the state's efforts to combat climate change and adopt more efficient land use patterns.

"For the last two years...the best thing about SB 375 is that it has generated a never-before-heard regional dialogue on the future of California," said Rick Bishop, executive director of the Western Riverside Council of Governments . "(The discussions) have been fantastic, but they've been largely philosophical.  I think (the targets) moves this one step closer to this being a real deal."

By now participants in the target-setting process have nearly hypnotized themselves with "ambitious but achievable," That mantra that has been used countless times to describe ARB's goals. Nearly every speaker at the Sept. 23 ARB meeting insisted on ambitious but achievable targets, but for some critics the adopted goals lack the right balance. 

 "They erred significantly on the side of aggressive and not so much on the side of achievable," said Richard Lyon, vice president for governmental affairs at the California Building Industry Association.

"Through the draft preliminary target ranges and the discussions we were having with the ARB and the four major MPOs we felt that targets in the rage of 4, 5, or even 6% were likely to be adopted and we felt that those were doable," said Lyon. "We were fine up to the time the staff-recommended final targets came out and were shocked to find that something significant happened between spoon and mouth." Lyon and other BIA officials have questioned the higher 2035 targets, saying that some of the regions themselves have projected that feasible 2035 targets could turn out to be as low as 3%.

The targets that the board adopted are consistent with those recommended by ARB staff in June. For 2020, three MPOs will be shooting for 7% per capita reductions: the San Diego Association of Governments, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, and the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission; the Southern California Association of Governments has been assigned an 8% target.

By 2035, the targets become more disparate, based in part on what each MPO said it could achieve according to its research and modeling. SANDAG and SCAG have been assigned targets of 13%, though SCAG's target is conditioned on further discussions between the agency and ARB. MTC and SACOG will be shooting for 15% and 16%, respectively. 

Meanwhile, the eight MPOs of the San Joaquin Valley have been assigned "placeholder" targets of 5% in 2020 and 10% in 2035. The use of placeholders, which will be revisited in 2012, reflects unique, persistent challenges relating to air quality in the valley. The state's six remaining MPOs, which represent a small fraction of the state's population, are expected to make efforts to improve upon their own targets for those years but they are not directly addressed by the current goals that ARB has set out. The MPOs of Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara have already volunteered to model their goals after those of the big four. 

"Every region has different models and different premises and variables built into them," said Mayor Ron Loveridge. "They're not always measuring the same thing from region to region."

Lyon said the final numbers and that they had not been sufficiently explained by ARB or vetted by stakeholders.

The most notable voice of dissent came from SCAG, whose Regional Council voted, 29-21, to recommend targets of 6% and 8% on the argument that the region simply would not be able to meet anything higher without incurring significant costs. Support for those lower targets was led by Simi Valley City Council Member Glen Becerra. Whether the region can achieve the ARB-approved targets or not does not necessarily depend on the Regional Council's perceptions.

"I don't think that the 6% and 8% were very scientific," said SCAG Executive Director Hasan Ikharta, regarding the Regional Council's discussion. "They just wanted to have lower targets to make sure that we could achieve them at the end of the day. I tried to tell our board that the discussion shouldn't be about 6%, 8%, 13%�it should be about a positive policy message that we're going to do our best."

"The differences of opinion capture the uncertainty about how this is going to work out," said Loveridge. "I thought it was important that we, particularly for 2035, have a very serious discussion between the CARB staff and the SCAG staff." Loveridge said he was not present for the Sept. 2 Regional Council vote.

Opponents of the adopted targets also point to early studies by MTC staff that, they say, implied that higher targets were achievable only through measures such as taxes and fees that would result in $9 per gallon gasoline prices and the impelled migration of some 200,000 suburban-dwellers to the region's center cities. In a Sept. 22 editorial in the San Jose Mercury News, MTC Board Members Jim Spering and Bill Dodd called 15% targets "extreme" and a "gross overreach." These concerns have been echoed by representatives of the Building Industry Association, which has supported SB 375 from the onset but has expressed reservations about the targets. 

At the Sept. 23 ARB meeting, however, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger explicitly refuted Spering's and Dodd's claims, saying that the MTC board overwhelmingly supported ARB staff's recommended targets and that achieving the targets would require nothing resembling draconian measures. He insisted that recent modeling and the likely implementation of a wide range of land use and transportation demand management (TDM) techniques would make the 7% targets viable.

Whatever the actual numbers, both sides are quick to point out that SB 375's GHG goals are just that: goals. The big four MPOs are now scheduled to move forward with their Sustainable Communities Strategies, which will lay out a planning blueprint that will be part of their Regional Transportation Plans and that will, it is hoped, guide member cities in their general plan updates.  However, the 2035 SCAG targets are essentially placeholders and will revisited in the future, per SCAG's insistence.

Until then, the setting of targets represents, to some, a pivotal moment, when the discussions over models, stakeholders, and economic impacts give way to actual planning. In fact, even if the finalized targets are, for now, only symbolic, they are a powerful symbol of California's abandonment of the automobile-dominated suburbia that has been the the state's dominant pattern of land use since the end of World War II. Even SB 375's critics acknowledge that the state's future lies in more compact development rather than in greenfield subdivisions.

Whether this planning effort will pay dividends depends, in large part, on a host of economic factors, Bishop, whose organization is a SCAG subregion, said that communities in his area may be eager to grab SB 375's "low-hanging fruit," such as transportation demand management schemes to reduce VMTs via carpooling.

"Those seem to be a little easier to grab on and not as controversial as the two more hyped-up strategies for SB 375 and that's transportation and land use," said Bishop. "The transportation and land use changes are going to come over time."

Especially in a relatively sprawling sub-region like Riverside County, the big infrastructure- and development-heavy strategies that could create denser, less auto-dependent communities, will not happen with the strike of a gavel, Bishop said. 

But now that the discussions about the targets have ended for the time being, the work begins in earnest on implementing SB 375. SANDAG is the first MPO scheduled to release its Sustainable Communities Strategy, which is due in July of next year, as the first regional plan of its kind. 


Rick Bishop, Executive Director, Western Riverside Council of Governments (951) 955-7985
Stuart Cohen, Executive Director, TransForm  

Hasan Ikhrata, Executive Director, SCAG (213) 236-1800

Richard Lyon, Vice President for Governmental Affairs, Building Industry Association of California (916) 443-7933

Ron Loveridge, Mayor, City of Riverside (951) 826-5551

--Josh Stephens