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Will San Diego Help Stop Global Warming?


er train can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But the modest goals of state law and urban planning won't do much to get people out of their cars.

— Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in San Diego means getting people out of their cars, and that’s already happening in modest ways. Emily Green, whom I met at the Old Town trolley station, said she typically drives to her job in Little Italy.

"But since gas prices have increased so much I try to take the trolley at least once a week from La Mesa to Little Italy which, including the transfer, is about an hour-long ride," she said.

California has passed legislation to persuade more people to choose transit. Today SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments, approved a draft document it hopes will move local citizens in that direction and keep us in compliance with state law. Critics, meanwhile, wonder whether San Diego’s plan is little more than window dressing, given the dramatic greenhouse-gas reductions we need to address global warming.

Gary Gallegos, the executive director of SANDAG, spoke with me recently in his downtown office, which is filled with western memorabilia. Perched next to his desk is the saddle on which he learned to ride a horse. Though he’s become San Diego’s preeminent urban planner, Gallegos grew up on ranches along the Colorado-New Mexico border.

The draft document adopted by the SANDAG board is a Regional Transportation Plan that would spend $196 billion on transportation projects in San Diego between now and 2050. It includes a chapter called the Sustainable Community Strategy to reduce greenhouse gases through urban planning and creation of mass transit.

Gallegos said San Diego is on the right track.

"Many of the things that San Diegans have already been doing are going to help us to achieve the target that's been given to us by the California Air Resources Board," he said.

That target comes from a piece of legislation called SB 375. It says that San Diego must reduce greenhouse gas emissions of cars and light trucks by 7 percent by 2020, and 13 percent by 2035. I asked Gallegos to give me an example of what’s being done to meet those goals and he said San Diego is becoming a denser, less-sprawling community. He said, for instance, that 20 years ago about 80 percent of homes being developed or planned were single-family, and only 20 percent were apartments and condos.

"Those numbers have flipped on us,” said Gallegos. “Today 80 percent of the homes being built and being planned for the future are multifamily housing.”

And then there’s the tremendous amount of money dedicated to buses and trolleys in SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan. Close to one-quarter of the total amount is dedicated to new mass-transit projects. That means double tracking the Coaster commuter train and creating several new trolley lines, for example.

But there are some problems with any rosy scenario of vehicle-mile reductions in our future. While lots of money is planned for San Diego transit projects, those won't be completed until freeways expansions take place ... notably the infamous plan to widen I-5 by six lanes.

Elyse Lowe is the director of Move San Diego, and she said getting people out of their cars won't be easy if you're taking steps to reduce traffic congestion.

"If you put a lot of money into your freeways and make it easier to drive,” she said, “and then do transit and think people are going to choose that, you've really dis-incentivized your transit system."

Here’s another point: The law that mandates greenhouse reductions, SB 375, is not very demanding. The average motorist would only have to drive two fewer miles a day to meet its 2020 standards. The law also doesn't call for absolute reductions in emissions, only per-capita reductions. That means rising populations would wipe out any actual progress.

In fact, an analysis by the Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC) at the University of San Diego predicts greenhouse emissions from private vehicles will continue to rise between now and 2035, only at a slower rate.

Finally, SB 375 isn't much of a mandate because it has no enforcement mechanism. San Diego won't lose any state funds if it doesn't meet the standards. Nilmini Silva-Send, a policy analyst at EPIC, said recent times have shown us there’s only one sure-fire way to get Americans to drive less.

"You can get reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by increasing the price of gasoline,” she said. “So the question is: Are the targets we're setting at the regional level somehow comparable to a rise in the price of gasoline?"

There is one other thing that reduces greenhouse emissions -- hard times. Greenhouse emissions have dropped since 2007 because of the recession. Nobody wishes for bad times.

But climatologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography tell us emissions must peak and start to decline within this decade if we expect to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and limit environmental damage. That’s a long, hard road that will not be traveled by the modest goals of California state law.

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