Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

California's Fight against Global Warming: Finally Getting Smart about Sprawl?

Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

California's Fight against Global Warming: Finally Getting Smart about Sprawl?

Article excerpt


California prides itself as a leader in climate-change policy. In 2006, with passage of the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), (1) it became the first state in the nation to regulate greenhouse gases by requiring that emissions be reduced to their 1990 levels by 2020. (2) AB 32 did not, however, give the state authority to regulate the sprawling development that contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions. A recent bill, SB 375, (3) which some have called a "sea change" in California's land-use laws, attempts to give the state these missing tools. (4) Due to opposition from local government and development interests, though, this attempt to curb sprawl may not be as powerful or revolutionary as some have claimed. (5) However, its additions to local land-use planning and incentives encouraging public transit-oriented development may help push California toward embracing denser communities with shorter commutes, thereby enabling the state to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.


On September 30, 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 375 into law, calling it "landmark legislation" (6) that "once again puts California on the leading edge of climate change policy." (7) Introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg in February 2007, SB 375 aims to improve "land use and transportation policy ... to achieve the goals of AB 32." (8)

When passed in 2006, proponents heralded AB 32 as the first attempt in the nation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, setting an ambitious goal of bringing emissions back to their 1990 levels by 2020. (9) AB 32 did not outline, however, the specific ways that the state would achieve those reductions. Instead, it tasked the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to create a "Scoping Plan" by January 1, 2009 that would detail exactly how the state would reduce its emissions. (10) Because transportation accounts for the largest contribution to statewide greenhouse gas emissions, at 39%, (11) environmental groups and policy analysts agree that no reduction measure can be effective without reducing emissions from transportation. (12)

Reducing transportation emissions may be accomplished in part by designing more efficient vehicles and creating low-carbon fuels, but any reduction those developments can achieve will be quickly overtaken by increases in the amount of driving by Californians. (13) Because of sprawling development patterns, the number of "vehicle miles traveled" (VMT) (14) in California has increased 3% per year from 1975 to 2004, outpacing population growth. (15) The California Energy Commission estimates that increases in driving from continued development will cause carbon dioxide emissions to increase 16.6% by 2020. (16)

Due to sprawl's large impact on transportation emissions, environmental advocacy groups insisted that AB 32's greenhouse gas reduction goals "[could not] be met without changes in land use." (17) Land-use plans that create dense, walkable communities well connected to public transit (known as "smart growth") emit only a fraction of the greenhouse gas of their suburban, sprawling counterparts. (18)

Past efforts to counteract the impact of land use on emissions have failed, however, largely because land-use policy has been a function of local government (cities and counties), and state laws have not mandated specific planning requirements. Land-use decisions are governed by California planning and zoning law, (19) which requires local governments (cities and counties) to draft a General Plan to govern future growth (20) and create zoning ordinances that are consistent with their General Plan. (21) But state law leaves the substance and policy direction of the plans up to the discretion of local officials, with no power for state review. (22)

Efforts to bring stronger state control to this process have not been successful. …

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