By Maya Srikrishnan.

The city of San Diego received a lot of attention for its climate action plan, a bundle of policies to lower the city’s carbon footprint. The county of San Diego lost a lawsuit over its plan and needs to redo it. But smaller cities across the county are slowly pulling together their own versions, too.

The county and 18 cities either already have a plan or are working to pass one.

For small cities like La Mesa and Santee, the process is forcing tough choices.

Fundamentally, they’re choosing between two paths: one from the city of San Diego, which is pursuing a policy that would open it to lawsuits if greenhouse gas reduction targets aren’t met; or one from the county of San Diego, which lost in court after adopting a plan that set targets with no commitment to meet them.

La Mesa has drafted a plan and is reaching out to the community for feedback, but so far it follows the county’s lead by setting targets that aren’t legally enforceable. Santee is still in the early stages of drafting a plan.

“I think this [climate action plan] is catered to La Mesa,” said the city’s planning director, Chris Jacobs. “So far we haven’t had anyone express concerns about a specific measure.”

La Mesa’s current sketch calls for a 15 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, from where they were in 2010.

Without implementing the plan, the city’s emissions are expected to increase 8 percent per year from the 2010 level.

It gets its cuts from stuff like planting trees around buildings to increase shade and reduce the need for air conditioning, urging citizens to install rooftop solar panels and encouraging building repairs to make them more energy-efficient.

But environmental advocates say the plan itself is vulnerable to a lawsuit, since it doesn’t commit the city to reducing its emissions levels.

“They did draft a climate plan, but they wanted to make it aspirational and it’s very clear that climate plans for mitigations have to be legally binding,” said Nicole Capretz, who helped usher San Diego’s plan through city hall when she was a staffer there. She is now executive director of Climate Action Campaign, which advocates for cities to pass similarly stringent plans around the county.

Jacobs acknowledged that the plan doesn’t bind the city to its reduction targets. But he said the measures should still be enough to meet those targets.

But Capretz points to the Fourth District Court of Appeal rulingthat shot down the county’s plan because it did “not fulfill the County’s commitment … to provide detailed deadlines and enforceable measures to ensure GHGF emissions will be reduced.” If challenged in court, La Mesa’s plan may face the same issues.

Plus, La Mesa’s long-range plan for future development, passed in 2012, gives the city a blueprint for 20 years. Capretz argues its climate plan should therefore set reduction targets through 2030, not just 2020, a mere five years away.

That would be consistent with state goals, which reach out to 2035.

“The CAP focuses on the near term 2020,” said Jacobs. “The state has established a longer-term reduction goal and to that end other jurisdictions have taken a longer-term view. We’ll see what happens.”

Santee is still in the preliminary stages of preparing its climate plan. The city set a goal of using the plan to give developers certainty on future projects while meeting the state’s required climate goals.

“This is our first attempt to bring Santee on board with greenhouse gas reduction measures,” said John O’Donnell, Santee’s climate action plan project manager. “If cities are going to do a climate action plan, you need something that is measurable and gets us to where the state wants us to be.”

“I think we’re way behind the curve in getting things done,” said Van Collinsworth, of local nonprofit Preserve Wild Santee. “They can’t just keep doing business as usual. I think they realized that at some point they were going to be called to task to do their part.”

Santee wants to give developers a menu of options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when they build new projects. Each option will give them a certain number of points and after achieving a certain threshold, they’d be able to bypass certain parts of the environmental review process. In October, Santee’s planning department gave the City Council a list of options to include in a climate plan, like putting solar panels on all new residences, expanding bike routes and encouraging new commercial developments to have electric vehicle chargers.

Once the City Council decides which items it wants to include, the planning department will run the numbers to see how much reduction in greenhouse gases those measures would produce, and how they relate to the state’s 2020 and 2035 reduction goals.

Capretz said she is “cautiously optimistic,” about Santee’s efforts. They’re not out of compliance with anything yet, but so far their process has been vague.

For example, she asked, how could the City Council members make good decisions about which greenhouse gas-reducing measures would be best for this streamlining process without first knowing how much reduction each measure would actually create?

Collinsworth said Santee doesn’t have the best record with environmental priorities.

“I just hope this is a serious climate action plan,” he said.

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Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.