October 23 – San Diego Union Tribune – Joshua Emerson Smith reports – California’s climate policies have significantly raised the bar on suburban sprawl in recent years, effectively requiring developers to design ever-greener projects to avoid costly litigation.
Now the county of San Diego and a major local developer have embraced what they see as a potential solution to these tightening requirements — carbon credits.
The county recently made the use of a carbon-credit market, which would invest in projects that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions locally and around the globe, a centerpiece of its draft Climate Action Plan. And the builder of the proposed Newland Sierra development north of Escondido has said the project will be “carbon neutral” largely thanks to the use of such carbon offsets.
Response from environmental groups to the notion of using markets to offset greenhouse-gas emission from sprawling development has ranged from skepticism to condemnation.
“The root cause of the problem is sprawl,” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the San Diego-based Climate Action Campaign. “We have to fundamentally revamp how we grow, and it feels like they’re trying to skirt around that idea.”
Carbon credit registries in California have been around for more than a decade, allowing businesses and individuals to fund efforts to fight climate change and closely track the associated amount of greenhouse-gas prevented from entering into the atmosphere.
Some of the most reputable of these organizations include Climate Action Reserve, American Carbon Registry and Verified Carbon Standard. Their products range from paying people around the globe not to cut down forests to distributing solar cook stoves in poor countries.
Critics have said the system is easy to game and the benefits are hard to confirm. For example, experts have said that it can be hard to say whether the owner of a forest would really have cut down his or her trees absent payments through a registry.
The carbon markets are part of the state’s mandatory cap-and-trade program, which allows emitters, from power plants to food processors, to offset up to 8 percent of their emission.
However, it’s only been recently that large developers have started looking at carbon credits as a way to boost their environmental image and potentially stave off lawsuits.
Under California law, projects must demonstrate a nexus with the state’s climate goals, which include reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and eventually 40 percent below that by 2030.
In the construction of suburban communities far from transit stations and job centers, the lion’s share of new greenhouse gases come from the creation of new car trips.
After about two decades of litigation, developers of the closely watched and controversial Newhall Ranch project in Los Angeles County reached a settlement deal with environmentalists in September that included a number of concessions, including as a substantial investment in carbon credits.
The project, which will likely create a new city of roughly 58,000 residents in the Santa Clarita Valley, is being touted as having a “net zero” carbon footprint.
Along with committing to buy carbon credits that would offset about 46 percent of the project’s emissions, the developer was able to significantly green up its project through onsite changes, such as solar panels and charging stations for electric vehicles.
The Building Industry Association of San Diego County has now voiced strong support for Newland Sierra’s embrace a similar strategy, using a mix of onsite mitigation as well as carbon offsets as a way to potentially avoid litigation and speed up construction of new homes.
That strategy might not satisfy the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club.
The group has issued scathing formal critiques of Newland Sierra and the county’s Climate Action Plan. Most notably, the group has questioned what it sees as a potential over-reliance on carbon offsets.
“It’s moving the ball and saying instead of focusing on greenhouse gases in the county, we can use these credits to create as large a development you want, as long as you purchase enough credits to offset those emissions, you get the green light,” said Josh Chatten-Brown, lawyer for the local chapter. “That’s what we see a problem with.”
The county declined to comment on its draft climate plan, citing ongoing litigation.
The most recent iteration of the blueprint comes five years after the Sierra Club first sued the county, successfully arguing in court that the plan lacked needed details on how it would realize deep cuts in climate emissions.
Chatten-Brown has asked the judge hearing the case for an injunction on new large scale development on undeveloped land until the climate plan is in place. The court has stopped short of such a measure but prodded the county to get its plan in place as quickly as possible.
While the draft climate plan calls for allowing developers to pay into a carbon offset fund, it’s still not clear whether Newland Sierra would satisfy the county’s overall requirements. Once implemented, the plan will most likely include a detailed guidelines and standards for capping emissions on new development.
Newland Sierra’s 2,135 homes on about 400 acres just west of Interstate 15 north of Deer Springs Road would include a significant number of environmental amenities, including everything from solar roofs to electric-car chargers to limiting grass lawns to providing a shuttle for residents to get to nearby Escondido.
Those effort would account for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas reductions. Carbon credits will be needed to cancel out the remaining 82 percent of emissions, as well as all the additional climate impacts from construction.
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