The California Air Resources Board is scheduled to decide this week on a broad plan for implementing the state's greenhouse gas emissions reduction law. The board's decision could have profound implications for both growth patterns and individual development projects.  

The Proposed Scoping Plan for AB 32 covers many subjects, including automobile efficiency, alternative fuels and renewable energy sources, with the intent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 169 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalent annually by 2020. This is about a one-quarter reduction from "business as usual."

An early version of the scoping plan attributed 2 million tons of reduction (1.18% of the total) to local government actions and changes in land use. The 2 million-ton target disappointed environmentalists and smart growth proponents who advocate growth that encourages walking, bicycling and riding transit – and which discourages driving everywhere.

Those who were disappointed by the draft scoping plan had more positive things to say about the revised (or "proposed") scoping plan released in October. It raised the land use target to 5 million tons annually, and called for local government operations to reduce their emissions by 15%.

During a day-long public hearing in November, environmentalists and the smart growth crowd encouraged CARB to keep the land use target at 5 million tons or even increase it. Builders cautioned against the 5 million ton target. Cities were divided, with suburban towns deriding what it called an "unfunded state mandate," while some big cities and other jurisdictions urged CARB to go even further.

And further is where the board just might go. Board members directed their staff to explore a land use target "somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 MMT." A target in that range is expected to be part of the final package the staff presents to the board on Thursday morning in Sacramento.

The land use target in the AB 32 plan is crucial because it will be used by CARB when it allocates emission levels to the regions in 2010 – a step required to implement SB 375. A metropolitan planning organization must draw up a "sustainable communities strategy" that conforms to the regional emissions figure. The strategy will provide the basis for the regional transportation plan and for fair-share housing allocations.

Which gets me back to where I started. The higher CARB sets its target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions attributable to land use, the greater the pressure on cities and counties to adopt plans for compact land use.

Both sides are flooding CARB with emails in advance of the noon on Wednesday deadline for submitting written comments on the Proposed Scoping Plan.

In an email blast to members, the California Building Industry Association said, "Homebuilders have a vested interest in the success of SB 375 and AB 32. Homebuilders also have a vested interest in assisting the state out of its current and profound economic malaise. Imposing out-of-proportion burdens on California's homebuilders and consumers will neither help our struggling economy nor realistically achieve our AB 32 goals."

Environmental groups, meanwhile, are telling CARB to adopt a land use target in the 11 to 14 million ton range, based on an analysis that says CARB's model underestimates the benefits of dense, mixed-use development. "Setting a higher target for the land use sector will signal to the world that new land use patterns are a high priority in the fight against global warming," the Planning and Conservation League said in an email blast sent Monday.

The intense lobbying is very telling. Although the Schwarzenegger administration, CARB and state lawmakers insist that local governments will continue to make land use decisions, the air board could greatly influence those decisions. The board, in fact, could signal the end of the low-density, single-family housing tract.

– Paul Shigley