The Newland Sierra property / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego County has struggled for years to come up with a plan to fight climate change.

California requires local governments to come up with so-called climate action plans. The county approved one in 2012, but it was rejected by the courts. Now, county officials are taking another crack at it.

The plan is necessarily ambitious and disruptive. It outlines the future for both the county government’s operations and for development in unincorporated parts of the county. Cities, like San Diego, have their own climate plans. The greenhouse gases that cause climate change are produced at every turn. Lights, cars, new homes, farming — everything can add some bit of gas to the atmosphere.

But the county’s plan is also, like all such plans, long-winded and hard-to-follow, so the public is largely unaware of its ramifications. For instance:

The county’s draft climate action plan proposes new efficiency regulations that would add $15,000 to the cost of new homes. The County Planning Commission — which reviews such policies before they are voted on by the Board of Supervisors — voted last month to remove those regulations and instead adopted a scaled-back set of rules that will only add $1,200 to cost of new homes.

County officials propose spending up to $55 million on a series of gas-reduction projects. One such project would involve buying new heating and cooling units for up to 5 percent of the homes in the county’s unincorporated areas. Another would capture methane coming from livestock manure.

Outside activist groups have their own ideas. The Sierra Club, for instance, wants the county government to take free parking subsidies away from county workers. The idea is to encourage transit use by removing a subsidy for driving.

These dramatic steps may be nothing compared to the effects climate change is expected to have — or is already having — on San Diego.

Some of the most beautiful and valuable coastline in the world will flood repeatedly before its permanently buried underwater. Suburban homes will be threatened by ever-more frequent fire. Water the region cannot live without may no longer be available.

In the face of those concerns, environmentalists are worried the county’s plan is not serious enough. Environmental groups have many objections, most prominently that the county’s plan makes it too easy for developers to build sprawling developments in the backcountry.

Dan Silver, head of the Endangered Habitats League, said the county’s unwillingness to reign in backcountry development is now showing up in its climate action plan.

“They’ve just kind of washed their hands of land use and that’s wrong because they are the unique entity that can control that,” he said.

In 2011, the county came up with a plan to limit such development. But that hasn’t stopped developer after developer from asking the county to waive its own restrictions to allow thousands of new homes on largely undeveloped rural land. The most talked about project of this kind is the 1,700-home Lilac Hills Ranch development proposed near Valley Center, which county voters rejected in 2016.

But Lilac Hills was not alone and projects like it present a particular challenge to the county’s climate plan.

Without any changes, the county expects to produce 3.7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2030. The state says the county is only allowed to produce 1.7 million tons of gases in 2030. (For comparison, a typical car emits about 5 tons of greenhouse gases each year.)

As is, the county is facing an uphill battle. Each time it approves one of the housing projects seeking exemptions from its development restrictions, that incline becomes steeper. Take Newland Sierra, a 2,100-unit housing development proposed near San Marcos. It would add up to 93,000 tons of greenhouse gases to the air during construction and another 43,000 tons each year for its first 30 years of operation.

That’s more greenhouse gases than the county planned for.

Newland says it is doing everything it can to curb emissions. It’s building efficient homes and equipping them to run on solar power. It’s going to run a shuttle to encourage people to take public transit.

But some things are unavoidable. So, the developers behind Newland and others want to be able to buy credits to offset the gases they produce. There are markets set up to make this very thing possible. If a developer wants to make up for a ton of greenhouse gas it emits, it can pay someone to plant trees that will suck a ton of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. Newland plans to get about 82 percent of its greenhouse gas reduction by buying these credits.

The county’s climate plan says this is a good deal. It says developers should do everything they can that is “feasible” to reduce carbon during the construction and operation of their projects. The county wants to let developers buy credits to deal with whatever carbon increase remains.

But not all credits are created equal. Some offset options are on the other side of the world, others are nearby. The county says developers should buy credits for projects nearby, if feasible. Then they can look for credits within the state, then within in the country. If none of that is feasible, the developer can buy credits internationally.

A lot hinges on what is “feasible.”

Several environmentalists argue the word is basically meaningless and will allow developers to buy cheap credits on the international market. This means a developer in San Diego causing pollution in San Diego can plant trees somewhere in Asia and say their project is not contributing to global warming. This is, indeed, how the science works: one ton of gas reduced one place is just as good as a ton reduced someplace else.

Both Newland and another development, Sweetwater Vistas, have given themselves the option of buying international credits.

Rita Brandin, Newland’s senior vice president, said the company will favor local credits but doesn’t see a problem with buying international credits.

“It’s about global warming not just San Diego warming,” she said, “and there are some tremendous opportunities offshore to participate in the kinds of projects that have additional benefits.”

Dan Thompson, the CEO of Mastercraft Residential, the developer behind Sweetwater Vistas, said his project isn’t like Newland. It’s 122 condos, not hundreds of homes, and it’s right in the middle of things, not on an undeveloped hilltop. He said he’s only going to need to buy a small number of credits.

When he heard that Newland was going to be offsetting 82 percent of its greenhouses gases through credits he said, “Are you kidding me? Good luck.”

Environmental groups argue that it will be hard for the county to police whether these credits are doing what they’re supposed to if the projects — like tree plantings — are happening in far-flung places.

The county and developers both say credits will have to be bought on reputable credit markets approved by the California Air Resources Control Board, known as CARB. The board has three different credit markets it approves of, but its approval only goes so far. It regulates the markets for credits they sell as part of the state’s separate cap-and-trade program.

The board does not regulate other credits sold on the market, like the ones that developers are talking about buying.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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