This post has been updated.

He gave progressives what they wanted.

The plan Mayor Kevin Faulconer released Tuesday to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years met the benchmark set by progressives: The plan has legally binding mandates for reductions, not just guidelines.

If it is implemented by a largely supportive City Council, it will put San Diego on the hook to cut carbon emissions in half by 2035. To do that, the city will have to support new housing in established neighborhoods, expand public transit and access new sources of renewable energy.

It would also give the city a backbone of sorts when future development controversies arise. In the past, the city has quickly caved to neighborhood concerns over new housing or transit projects – if the plan becomes law, the city could argue it’s legally required to support environmentally friendly urban growth principles.

The flip side is that environmentalists will have a new tool to hold the city accountable in the courts.

Faulconer didn’t have total discretion in creating a legally binding plan; he could have opened the city to litigation if he hadn’t. A judge tossed the San Diego Association of Governments’ long-term transportation plan in late 2012 because it didn’t comply with state laws to reduce carbon emissions. The city could be sued on the same grounds if its climate plan didn’t have teeth.

But it wouldn’t have been the first time the city went down a legally questionable path. SANDAG’s defeat is under appeal, and it’s updating a plan that doesn’t diverge significantly from the last one. Faulconer certainly could have chosen a similar path.

Faulconer also framed the release of the plan as an environmental jobs program. All these measures will create demand for new industries, he said, fitting the initiative into his administration’s preferred business-friendly narrative.

There’s still a long way to go. The plan still must make it through a state-required environmental review before it can even be considered by the City Council. That’s likely to take at least a year.

But if the plan is enacted, it could have sweeping implications for San Diego’s future.

Enforceable Reduction Targets

This is the big one.

Faulconer’s plan commits the city to cutting total greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2020 and 49 percent by 2035, based on its emission level from 2010.

Those are the same goals from the plan ushered through City Hall by Council President Todd Gloria when he was interim mayor, and the ones the City Council last week formally requested in a resolution.

Gloria said Faulconer’s proposal represents 97 percent of what he wanted.

As long as those targets are legal commitments — rather than lofty aspirations — the city opens itself to lawsuits if it fails to meet them. That means the city has motivation to make sure all the components of the plan meant to produce the reductions are actually enacted.

No Retrofit Mandate

One of the earliest items in the original plan to generate vocal opposition was a proposal to require property owners to make energy efficiency-based repairs to before their homes or buildings could be sold.

Local real estate groups strongly opposed the measure.

That’s gone.

In its place, Faulconer’s plan would force property owners to disclose a building’s energy usage before they can sell it. But they won’t be forced to make any changes.

What exactly such a disclosure would entail hasn’t been sorted out.

The Power We Use

The plan includes a goal to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, with an emphasis on local sources.

The most likely way to reach that goal is by adopting a community choice aggregation (CCA) program, but Faulconer’s plan is a bit less committal on that than Gloria’s.

Faulconer’s plan says the Council will consider a CCA program “or another program that increases the renewable energy supply.”

Gloria’s plan simply said the city would implement a CCA program by 2020.

If the plan creates a CCA, the city, rather than SDG&E, would purchase all the energy for city businesses and residents. SDG&E would continue to deliver the energy to homes and businesses, like they do today.

Everyone would automatically be entered into the CCA, but they could opt out to keep buying their energy from SDG&E. If you stay in the CCA, you’d have a choice of different packages of power. One might be 33 percent from renewable sources, and the other one available at a premium could be 100 percent from renewable sources.

SDG&E supported a proposed state bill that would have weakened CCAs in general, but state law restricts public utilities from lobbying or marketing against the creation of a specific local CCA.

But there’s some wiggle room here, if SDG&E or the city somehow figures how to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 without setting up a CCA.

How We Commute

The plan also includes some ambitious goals for changing the way residents get to work.

Here’s how much Faulconer wants to increase the percentage of the population that walks, bikes or takes transit to work:

In 2010, just 3 percent of the city walked to work. The plan doesn’t see that changing by 2020, but it wants to more than double it by 2035.

Cyclists accounted for 2 percent of commuters in 2010, but that number is expected to increase to 6 percent in 2020 and 18 percent in 2035.

And transit use would grow from 4 percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2020 and 25 percent in 2035.

These goals are not quite as ambitious as they appear.

Those higher numbers are limited to areas within a half mile of an existing or planned major transit stop, which is defined as any rail transit station or a station where two bus lines with frequent service rates intersect.

An earlier draft of the plan included a list of communities called “high quality transit areas” that would qualify, but that’s been replaced by areas within a half-mile of high-functioning transit services.

The plan also offers a sweetener for the transit priority areas. It says the city should develop a new way to prioritize infrastructure improvements for those neighborhoods.

But achieving those numbers is going to come down to building different neighborhoods than the ones we have now.

That means more of the sort of dense, walkable projects in already-established areas that have run into community opposition — like the Morena Boulevard corridor, Grantville and in Uptown — envisioned in the 2008 citywide plan for future growth.

“I don’t expect it to make [transit-oriented] projects any less controversial but those who might be opposed will see we’re doing this in a strategic way, that we’re doing it to achieve overarching goals, not because an individual developer wants us to, but because we as a community understand that climate change is going to have real impacts on San Diego,” said Gloria. “I think it’ll allow the Council to evaluate projects in terms of whether they’re helping us to meet these goals, to help developers understand what we’re trying to accomplish, not just to propose density for density’s sake, but because it’s part of a broader strategy to create a more sustainable community.”

The city currently handles local opposition to projects like those by pointing out the changes are consistent with its general plan – a strategy that hasn’t been going so well. Now, it’ll have a stronger hand: We’re legally obligated to build projects that discourage car usage.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the higher rates of commuting by biking, walking and using transit were to come from a list of neighborhoods considered “high quality transit areas.” That list has been removed in the most recent draft. The higher transit numbers are limited to areas within a half mile of rail stations and bus stations with frequent service.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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