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Panel Urges More Work Before Regional GHG Targets Set

A committee of experts appointed by the California Air Resources Board should come up with a list of best management practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by new development by January 2010. The practices, combined with estimates of future transportation demand, should provide the basis for the board to establish regional targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions later in 2010, according to the advisory committee.
 
The 21-member Regional Targets Advisory Committee (RTAC) submitted its recommendations to the Air Resources Board (ARB) at the end of September. While the report contains many compromises, all 21 members signed onto it and there has been no public dissent. That is remarkable considering the controversy swirling around climate change policy.
 
Formation of the committee was part of SB 375, which calls for tying regional land use planning and transportation needs to encourage development that produces fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The law charged the committee with recommending the factors to be considered – and the methodologies to be deployed – in setting GHG emissions goals for passenger vehicles. The committee's importance grew late last year when the ARB decided that the committee would help determine the role land use planning would play in reducing overall GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 (see CP&DR Insight, January 2009).

Under SB 375, the ARB must set regional GHG reduction targets by September 30, 2010. The state's 18 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must then incorporate these respective targets into their next federally required regional transportation plans, along with a "sustainable communities strategy" that lays out how land use plans and transportation policies will help meet the target. The basic idea is to encourage development projects and land use patterns that reduce reliance on the automobile.

The committee recommended the base year of 2005 for setting a uniform, statewide percent-per-capita GHG reduction target. (The committee declined to use 1990 as the base year because not enough good data is available.) Individual MPO targets could be adjusted up or down depending on regional differences, but the adjustments would be subject to what the committee termed a "reasonably tough test."
 
Meanwhile, a great deal of work needs to be completed in a short period of time, according to the committee. "The most immediate need is the development of a list of BMPs [best management practices]," the committee said. "This list should include data from empirical studies, blueprints and modeling from MPOs that identifies the magnitude of greenhouse-gas reductions that may be achieved through implementation of the policies and practices." The committee recommended the ARB work with "technical experts in land use and transportation, both academic and practitioners," to devise the BMP list by January 2010.
 
At the same time, the committee said the ARB needs to sponsor an upgrade of existing transportation demand models, which the committee said tend to be inconsistent, difficult to understand and not always compatible with GHG emissions issues. Both the BMP list and better models are critical to setting regional targets, because the committee report lacks specifics to help the ARB establish the targets, said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and RTAC chairman.
 
"Both of those products will add a lot more tangibility and specifics that the ARB can use to figure out what the numeric targets ought to be," McKeever said. The short time frame for developing the products is a direct result of SB 375's deadlines, he said. The committee also recommended it reconvene early next year to review the proposed BMP list.
 
Environmentalists worry about the RTAC's heavy reliance on BMPs. Matt Vander Sluis, global warming program manager with the Planning and Conservation League, said BMPs could be helpful but are insufficient alone to determine targets and regional compliance with them. In an announcement to members, the organization said the RTAC recommendation "opens the door to some dangerous backsliding."
 
McKeever understands the argument, which was made at several RTAC meetings. The problem is that the transportation demand models, although being improved, are not very good.
 
"The model results to date, while they are very instructive and useful, don't tell the whole story," McKeever said. "You've got to supplement those with empirical data."
 
The BMPs should not be created independent of science, McKeever added.

The committee insisted that BMPs would play an important role in translating technical and arcane material into language and concepts that elected officials and the public may understand. "Most importantly," the report added, BMPs "can enhance early implementation of policies and practices under SB 375."
 
What a BMP list might look like is uncertain. The committee report said only that it should consist of "available land use and transportation policies and practices that will result in regional greenhouse gas reductions." In addition, the list would be accompanied by a spreadsheet tool that "would determine the approximate level of reduction that could be achieved by implementing a particular strategy or set of strategies in a particular setting."
 
Best management practices for individual projects are fairly common. And earlier this year, the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association recommended policies for general plans. "To my knowledge, though," McKeever said, "there has never been a BMP list created for a regional plan, let alone one with a range of benefits and impacts applicable across a broad region."
 
While environmentalists questioned the utility of the BMP approach, they strongly endorsed the RTAC recommendation that every aspect of the regional target-setting process be open to the public. Indeed, RTAC recommended that ARB and the MPOs have extensive public interaction leading up to the ARB's June 30, 2010, deadline for setting draft regional targets.
 
The ARB is scheduled to consider the RTAC report at its November 19 meeting in Sacramento, according to a board spokesman.
 
Although the committee report might be considered timid for its lack of hard recommendations, the RTAC process of 14 meetings over the course of eight months brought together people and interest groups with very different attitudes toward SB 375 and the role of development in slowing climate change.
 
"The RTAC process was very worthwhile," said Amanda Eaken, who represented the Natural Resources Defense Council on the committee. "As a result, the key stakeholders in California land use understand the fundamental changes the state needs to make to successfully implement SB 375."
 
McKeever said the conversation among committee members and MPOs has shifted away from skepticism and frustration, and toward ensuring that SB 375 works as intended.
 
Pete Parkinson, Sonoma County's top planner, who represented the American Planning Association, California Chapter, on the RTAC, said the committee experienced some "scope creep" as it delved into housing and social equity issues, and funding recommendations for transit and planning. The committee appeared to take up these tangential issues to keep every RTAC member on board. The end result, though, is a collection of straightforward recommendations urging the state to better fund transit, local planning, redevelopment and affordable housing – sectors that have sustained big cutbacks in the recent state budgets.
 
The report also recognizes the potentially difficult position in which SB 375 places cities and counties, which are ultimately responsible for growth decisions. The report stated: "SB 375 is not a ‘no growth' bill and should not be implemented in a manner that turns it into one. Local agencies will need tools, such as education, retraining, state financial assistance, revenue raising authority and loans and credits to make a smooth transition. Without such resources, it will be difficult to ask local elected officials to make decisions that may reduce emissions while, in some instances, placing economic burdens in their communities."
 
Contacts:
Regional Targets Advisory Committee: www.arb.ca.gov/cc/sb375/rtac/rtac.htm.
Mike McKeever, Sacramento Area Council of Governments, (916) 321-9000.
Pete Parkinson, American Planning Association, California Chapter, (707) 565-1925.
Amanda Eaken, Natural Resources Defense Council, (415) 875-6100.
Matt Vander Sluis, Planning and Conservation League, (916) 313-4515.