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There’s this thing called carbon offsets, and San Diego County might not be able to make mandated greenhouse gas cuts without them, even though that very program is what tripped up its previous climate action plans.
The Board of Supervisors kicks off the effort to rewrite its plan on Wednesday with a Democrat majority for the first time in decades, a change environmentalists are giddy will lead to more progressive steps to address climate change. But politics won’t change the physical challenges the county faces in curbing emissions locally.
Carbon offsets are credits that can be purchased on a marketplace that allow the buyer to produce pollution while the credits go toward green projects, like planting trees, which is supposed to balance out the emissions that would otherwise go into the atmosphere and speed up climate change. Environmentalists, like the Sierra Club, saw a problem with the county’s old plan, which allowed developers to build sprawling subdivisions as long as they bought these offsets. (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.)
Their biggest beef was that the offsets could be purchased on an international marketplace, meaning those San Diego developers could invest in a reforestation project in the Amazon. The emissions were happening in San Diego, but the cuts to offset them were potentially happening far, far away. A San Diego Superior Court judge agreed with the criticisms, and invalidated the plan.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher told reporters on Monday the new Climate Action Plan “cannot rely on the purchase of carbon offsets to meet emissions reduction targets.” But he didn’t say they were off the table.
Now county staff with climate expertise are tasked with starting fresh, recalculating how many emissions the county is generating now so it knows how to meet state-mandated cuts. (The county is supposed to cut 40 percent of the emissions it had produced in 1990, based on a law passed by former Gov. Jerry Brown. But there’s no data on emissions from that year, so the county used emissions numbers from 2014 in its last plan. It will have to recalculate its emissions baseline this next time around.) Kelly Bray, the county’s sustainability project manager since 2019, said she doesn’t yet know whether the county can get there without tapping the carbon offset marketplace.
“We will probably need something like that but I can’t say until we get our projections and measure where the (emissions) gap is,” Bray said.
Quick carbon offset marketplace 101: There are two different marketplaces. One is closely regulated by the California Air Resources Board, for industries to comply with legally mandated emissions limits. The other is a voluntary marketplace. That’s where Google, Disney and commercial airlines and other greening companies participate. It’s a little harder to track who is regulating the voluntary market because there are a bunch of competing certification bodies out there that aren’t always following the same rules.
Under its old Climate Action Plan, the county created offset credits for developers registered on the voluntary market. That meant if a developer wanted to plant trees across the world to make up for the emissions they’d contribute here, that would work. The judge disagreed, which halted housing developments that relied on that carbon offset scheme until the county could come up with a valid climate action plan.
The fallout from that years-long court battle has turned offsets into somewhat of a dirty word. Peter Andersen, who’s held various leadership roles at the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter, said his organization “doesn’t believe in out-of-county offsets.”
“If the offset is in Peru or the Congo we can’t observe it and it’s not enforceable,” Andersen said.
But the court never outright prohibited their use, Sierra Club’s attorney Josh Chatten-Brown confirmed. An appeals court reversed a lower court’s ruling on that piece of the lawsuit.
“It hasn’t been answered either way,” Chatten-Brown said. “But they concluded the county’s (former) program was invalid.”
Can San Diego Make Carbon Offset Projects Locally?
One of the reasons why carbon offsets are such an attractive way for the county to meet its emission reduction targets comes down to its geography. The county is huge – about 2.3 million acres of unincorporated land over which the Board of Supervisors can make decisions about land use.
People simply live farther apart in the county and travel more. On-road transportation accounted for 45 percent of the county’s emissions in 2014, the last time it was counted.
“In a higher-density situation,” like a city, Bray said, “it’s actually easier to reduce greenhouse gases.”
The county can’t rely on people to resort to walking or biking where they need to go when they’re living miles and miles away from goods and services. Even the Sierra Club agreed a massive transportation project isn’t necessarily a solution.
“You’ve got to build transit where people live, and there’s just not a lot of people that live in East County compared to the rest of the county,” said Andersen, who lives in Jamul. “There’s about 8,000 residents in Jamul. You’re not gonna put a billion-dollar train out there.”
Another option could be encouraging residents to purchase electric vehicles by building out charging stations with county money. Fletcher acknowledged that’s not a solution for the poorer in the county who can’t afford a new Tesla, and suggested instead a program subsidizing used electric vehicle purchases.
In the meantime, Bray’s team is looking for carbon offset projects the county could invest in or encourage investment in locally, but pickins are slim.
Developers often face the task of having to make up for tens of thousands of tons of emissions from their project. Investment in international projects is so attractive because prices are lower, anywhere from $1 to $3 per ton, Bray said.
Prices for projects just in the state of California are higher, like $8 to $12 per ton, in part because land prices are so high and because the market’s constrained since there’s not enough dirty industry to clean up. For instance, a developer could invest in a project to capture planet-warming methane that leaks from a landfill but there aren’t a lot of projects like that left.
“All the good stuff is taken in California. If you’re a developer looking for the highest-potency (of greenhouse gases) you can acquire … you’re getting more value out of methane capture than a little grassland project,” Bray said.
And that’s what San Diego County mostly has: bucolic, sage-brushy grassland. The best way to curb greenhouse gas emissions on land like that is to leave it alone. (One paper from the U.S. Forest Service suggests desert shrublands have a high potential to sequester, or eat-up carbon and fix it into the earth – as long as it isn’t disturbed or burned.)
But where does that leave developers who want to dig into the earth to build, but have nowhere locally to make good on their emissions? (The Building Industry Association, which represents developers and argued against the Sierra Club’s lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment.)
One idea floated by the Sierra Club and touted by newly elected Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer is a carbon mitigation bank. In theory, developers could pay a price for their emissions into a kind of county-owned savings account. That money could then be used to purchase a big tract of land for preservation or perhaps rebuilding or repairing land within the county.
“Instead of having random offset projects that aren’t super logical but the best anyone can do on their own, now you have at-scale efforts,” said Lawson-Remer, who previously worked as a climate finance consultant at the World Bank.
Andersen, from the Sierra Club, suggested the county could even buy up land where developers have proposed sprawl developments as part of those protected tracts.
Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting is symbolic in that the county is essentially opening the floor to new supervisors and the public who have other ideas to reach this target.
Lawson-Remer said she and newly elected Supervisor Nora Vargas are considering a regional sustainability plan, which would take the county’s climate efforts above and beyond what the state mandates. Vargas didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
“We’re not interested in just meeting the bare minimum requirements. We want to do the most we possibly can do to decarbonize San Diego’s economy,” Lawson-Remer said.