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San Diego County supervisors push forward on complicated Climate Action Plan

Smoke plumes from the Valley Fire viewed from Japatul Road facing East, southeast of Alpine in San Diego County. Sept. 6, 2020.
Erik Anderson
Climate change increases chance of wildfires like this one. Smoke plumes from the Valley Fire viewed from Japatul Road facing East, southeast of Alpine in San Diego County. Sept. 6, 2020.

The state mandated requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has county officials pushing hard to develop a legally defensible climate action plan.

San Diego County supervisors push forward on complicated Climate Action Plan

Speaker 1: (00:00)

There is a need for more housing, infrastructure and transportation, but how can San Diego county accommodate growth while cutting greenhouse gas emissions? That's what supervisors weighed as they updated progress on the climate action plan KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson has been covering this and joins us to talk about how the county is reaching its goals. Eric welcome. Thank you, Jay. So what did county staff have to say about the progress on the county's climate action planning? Yesterday's update?

Speaker 2: (00:32)

Well, county staff came to the board of supervisors to let them know where they are in the process. And, uh, that was really kind of a point of contention of the meeting, uh, because they still seem to be in the, kind of like the first third of the effort and they don't expect to be done uh, this year, uh, or not even until actually the end of next year. Uh, one of the, uh, folks who came to the meeting, um, to talk about the plan and encourage the supervisors also had this, uh, this is Noah Harris or the climate action camp. And he had this to say, uh, about the process.

Speaker 3: (01:06)

We are deeply alarmed at the delay presented today, um, which will push the caps adoption into late 20, 23. As you've heard we're in a climate emergency, we have to slash emissions as soon as possible to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Speaker 2: (01:22)

So he is basically saying that he wants to see this thing done faster. Um, county officials say they want to make sure they do it right. Uh, so that it will stand up to legal screws.

Speaker 1: (01:33)

It seems like environmentalist though are saying that not having that climate action plan means the county is not addressing climate change or at least not fast enough. Is that the case?

Speaker 2: (01:44)

Well, supervisor's countered that assertion. Uh, Nathan Fletcher said yesterday that look, this doesn't mean that we're going to stop everything else we're doing. We're still going to try and reduce emissions with other policies and actions. We're still going to try to be a little bit smarter about the growth that we approve so that we can address the housing crisis without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Uh, I think the key though, to having this plan in place is it would set that clear, uh, roadmap, roadmap, uh, with benchmarks, uh, for the county to shoot for.

Speaker 1: (02:18)

Okay. So let's talk more about the plan itself. What are some of the top-line goals of the plan?

Speaker 2: (02:24)

Well, basically what the county is mandated to do, uh, by a piece of state legislation that passed several years ago is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. And they have to cut them back by 80% by 2050 and county officials have kind of added on to that. They say they will want to try and decarbonize San Diego county and get to a zero carbon space where if they are emitting carbon, um, they made up for it by, uh, having mitigation projects that reduce or sequester carbon on the other. And so that they have a zero baseline and they'd like that to happen sometime between 2035 and 2045. So they have some ambitious goals and they are squarely, uh, looking at this idea that, uh, San Diego county's future is closely tied to the county's ability, uh, to reduce its carbon footprint.

Speaker 1: (03:26)

One of the primary topics in the climate action plan is where to build homes. Talk to us about that.

Speaker 2: (03:31)

Uh, many of these things, as you might think, do not exist in a vacuum. It's not just cars, it's not just houses, but where to build homes can affect many other things. For example, if you build homes in clusters, around transportation hubs, this idea of smart growth, what you're doing is you're putting people into more walkable communities, which will reduce their Alliance on cars and trucks and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If they are living close to where they work or where they go to school or where they need to shop, then that reduces the number of miles that they have to travel. If they have to travel miles at all in a car to get to those places, it's changing the way the county develops. And now there are members of the board of supervisors, county supervisor, Jim Desmond, who said yesterday, that look, it's not something that's going to happen overnight. And he doesn't want people to forget that San Diego county was essentially built for the automobile Rhodes

Speaker 4: (04:28)

And freeways, even though there seem to be the, the nemesis, uh, throughout all of this are still going to be, they're still going to be used and still going to need, um, attention and work.

Speaker 2: (04:40)

And what Desmond is saying is, is that we need to rely a little bit more on technology and he would like to see the plan acknowledge that he would. He's saying that, you know, if a lot of the automobiles become electric automobiles, they're not going to be creating these emissions and it's not going to be such a big issue. And he wants that acknowledged in the plan.

Speaker 1: (04:57)

And this isn't the county's first attempt at this previous boards have failed on approving a legally defensible plan. Uh, what were the primary issues with previous versions of this plan?

Speaker 2: (05:08)

The primary thing was that, um, the county tried to account for these increases in greenhouse gas emissions that might be created by developments in the back country by swapping carbon credits somewhere outside of the country. That was the last plan, uh, that was rejected in the courts. Uh, so a developer could build a housing development in a rural area, would create all these extra car trips. And in order to offset the car trips, they would bright carbon credits somewhere worldwide, uh, you know, maybe supporting the rainforest in Brazil or some other location. And that would suffice, uh, to offset this additional greenhouse gas emissions that they've created. But what the judge said was, uh, very clear. He said, look, um, this would not help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals. Um, and he suggested that any kind of mitigation should happen locally if you're going to be increasing, uh, greenhouse gases locally because you can't track, um, how well these global carbon credits are actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Speaker 1: (06:16)

Um, and there was also a request to keep environmental justice a priority. Can you talk about why that's important and how the county may be able to prioritize that?

Speaker 2: (06:26)

The thing about environmental justice here is that there's kind of this interesting intersection of greenhouse gases and pollution. They, most of the greenhouse gases do come from vehicles, cars, and trucks, and there are communities in San Diego county, uh, that live near the port that lived near the international border, uh, that are already suffering the effects of pollution from economic activity. And they're trying to reduce that pollution effect. And if they're successful in reducing the pollution that also lessens the greenhouse gas emissions. So it's a, it's a goal that kind of walks hand in hand, uh, in that sense. And, uh, Nora Vargas was saying yesterday that, uh, she wanted to make sure that, um, as areas like OTI Mesa are developed near the border, uh, that they keep in mind, the county keeps in mind that any kind of Velma there has to be, uh, cognizant of the potential impact of truck traffic so that those residents might not be exposed to the kind of pollution that residents in Barrio, Logan and national city, or

Speaker 1: (07:30)

I've been speaking with KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson, Eric, thanks for joining

Speaker 2: (07:35)

Us. My pleasure.

San Diego County officials are pressing forward on a Climate Action Plan that could change the way the county develops.

The CAP is a complicated undertaking that could reshape conventional planning assumptions that let San Diego become a car centered county.

The process still needs time, but environmentalists say it is vital for the region, because Southern California is already experiencing drought and wildfires linked to climate change.

“It is not just your generation and my generation at risk,” said Katie Meyer of San Diego 350. “But future generations who will not know a normal life without experiencing these devastating effects.”

RELATED: San Diego County staff update progress on Climate Action Plan

Meyer urged the panel to move forward quickly because climate change is no longer something that’s happening in the future.

San Diego officials are building a Climate Action Plan tasked with reducing the county’s greenhouse gas emissions sharply by 2030.

It is a state mandate that the county infamously failed to meet with the courts rejecting San Diego County’s climate action plan six times.

The latest defeat was in the summer of 2020, when the 4th circuit court of appeals rejected the county’s plan to offset carbon emissions from new housing developments by buying carbon offsets anywhere in the world.

The court said the plan would not help the state slash greenhouse gas emissions by a mandated 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

County staff say the complex planning document will take a significant amount of time to complete. They don’t expect to be ready for review until the end of 2023.

“We are deeply alarmed at the delay presented today,” said Noah Harris of the Climate Action Campaign. “As you heard, we’re in a climate emergency. We have to slash emissions as soon as possible to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”

RELATED: Port of San Diego adopts sweeping new clean air plan

But the chair of the San Diego Board of Supervisors, Nathan Fletcher, is not uncomfortable with the deliberative process because he wants the county to get it right.

“We’ve got to do it all in a legally compliant way which is very challenging and in a way that takes into account community concerns about where things should go,” Fletcher said. “But as a board, we want to be on a goal of building consistently more housing than we built previously, but putting it in the right place.”

That means no more sprawl developments in the backcountry which require people to drive long distances for work, school or shopping.

County staff are looking at smart growth policies the locate new housing near transportation hubs. The idea is to create walkable neighborhoods that reduce reliance on cars and other vehicles.

“So buses and trains, in my mind are still going to be there but we’re still going to have roads,” said Jim Desmond, a San Diego County Supervisor. “We’re still going to have that infrastructure and we need to look at new technology to try to help solving problems of the future.”

RELATED: Climate Change Raises Risk For Outdoor Workers

San Diego County supervisors push forward on complicated Climate Action Plan

Desmond said freeways will remain important and he thinks the impact of technology should be part of the plan.

Electric cars, Desmond said, could have a significant impact on emissions without adding the region’s greenhouse gas emission.

There was also a request to keep environmental justice a priority.

Supervisor Nora Vargas called on staff to make sure future development in areas like Otay Mesa take into account the impact of pollution on predominantly brown and black communities.

“We have to make sure that we are responsible in how we’re doing while insuring we support the cleanest industrial development and job growth. I do believe that this can be done,” Vargas said.

In a related action, the board endorsed a request to advocate for renewable energy resources. It is part of the county’s broader plan to decarbonize the county and to make sure those efforts focus on environmental equity.