Top air-quality regulators in California are increasingly warning policymakers all over the state that allowing developments far from urban job centers will eventually undermine mandates to curb greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.Leading a backlash, key political players in San Diego County have countered that a car-centric approach to growth isn’t necessarily at odds with fighting climate change — predicting adoption of electric cars will far outpace current projections, according to The Sandiego Union Tribune.
The county Board of Supervisors is now on the verge of doubling down on that position. Citing the state’s desperate need for housing, it’s poised to adopt a potentially precedent-setting strategy that would allow developers to buy millions of dollars in carbon offsets in exchange for building projects that dramatically increase the number of cars on the road.
“A carbon offset option not only helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but provides an additional tool to address the region’s affordable housing crunch,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “But before considering the option, developers must do all they can to address any climate impacts created by projects right here at home.”
Supervisors are scheduled to vote Wednesday on the first batch of seven new suburban housing projects, which would generate enough greenhouse gases to cancel out all of county’s envisioned efforts, under its climate action plan, to reign in transportation emissions by mid-century.
Such credits would be bought through carbon registries, such as Climate Action Reserve, American Carbon Registry and Verified Carbon Standard, and could represent projects located anywhere in the world.
At an average of $10 a credit, the seven projects represent roughly $45 million worth of offsets, which through a chosen registry, could help pay for everything from preserving grasslands in the United States or rain forests in Brazil to distributing solar cook stoves in India to overhauling dairies in California.
The environmental group has racked up a number of court victories in recent years when it comes to the county’s obligations to limit greenhouse gases. In February, the supervisors approved an overhauled climate plan after the courts directed county officials to more clearly define standards on what emissions levels are acceptable.
“It’s been no big secret that they’ve been kowtowing to developers for many years, pushing through development that doesn’t comply with state and local rules,” said Ruben Arizmendi, chair of the steering committee for Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter. “This is just another way for the county to get around requirements that are very clear.”
The county declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
Joining the Sierra Club in the latest legal action are the Center for Biological Diversity and the Endangered Habitats League, as well as the local groups Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Climate Action Campaign, Environmental Center for San Diego and Preserve Wild Santee.
The high-end resort Golden Door, located near the site of one of the largest of the proposed projects, Newland Sierra, has also launched a parallel legal challenge to the offset program.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor will hear final oral arguments on Friday, Nov. 30, and is expected to rule shortly thereafter.
While the case is expected to be appealed, if the county eventually prevails, experts agree it could create a road map for other municipalities.
Such a trend has the potential to upend climate plans around the state, which have been largely focused on limiting suburban sprawl and encouraging denser development along transit corridors. That could also mean that regions, such as San Diego, wouldn’t reap the benefit of limiting other types of air pollution from cars and trucks that can have severehealth impacts.
“The lost opportunity is that the carbon emissions often come with other co-pollutants that create real, immediate public health problems — all of that pollution from the driving for example,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.
The use of offsets could also create significant challenges for adjacent government agencies when trying to account for their reductions in climate emissions.
For example, the city of San Diego could see its ambitious climate plan impacted by new vehicles trips that the county has canceled out with offsets as new homeowners commute to the region’s largest job centers.
Asked about the potential predicament, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office offered this statement: “The mayor believes that the region needs to plan communities that make transportation options viable for people to live and work within a short commute and have transportation options …”
At the same time, the California Air Resources Board wants to see the state’s four largest municipal planning organizations reduce their emissions by roughly 19 percent by 2035. That includes the San Diego Association of Governments, the Southern California Association of Governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission serving nine Bay Area counties, and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.
With electric and plug-in hybrid cars expected to make up just under 16 percent of California’s light-duty fleet by the end of the next decade, up from less than 2 percent today, the air board has said that Californians still have to reduce their driving by about 1.6 miles a day on average to help the state meet its ambitious goal to cut emissions roughly 40 percent by the end of the next decade.
It’s unclear whether the air board would accept carbon credits as part of a region’s overall strategy for limiting driving. SANDAG said this week that it has no plans to even try to incorporate county-approved offsets in its reporting to the state.
The Sierra Club’s legal challenge also asserts that the county has no way to verify the quality of the offsets purchased outside of the country or even state.
While developers would need to purchase offsets accounting for a total of 30 years of emissions before completing a project, the county has no blueprint in place for how to verify the quality of those investments beyond the assurances provided by the registries.
There are companies today that audit and certify offset programs, but the county has yet to account for the cost of any ongoing additional verification.
“Some offsets are real,” said Mark Jacobsen, professor of economics at UC San Diego, who studies environmental regulations. “There’s no question about that. The thing that worries people is the incentives for developers to look for cheaper offsets. It might be cheaper to have a fraudulent offset than a real one.”
Still, experts have agreed that the quality of carbon offsets have dramatically improved in recent years, and there are real benefits to be reaped from such investments.
“The carbon credit market has been around for probably close to two and half decades now, and what has emerged is a very high standard of credits,” said Robert Parkhurst, who specializes in carbon credits for the Environmental Defense Fund.