A view of traffic along Interstate 8 in Mission Valley. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego County is on the verge of adopting a climate action plan that won’t do much to reduce our region’s contributions to climate change.

In an area vulnerable to sea level rise, drought and wildfire, you would think county leaders would take this issue seriously. Instead of leading with science and focusing on proven solutions, they continue to avoid the hard truth: San Diego must reduce car travel and promote compact development. We can’t afford to delay action any longer.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

California law requires every city and county to develop a climate action plan, or CAP. These plans are supposed to map out specific steps that allow local governments to meet statewide greenhouse gas reduction targets. But in San Diego County, officials act like our region can escape the worst of climate change without doing our part.

In 2014, car travel accounted for 45 percent of greenhouse gas emissions generated in San Diego County. It is therefore completely mystifying that the county’s CAP simply ignores the issues of land use planning and transportation. Compare this approach to those of other metro regions around the state, like the Bay Area and Los Angeles, where they are investing heavily in public transit and updating land use policies accordingly.

San Diego County’s head-in-the-sand mentality was made clear when Supervisor Ron Roberts recently criticized the way state agencies measure car travel — using a metric known as vehicle miles traveled, or VMT — as “a political metric.” This runs counter to state policies. It’s only by measuring VMT that local governments can evaluate how well they are doing in their efforts to reduce regional air pollution.

Mark Wardlaw, San Diego County’s Planning Director, argued at the January 18 Planning Commission meeting that land use is not part of CAP. But state law closely ties land use planning to climate change, recognizing that encouraging transit-friendly development leads to fewer people driving to work and more people biking, walking and taking transit for their commutes.

The CAP that will go before the Board of Supervisors at its Wednesday’s meeting is rooted in fantasy. San Diego County’s plan makes no attempt to curb sprawl development. Instead, the county’s CAP relies on a laundry list of small-scale solutions that depend on individual action instead of regional policy over which the county has actual control.

Incentivizing homeowners to go solar is a great goal, as is improving energy efficiency in new and existing buildings. Depending on individuals to change behavior to divert more trash from landfills is another helpful step in the larger effort. But these actions barely scratch the surface of the kinds of gains the county could realize if its leaders got serious about reducing solo driving.

County staff and elected officials have indulged in a type of magical thinking, one in which we can continue to build sprawl-style housing developments far from jobs and services, no matter how many more cars that would push onto the road. The county’s CAP only pencils out if electric vehicles skyrocket in popularity and sprawl-housing developers purchase carbon offset credits on the international market to make up for the local emissions that these developments would generate.

The California Air Resources Board requires that industrial polluters rely on offset credits for no more than eight percent of emissions reduction goals in the cap-and-trade program. San Diego County’s CAP relies on offsets for seventy-five percent of its emissions reduction efforts. While no hard limit has yet been set, this clearly violates the spirit of California’s greenhouse gas regulations.

What’s worse, there’s no evidence that the county’s plan to rely on offsets — instead of cutting emissions — will work. The efficacy of the carbon credit market remains unclear. Moreover, developers, competing with the likes of oil companies and other heavy industry for offset credits, may ultimately find them unaffordable. You can also bet the cost of these offsets will be baked into the price tag of new homes, adding to the cost of housing in this already-expensive region.

More than a housing or a traffic crisis, San Diego County has a leadership crisis. Our decision-makers are unwilling to comply with state mandates that are in place to save us from the worst effects of climate change.

The Board of Supervisors should reject the CAP in its current form. The plan should be reworked to include land use policies that stop sprawl and support the use of transit, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on cars.

A San Diego judge previously criticized local policymakers for “kicking the can down the road” by delaying the implementation of concrete steps to address climate change. By arbitrarily eliminating land use and transportation metrics from the county’s CAP, officials are taking it one step further and kicking the can right off a cliff.

Jana Clark is secretary of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation Board of Directors. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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