February 26, 2018 – SDUT – Joshua Emerson Smith reports – Elected officials in San Diego County have embraced a carbon credit scheme to allow new suburban sprawl without running afoul of California’s increasingly strict requirements to fight climate change.
Developers have started lining up to pay for the credits in lieu of reigning in greenhouse emissions from cars and trucks that would result from proposed housing and commercial projects in unincorporated parts of the county.
The Board of Supervisors has been unanimous in its support of the strategy, arguing that efforts to limit human-induced warming should be balanced with the need to address California’s on-going housing crisis.
“I have confidence that we can meet the climate goals at the same time that we can give people choice of where they want to live,” said Supervisor Ron Roberts. “We shouldn’t keep coming up with excuses that prohibit people from building housing.”
Environmental groups have blasted the use of the credits, which can apply to projects anywhere in the world. They argue that offsetting tailpipe emissions wouldn’t be as necessary if the county contained new development within urbanized areas.
“They are putting developer profits ahead of clean air and healthy lungs,” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the San Diego-based Climate Action Campaign. “History will not look kindly on this decision.”
The county is now bracing to defend its carbon credit program in court as part of a years-long legal battle with the Sierra Club over its Climate Action Plan.
If the county’s vision stands up in court, it could have statewide implications, according to legal experts.
Developers have faced a growing number of lawsuits by environmental groups in recent years challenging the construction of new suburban communities far from transit stations and job centers. These sprawling developments inevitably generate significant amounts of greenhouse gas as residents commute long distances.
Builders and local governments now see carbon credits as a way to stave off that costly litigation while continuing to build on previously undeveloped land.
Registries that sell such credits have been around for more than a decade in California, allowing businesses and individuals to purchase offsets for everything from paying people to plant forests to distributing solar cook stoves in poor countries.
The California Air Resources Board has recognized several brokers as the most reputable, including the Climate Action Reserve, American Carbon Registry and Verified Carbon Standard.
Following about two decades of litigation, developers of the Newhall Ranch project in Los Angeles County reached a precedent-setting deal with environmentalists in 2017 that, among other concessions, required developers to buy carbon credits from a registry to offset about 46 percent of the project’s emissions.
Since then developers have shown so much interest in carbon credits that the Los Angeles-based Climate Action Reserve recently launched a new product specifically to satisfy the state’s environmental laws.
The county has about a dozen development projects awaiting approval by county authorities that could require carbon credits to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. The developers of Newland Sierra north of Escondido, for example, have proposed buying credits to offset about 80 percent of the development’s climate pollution. That number is about 70 percent for Lilac Hills Ranch in Valley Center.
Sierra Club has argued that officials will not be able to establish the authenticity of these credits when purchased for projects located outside of the country.
County officials said that developers will be required to use only the most well-known registries and dismissed the idea that these companies weren’t reliable.
Businesses can buy carbon offsets as part of the state’s cap-and-trade program. The air board independently verifies the offset projects and limits use to just 8 percent of a regulated company’s total emissions.
The county has required developers to do as much onsite mitigation of greenhouse gases as feasible before turning to the market for credits. However, because sprawling development generates such large numbers of additional car trips, solar panels and building efficiencies only go so far.
If the program continues as planned, it could pave the way for significant new growth throughout the backcountry.
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