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The quiet streets and freeways of the pandemic lockdown seem so long ago.

Today, congestion in San Diego County and across California seems to be back with a vengeance.

We all know how to do our part to reduce emissions — carpool, take the Pacific Surfliner, buy an electric vehicle. But there’s something else that helps us combat the climate crisis — the California Environmental Quality Act.

Known as CEQA, the state’s premier environmental law requires public agencies to identify the potential environmental and public health harms of a proposed project and adopt ways to reduce or mitigate those harms. That means that when a major development or a long-range plan is proposed, cities and counties must analyze greenhouse gas emissions, wildfire risks and other factors.

For five decades, the law has been helping communities in San Diego challenge irresponsible sprawl, problematic transportation plans and development that paves over critical wildlife habitat. It’s frightening what San Diego might look like if CEQA weren’t around to keep dangerous projects in check.

Last month, a San Diego Superior Court ruled that the San Diego County Board of Supervisors violated CEQA when it approved a 1,100-home development near Chula Vista without adequately considering wildfire risks, greenhouse gas emissions and threats to sensitive habitat.

The Otay Ranch development on unincorporated land far from the city center would put thousands of cars on the road and build homes in a high wildfire zone when scientists are sounding the alarm of a global climate crisis.

Without CEQA, construction of these upscale homes, priced from $500,000 to more than $1 million, would be allowed while the money to address those additional greenhouse gas emissions would be sent out of state and overseas to purchase unreliable carbon offsets. The practice of allowing faraway mitigation measures to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions of a local project is problematic because the environmental benefits aren’t seen locally. In other words, county leaders were fine allowing development that would bring more traffic to San Diego while residents stuck on Interstate 5 would not see any benefits from mitigation measures.

Faraway carbon offsets were also at issue when the county adopted a so-called Climate Action Plan, a roadmap that is supposed to include goals and concrete measures for greenhouse gas reductions but instead did nothing to help San Diegans plan for a rapidly warming climate. The plan acted like a roadmap for developers to buy dubious offsets abroad and build sprawl projects locally. That didn’t past CEQA muster, and in 2020 a court ruled the plan insufficient.

Yet CEQA continues to be maligned by developers and building industry officials who are interested in profit and completely uninterested in climate science. Out-of-the-way sprawl developments don’t solve the state’s affordable housing crisis. They just bring more pollution, increase wildfire risks and pave over open space.

A new study released by the Housing Workshop revealed that local zoning laws, rising development costs and other factors contribute to the state’s housing crisis, not CEQA. The number of CEQA lawsuits has remained consistently low, according to the report, but the litigation process has led developers and public agencies to modify projects to address the climate crisis and environmental injustice.

In 2011, pollution and traffic were the focus of a legal battle between environmental groups and the San Diego Association of Governments. The region’s planning agency had approved a regional transportation plan that relied on road expansions over transit improvements, which would increase greenhouse gas emissions while promoting more exurbs.

The case, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court, eventually pushed the agency to update its plan to improve mitigation for climate impacts and embrace more transit options.

Thanks to CEQA, residents and concerned citizens had the opportunity to raise these climate issues and fight a woefully inadequate transportation plan in court. It’s a law that gives voice to community members who want a more sustainable future.

CEQA’s detractors don’t usually mention the law’s decidedly mainstream history. Signed by Ronald Reagan in 1970, CEQA simply pushes local governments to consider environmental impacts and mitigate them.

As California wrestles with a severe drought and a never-ending wildfire season, adequately weighing environmental harms before approving new projects is the least, we should ask our elected representatives to do.

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