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Environment

San Diego County staff update progress on Climate Action Plan

Northbound traffic on Interstate 5 at La Costa Avenue, Carlsbad, May 2016.
Promise Yee
Northbound traffic on Interstate 5 at La Costa Avenue, Carlsbad, May 2016.

San Diego county continues to deliberate how it will meet California's greenhouse gas reductions goals while accommodating new growth.

West Valley Parkway by the Escondido Transit center is a busy street.

“We have a brewery, brewpub over here. We have a bunch of retail down that way all within walking distance,” said JP Theberge.

And right in the middle of the area, across the street from a transportation hub that links train, bus and vehicle traffic, is a new upscale apartment building.

“On the same footprint that you might have three or four homes, this is actually not that big a lot, you can have 250 units,” Theberge said.

It is the kind of urban development that San Diego County supervisors will likely hear a lot about when they meet Wednesday because smart growth is widely expected to be a key part of their new Climate Action Plan.

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County staff are putting together a plan that will allow for growth but roll back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels at the same time.

That new Escondido apartment demonstrates the kind of urban infill project that could help the county both build more housing and have less pollution.

“Less driving. More of this means less driving,” Theberge said. “Less pollution locally and also it means less contribution to greenhouse gasses which is what the state is desperately trying to get every jurisdiction to do.”

This urban project is exactly the opposite of the kind of housing development major builders have spent a lot of money pushing for in San Diego County.

Sprawling backcountry housing tracts that plop homes in rural parts of the county would add huge numbers of vehicle trips to local roadways. More road trips to get to schools, shopping or work mean more emissions and a tough road to meeting state goals.

That hurts state-mandated efforts to reduce carbon emissions because cars and trucks generate about 40% of the region’s greenhouse gasses.

RELATED: Clean Air Day puts focus on pollution in San Ysidro

County staff are examining the numbers and coming up with a plan to reduce those emissions and even allow the county to be carbon neutral before California requires it in 2045.

“Given the number of times that the courts have thrown (the plan) out, I think it’s really important we get it right,” said Nathan Fletcher, chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

San Diego County’s previous Climate Action Plans failed to properly compensate for increases in greenhouse gas emissions linked to sprawl development projects.

A handful of plans were issued and then rejected by the courts as local environmental groups challenged them.

Fletcher says is it different this time because the planning process is being done with input from environmentalists, developers and residents.

“We’re doing the really hard gritty difficult work of putting these pieces together so that we can meet our region’s housing needs and we can meet the environmental obligations we have,” Fletcher said.

The Climate Action Plan is just one part of a regional strategy aimed at charting the county’s future.

The document will have to be compatible with any changes in the San Diego County General Plan.

The CAP will have to account for housing forecasts calculated by the San Diego Association of Governments and it will have to incorporate efforts to reduce the number of miles cars and trucks take on local highways.

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All that work takes time.

“We don’t expect to complete our climate action plan until 2024, but we are working diligently to get it in place, to lower our greenhouse gas emissions and do our part to stop climate change,” Fletcher said.

Local climate advocates have mixed feelings about the deliberative process.

“We have to make sure, at every level of government we’re taking unprecedented action as fast as possible to slash emissions and prioritize climate justice,” said Noah Harris of the Climate Action Campaign.

There is a particular urgency for San Diego’s Black and brown communities who already suffer a paucity of health care and other city services.

“We know that the climate crisis and environmental justice has and will impact low-income communities and communities of color first and worst,” Harris said. “So, the county should prioritize all their climate action investments in those historically underinvested communities. And that’s something they’ve been signaling they want to do, and we want to keep pushing so they are using the CAP to achieve climate justice.”

Harris acknowledges the change in approach and he appreciates that county officials are signaling a willingness to aim for a carbon-neutral future, where any carbon released into the atmosphere is balanced by local mitigation projects.

“After several years of fighting for a legally defendable climate action plan at the county, I’m optimistic,” Harris said. “But we still need to keep pushing.”