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Thursday, July 5, 2007 | The blueprint for San Diego’s future development reflects the threats the city faces from global warming: scarcer water; increased wildfire risks; higher sea levels.

But the blueprint concludes that the city’s development — and more than 360,000 new residents that will follow — will bring an “unavoidable” increase in the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, even though the city could take steps to reduce those emissions.

Lukewarm on Warming

  • The Issue: As it plans its future development, the city of San Diego has to address its impacts on the environment and global warming.
  • What It Means: The state attorney general, who has sued other jurisdictions over similar issues, has criticized the city’s development blueprint for lacking specific steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Bigger Picture: The city says it is heeding most of the attorney general’s advice, though it has not yet said how it will specifically address the concerns.

The state attorney general recently chided the city for failing to sufficiently mitigate the new development’s impacts on global warming, saying that the city should adopt enforceable steps to combat climate change.

San Diego has dozens of tools available to reduce residents’ production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, from mandating rooftop solar panels to establishing green building standards.

As the city drafts its general plan to address future growth, state law requires the plan to evaluate its impacts on the environment, including how that growth will affect global warming. The attorney general’s office, the agency responsible for enforcing that law, recently sued San Bernardino County saying that its development blueprint failed to sufficiently address global warming.

San Diego’s general plan, which outlines strategies and goals for the city’s development over the next 20 years, estimates that the population will grow by 360,000 over the plan’s life. Those residents will get in their cars and travel an additional 7 million miles daily — adding tons of carbon dioxide to the air.

In a June 11 letter, Sandra Goldberg, a deputy attorney general, urged the city to adopt a broad range of enforceable mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from new development authorized in the plan.

Goldberg told the city that the plan’s current treatment of global warming “reads more as a statement of preferences and opinions, rather than a definite commitment to adopt and enforce policies.”

The Attorney General’s Office listed several steps the city could take to reduce residents’ greenhouse gas emissions. They include:

  • Requiring new housing developments to install solar panels and new businesses to get a portion of their energy from renewable sources.
  • Requiring new construction and renovation projects to incorporate green building design principals.
  • Closing gaps in the city’s recycling policies to require mandatory recycling in apartments and businesses, as well as the reuse of construction debris.

The Attorney General’s Office met with city officials last week. Jim Waring, the mayor’s land-use chief, said the city plans to heed “most” of the state’s advice. The city plans to announce those modifications by week’s end, Waring said.

While Waring said the city wants to be a leader in greenhouse gas reductions, he also said he’d prefer to see the state or federal governments lead the way. If the city leads, it could put development here at a disadvantage, Waring said, while having little effect on the global problem.

“At a macro level [greenhouse gases] can clearly be reduced,” Waring said. “But we’re such a micro level. You really want to whack this stuff, let’s up the gas mileage and impose policies on carpools. There are ways you can alter behavior through legislation. No city has the power to do that.”

Scientists, environmentalists and planners in other cities say San Diego’s pessimistic view is shortsighted.

“Just to take the view that development is inevitable and greenhouse gas emissions are impossible, that seems to be ducking the question,” said Richard Somerville, distinguished professor emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It sounds like a cop out.”

But Craig Benedetto, a spokesman for the Building Owners and Managers Association, said adding too many requirements to new development could force businesses to move outside the city. He suggested an incentive-based approach that would have the city relax density requirements depending on how green a new building is.

“If they want to be a leader,” Benedetto said, “they should look at incentivizing these standards in the general plan.”

City Councilwoman Donna Frye said she worried that the new measures Waring promised would either not surface or be insufficient.

“There are ways to make the city more sustainable,” Frye said. “Just because you can’t change the world doesn’t mean you can’t stop things from getting worse. It’s just that attitude that is why nothing is really getting done. And I just don’t buy it.”

Other cities on the West Coast have taken steps to combat global warming and criticized San Diego for suggesting that municipal governments were powerless.

San Francisco’s government has increased incentives for energy efficiency in buildings throughout the city, expanded recycling programs and begun purchasing more electricity from renewable sources. The city aims to reduce residents’ greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. A city audit found that San Francisco’s emissions have returned to their 1990 levels.

“We don’t have to look to the federal government,” said Mark Westlund, a spokesman for San Francisco’s Environment Department. San Diego wants “a level playing field before they play. We see it as our own responsibility.”

In Portland, the city established a $2.5 million grant program to support green building, developed plans to buy all of its electricity from wind farms by 2010 and increased investments in public transportation.

“It’s not inevitable that growth equates with emissions,” said Amy Stork, a spokeswoman for Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development. If San Diego ignores global warming in its growth plans, “we’d certainly say that’s a big mistake. That hasn’t been Portland’s philosophy. It seems a little shortsighted.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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