Carbon plans

City planners will have to directly address climate change whether they’re prepared to or not. New case law emerging in California, under AG Jerry Brown, will require municipalities (and developers) to bring their plans into accordance with state climate action goals (AB 32), say Steve Jones and Dustin Till from the Marten Law Group:

California’s adoption of statewide emission-reduction targets in 2006 supplied the basis for the State of California’s claims in State of California v. San Bernardino County. After San Bernardino County issued its CEQA analysis for a comprehensive planning update that would guide future development in the County, both the State and environmental groups sued, claiming that the County violated CEQA by failing to assess how the substantial development anticipated by the plan would contribute to climate change and by failing to adopt measures to mitigate the climate change impacts of future development in the County…

The City of Austin, Texas adopted a “Climate Action Plan” which contains strategic elements such as the use of a “Compact City” and “New Urbanism” development approaches…

These developments make it prudent for developers to begin to assess and be prepared to mitigate the climate change impacts of new projects. For their part, municipalities will need to take account of the impacts of climate change in their land use planning and development regulations – requiring mitigation of GHG emissions for new development, as well as adopting plans that are consistent with the states’ emission-reduction targets.

Interestingly, the San Bernandino case (reported by John Ritter in USA Today) is not the first CEQA challenge to a local planning decision on the basis of carbon dioxide pollution, according to law firm Bingham McCutchen:

It was only a matter of time before the issue reached CEQA actions. An early greenhouse gas challenge to a CEQA document came in November 2006. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the City of Banning, seeking to overturn the approval of a 1500 home development. The suit alleges that the project will result in large emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, because the project will increase vehicle trips, and the EIR prepared for the project fails to analyze those emissions or associated global warming impacts. That case remains pending. The Center filed a similar lawsuit on April 11, 2007, challenging San Bernardino County’s new General Plan. Two days later, the Attorney General also sued… In the short term, agencies and developers can expect lawsuits similar to those filed by the Center and the Attorney General. With no published case directly on point, the parties will seek to establish precedent that will shape California’s environmental future. (emphasis added)

It would be very interesting to see how court challenges under CEQA — particularly by third parties — will shape smart growth and/or transportation investments in California. One can see anyone planning a highway or coal power plant might be very worried indeed. Another question for the future might be whether California cases could be cited as precedent for similar challenges under NEPA, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s recent directive on EPA regulation of carbon dioxide. An EIS (or EIR) can say anything it wants to, of course, but municipalities will be in a much better position to respond to these cases if they have a binding climate action plan in place.

Of course, any analysis of American cities’ contribution to climate change must begin with automobiles. Julian Borger reports in the Guardian on a recent Environmetal Defense report on the magnitude of American cars’ pollution: nearly half of all tailpipe emissions worldwide come from American cars. “The amount of CO2 emitted from oil used for transportation in the United States is similar to the amount from coal used to generate electricity.”

Mayor Sam Sullivan of Vancouver’s EcoDensity initiative includes a call for provinces to tie capital spending decisions to big-picture ecological outcomes. From an editorial in the 13 Feb National Post:

As mayor of one of Canada’s biggest cities, Vancouver, I am frustrated with the nature of the debate on global climate change in this country.

Over the past several months, I have watched as environmental organizations, government agencies and the media provide advice on how Canadians can make small changes to our lifestyles, yet continue living in a fundamentally unsustainable fashion.

Instead of telling Canadians to simply check the air pressure in their tires to ensure better mileage, or put energy efficient light bulbs in their suburban homes, we should be talking about how better urban planning and densification of our cities can significantly reduce our impact on the environment.

Not once have I seen any prominent national news coverage on the link between increased urban density and the impact on our global ecology. It is time that we have this debate…

Prior to becoming mayor, in my 13 years as a Vancouver city councillor, the “D” word was not popular. In fact, the mere mention of increased density often meant the kiss of death for a civic politician’s career. But, with an ageing population, rising home prices and an increased public interest in protecting our local and global environment, the time has come for us to embrace density as a tool to make cities more sustainable and livable…

At a local level, cities should be seeking every opportunity to immediately use density as a tool to ensure we provide new and innovative forms of housing so that people can live closer to where they work. Through the creative use of our zoning powers, cities have a responsibility to become a major partner in the battle against climate change. But that will mean showing leadership beyond our three-year mandates and making the tough but necessary choices which may not always prove popular.

I also believe that provincial and federal governments should be demanding that cities commit to carbon-reducing strategies such as Eco Density before they provide infrastructure funding.

For too long, cities have built out to the far edges of our downtown cores, and then run cap in hand to senior levels of government demanding billions of new infrastructure dollars to fund these unsustainable planning and zoning decisions. Although it would be a departure from the status quo, future investments in infrastructure should be directly linked to the environment.

Update: Of course, some want to amend CEQA to pre-empt such challenges.