The California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced on July 11, 2018, that the state has met its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets four years before the target year of 2020. This reduction target was established by AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which set the goal for reducing GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Recent measurements have indicated that GHG emissions across the state in 2016 totaled 429.4 million metric tons, dropping below the target of 431 million metric tons drawn from 1990 levels. According to the Board, emissions were down by 13% since their peak in 2004 – “an achievement roughly equal to taking 12 million cars off the road or saving 6 billion gallons of gasoline a year.” Notably, over the same period the economy grew by 26%, dispelling any lingering suspicions that emissions reductions would come with reduced economic performance.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), passed in 1970, has played a particularly important role in bringing about this achievement. CEQA requires state and local agencies to follow a protocol of analysis and public disclosure of environmental impacts for all projects, making environmental considerations a mandatory part of decision-making processes in the state. CEQA covers 17 environmental topical sections, including GHG emissions, land use, energy, transportation, population and housing, and hazards.

Since its introduction, agencies under the requirements of CEQA have pursued unique strategies to ensure CEQA compliance, often enlisting the aid of private sector organizations to meet CEQA goals. These organizations help agencies navigate the CEQA-specific review process, and directly address CEQA best-practice issues such as:

  • GHG emissions: Does the project generate significant GHG emissions, and if so, what measures are being proposed to mitigate potential impacts? Working with environmental consultants, planners and developers are able to identify project design features that reduce GHG emissions and ensure compliance at the local, regional and state levels. As an example, in planning new developments, agencies should consider choices such as transit-oriented design features to reduce vehicle use and resulting emissions.
  • Land use: Does the project divide a community, conflict with existing land-use policies, or disrupt habitat conservation plans? Managing urban growth locally and regionally is one of the most challenging issues facing planners and their communities. Environmental consultants assist local and regional metropolitan planning organizations with developing sustainable land-use strategies to help manage urban growth.
  • Energy: Is the project consistent with CEQA’s renewable energy regulations? Energy loss through inefficiency is one of the most significant contributors to energy waste in California and across the nation. Many cities are constantly working to update building codes to reflect current best-practices in green building efficiency, reducing energy waste and cutting costs for businesses and citizens. To tackle this widespread energy challenge, environmental consultants coordinate with agencies and developers to utilize innovative techniques to reduce energy usage and design buildings that are more efficient long-term.
  • Transportation and traffic: Does the project conflict with current transit systems, congestion management programs, or other established policies and plans? There are many aspects to consider in developing local and regional transportation plans that work for both people and the environment. To this end, environmental consultants foster strategies that aim to develop and maintain transportation plans that improve mobility and access for people and commercial goods, while also improving transportation efficiency throughout the region and quality of life overall.
  • Population and housing: Will the project cause significant population growth or displacement? As the populations of cities continue to rise, ensuring that growing cities and towns provide better housing for their residents is crucial in promoting community harmony and reducing environmental impacts. Regional metropolitan planning organizations work together with environmental consultants to manage the growth and allocation of housing throughout their regions.
  • Hazards: Does the project expose people or structures to loss or injury due to wildfires or flooding? Damage from these natural disasters can be significantly mitigated with careful planning and creative design features. Planners and developers should consider, for example, how storm water can be controlled on a site to reduce or prevent runoff and flooding. In addition, planners and developers should consider how the location of proposed developments can be impacted by potential wildfires. It is becoming more and more common for local and regional agencies to focus on identifying areas that are inappropriate for development, such as flood zones and wildfire interface areas.

California’s recent success in meeting its emissions targets is remarkable and commendable, but it should not be an isolated phenomenon. Challenges of emissions and energy management, sustainable land use, transportation, housing development, and air and water quality management are increasingly common all over the world, driving both public and private organizations to take action.

  • While state-specific regulations such as CEQA have helped California reach its emissions goals, New York City has taken steps toward achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on a city-level.
  • Many authorities—such as MassachusettsAuckland, and Western Australia—now require or recommend projects to capture and retain storm water onsite to “pre-treat” it before being released, in order to minimize flooding and pollution risks.
  • To cope with significant shifts in population, cities and regional planning bodies in many countries are exploring the potential of new, sustainable land-use strategies. Urban infill involves the re-evaluation of land in built-up areas for further development. From Tokyo and Melbourne to Seattle and San Francisco, cities around the world are utilizing strategic design solutions like urban infill to cope with urban sprawl.
  • Transit-oriented development (TOD)—dense community developments that are walkable and mixed-use, such as Hong Kong’s LOHAS Park—is growing in popularity worldwide for its ability to help improve connectedness and reduce pollution in communities.

California’s successes do not stand alone. They are reflective of global progress towards tackling environmental and social sustainability challenges, and of a worldwide cultural shift towards an attitude of environmental stewardship and responsible action. Goals and regulations such as CEQA, NEPA, and the UN SDGs establish guidelines and set rules for cities, regions, and the global community to follow, and the greatest benefits will result from both the public and private sector working together. The collaborative efforts of policymakers, planners, developers, researchers, and other experts are vital to the creation of a sustainable future for communities around the world.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS), an ADEC Innovation, offers a full complement of efficient, practical and cost-effective services to assess and manage the environmental impact of new and modified projects. FCS has over 30 years of experience across more than 8,000 projects subject to CEQA requirements.

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