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AscentShare - Helpful Information for Your Environmental Practice
California Makes Advances in Climate Adaptation Planning - New Legislation and Safeguarding California Implementation Plans
The California Supreme Court took on the challenging California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) issue of determining the significance of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in its decision, Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Newhall Land and Farming (CBD vs. CDFW). The justices questioned one of the most common CEQA approaches to GHG analyses for development projects (evaluating the efficiency of a project’s emissions in the context of the Assembly Bill [AB] 32’s 2020 reduction goals, as presented in the statewide Scoping Plan, using a comparison to an unregulated, “business as usual” emissions scenario).
Honey Walters
Principal / Climate Change, Air Quality, and Noise Practice
916.930.3184 / vCard

Curtis E. Alling, AICP
916.930.3181 / vCard

Gary Jakobs, AICP
916.930.3182 / vCard

Core Message of the Decision

The CBD v. CDFW decision is complex, and this AscentShare is not a detailed analysis of the case. However, at its core, while the decision deemed as “legally permissible” the approach of assessing “whether the project was consistent with meeting statewide emission reduction goals” as a criterion of significance, the Court set the bar high for using this method. It overturned the Newhall Ranch EIR’s use of this approach, because it lacked a “reasoned explanation based on substantial evidence” about the linkage between the individual project’s emissions and the statewide Scoping Plan reduction goals. The Court also hinted at the need in the near future to consider post-2020 targets for projects with longer build outs.

Pathways to Compliance

To offer some guidance, the justices outlined potential options for “lead agencies faced with evaluating the cumulative significance of a proposed land use development’s” GHG emissions. The Court’s potential “pathways to compliance” are as follows:

  • Determining the level of reduction from business as usual that a development must contribute to comply with statewide goals “may be possible.”
    Ascent’s thought: Methods to relate a specific project’s emissions to a statewide goal will be difficult to develop. The Scoping Plan is structured as a framework for statewide goal setting and regulation rather than project-specific evaluations.
  • Looking at compliance with regulatory programs designed to reduce GHG from particular activities “might assess consistency with AB 32’s goal.”
    Ascent’s thought: This approach may have promise for pertinent activities and performance-based standards; however, the applicabilty of regulatory programs to specific projects will need careful consideration and substantiation, especially if some GHG-emitting elements of projects are covered by such standards and others are not.
  • Local governments may use “geographically specific GHG emission reduction plans” to provide the basis for streamlining project-level CEQA analysis.
    Ascent’s thought: Endorsed in this decision determining consistency, local GHG reduction plans, or climate action plans (CAPs), that qualify under Section 15183.5 of the CEQA Guidelines may potentially be the most effective strategy; however, many jurisdictions have not yet prepared qualifying plans.
  • Projects consistent with an SB 375 Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) need not re-evaluate GHG emissions from cars and light trucks.
    Ascent’s thought: SCS consistency is a helpful approach for considering the car and light truck emissions sector of projects, although analysis of GHG emissions from other sources (e.g., building energy, water) still need evaluation.
  • A lead agency may rely on existing numerical thresholds of significance for GHG emissions, such as those developed by an air district.
    Ascent’s thought: Well substantiated and relevant numerical thresholds are commonly used and valid as significance criteria. This approach has merit where the thresholds provide the substantiated linkage between a specific project and broader GHG targets.
Reliance on GHG reduction plans, CAPs, and SCSs may be excellent strategies for cities and counties to design their own, locally driven approaches to compliance with state reduction targets and set up a streamlined approach to determine the significance of a consistent project’s GHG emissions. But this approach requires that an individual project is located in an area covered by a qualifying CAP or SCS, which is not the case in many places in California. Further, based on the CBD v. CDFW decision, these plans must be “sufficiently detailed and adequately supported.” A well-crafted GHG reduction plan compliant with the standards in the CEQA Guidelines will be important.

Recommendations on Methods to Come

Since the decision, many of our clients have sought guidance on their projects and approaches. Ascent is developing and testing applications of quantitative and qualitative approaches intended to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision. Please stay tuned for a follow-up AscentShare that addresses project-level, GHG analysis method choices for CEQA compliance in more detail.

In the meantime, please feel free to contact Honey Walters (916.930.3184), Curtis Alling (916.930.3181), or Gary Jakobs (916.930.3182), if you have questions.

Ascent Environmental is a dynamic environmental, natural resources, and planning consultancy with offices in Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Bay Area, and San Diego. We offer our extensive CEQA and NEPA, climate adaptation and GHG reduction planning, and biological sciences experience with the goal of providing personal service and high-quality results to our clients on their most important projects. We are certified as a small business and women-owned business enterprise.

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