In spite of the California’s move toward electric vehicles, the Air Resources Board’s new scoping plan doesn’t let up on reduction in vehicle miles traveled – indicating that the state will continue to push local governments on land-use policies to reduce driving. CARB’s new goal of carbon neutrality by 2045 could also turn environmental analysis upside down under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The scoping plan calls for a 25% reduction in VMT from 1990 levels by 2030, and 30% by 2040. These could conceivably turn into significance thresholds for CEQA purposes.

“Reducing VMT is a key strategy of our state,” CARB Assistant Chief Counsel Jeannie Lee said at a recent CEQA conference in San Francisco. Lee is an AICP planner and former general counsel for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

In addition, the state is likely to push local governments to adopt building regulations that reduce carbon.

Some critics have asserted that CARB may be overstepping its bounds and essentially seeking to regulate land use. But it remains to be seen what steps the air-pollution agency might take to enforce the goal of lower VMT. The Scoping Plan carefully stops short of saying that the local strategies it encourages will be mandates.

The 300-page 2022 Scoping Plan (technically the Scoping Plan for Achieving Carbon Reduction) was approved on December 15. It’s the fourth version of the plan, which was first adopted in 2010 – and, significantly, it seeks to implement AB 1279, by Torrance Assemblymember Al Muratuchi, which requires the state to reach carbon neutrality by 2045 – and also to reduce statewide GHG emissions by 85 percent compared to 1990 levels.

Though CARB does not regulate land use directly, it’s likely to increase pressure on local governments to adopt land use policies that will decrease driving. That’s a bit of a surprise, given that the state also recently adopted a law requiring that all new vehicles sold in California must be zero-emission by 2035. But the scoping plans says that additional emissions reduction will be required, for two reasons. First, gas-powered vehicles will continue to be part of the fleet for the foreseeable future because the fleet can take up to 20 years to turn over completely. And second, the Scoping Plan notes, “Driving, regardless of vehicle technology, also produces particulate emissions from brake and tire wear.”

The Scoping Plan further states that compact development results on buildings that lead to fewer emissions and preservation of natural land that could be used for carbon sequestration. The relevant detail is included not in the Scoping Plan, but in Appendix D: Local Actions and Appendix E: Sustainable Communities.

Appendix D contains a very familiar list of planning policies that CARB says will help reduce VMT, including eliminating parking standards, adopting complete streets policies, better access to transit and bike share, parking and transportation pricing strategies, and zoning reform. “The strategies on this list are not one- size-fits-all, nor are they the only strategies that local governments can adopt,” the Scoping Plan says in Appendix D. “But they represent the core strategies that most jurisdictions in California can adopt and implement to reduce GHG emissions regardless of whether they have developed a GHG inventory or a CAP. If adopted at a sufficient scale, these strategies will address the majority of emissions under local authority in most jurisdictions.”

The 2045 targets might have an even more significant impact on CEQA analysis – not as 2045 approaches, but immediately, since projects planned and built today will have a long-term impact. At the same CEQA conference, Erik de Kok, former deputy director of OPR, said: “We could be entering a new realm.. Is 2045 a paradigm shift or a continuation of trajectory.”

More specifically, de Kok asked, “Should we be phasing out thresholds [thresholds of significance under CEQA] because the major number is zero by 2045?”

Perhaps one of the biggest questions will be which mitigation measures and offsets will be allowed as projects attempt to dramatically reduce GHG emissions and contribute to net zero by 2045. In particular will be the question of how to verify offsets and whether offsets must be geographically proximate to the projects – especially since GHG emissions, unlike other emissions, are a global concern.

San Diego County attempted to adopt offset standards that would permit offsets from distant locations, but that approach was struck down an appellate court in 2020 in the Golden Door case. (CP&DR’s coverage of the Golden Door case can be found here.) Lee said: “GHG emissions are a global concern, but they affect local neighborhoods. The greatest impact that an emission reduction has is that it benefits the immediate neighborthood.”