On September 23, California Air Resources Board will consider adopting ambitious – some say too ambitious – greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 18 metropolitan planning areas.

The targets are required by the 2008 SB 375 Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Bill to carry out AB 32 environmental goals. The 18 metropolitan planning organizations in the state, with the exception of San Joaquin Council of Governments (SJCOG) and Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), suggested targets as high as 8 percent reduction by 2020 and 16 percent by 2035. CARB is inserting placeholder targets for San Joaquin Valley Metropolitan Planning Areas until more research can be done in the Central Valley.

At a September 2 meeting, the SCAG board rejected staff’s proposed targets of 6 percent by 2020 and 13 percent by 2035. Hasan Ikhrata, SCAG executive director, said that the higher targets suggested by CARB – and in line with recommendations adopted by other regions in the state – were based on aggressive scenarios that included assumptions about higher costs of driving in the future due to toll roads, gas taxes and other pricing incentives to reduce driving.

Ikhrita described the board of 84 representatives of 190 cities and counties as “passionate” about the state’s decision to pass regulation like SB 375 without funding the necessary changes. “They want to make sustainable choices; that’s why 90 of the 190 cities participated in the recent Compass [sustainable planning] process,” Ikhrita said. They just don’t want to be required to take specific actions and Ikhrita doesn’t see his agency as the planning police anyway. “We have neither the authority or the desire to tell cities and counties how to make land use decisions,” Ikhrita said.

CARB Planning Liaison Terry Roberts said, “The statute doesn’t require cities and counties to do anything. The point is not to set regulatory standards that have to be met, but to get regions thinking about how to build sustainable communities.”

The targets will be used to create sustainable communities strategies that outline the land use, housing and transportation planning measures that could result in reduction of three million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2020, and 15 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2035. Regions with plans that don’t meet CARB targets are required to develop alternative planning strategies.

Sustainable Communities Strategies will be incorporated in federally-enforceable regional transportation plans. Projects that meet the standards could be rewarded with transportation funds and streamlined California Environmental Quality Act regulations.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) on a split vote suggested targets of 7% by 2020 and 15% by 2035 (even though staff recommended 10% by 2035), the path to greenhouse gas reduction could take many forms.

Possible measures to reach the standards include encouraging telecommuting, enacting transportation taxes, and moving all 115,000 new forecasted housing into the cities. Reducing the speed limit to 55 miles per hour and enforcing was another possible reduction measure.

“The most effective ways to change behavior are often the most painful,” said MTC Manager of Legislation and Public Affairs Randy Rentschler.

Not everyone supports the targets. Waterford Mayor Charlie Goeken called the targets “arbitrary and detrimental” to the small community’s budget. As an example of possible consequences to environmental legislation, Goeken pointed to a recent purchase in his small town. To meet current air quality standards, the city of 9,000 people was required to buy a new $50,000 back-up generator. “I could have used that money to fix potholes or install sidewalks,” Goeken said. “It is an unfunded mandate.”

Jerry Amante, Tustin mayor and chair of the Orange County Transportation Authority, called the targets unsustainable. “There is no science behind them; they are driven by climate control zealots.”

Amante called SB 375 the “full employment for environmental lawyers act” because it would lead to lawsuits on every project that didn’t include transit-oriented-development and high density.

SCAG Ikhrita did not agree with that assessment. “I don’t buy the lawsuit prediction because the goals are regional and not project-by-project,” he said.