San Diego County will overhaul Climate Action Plan after rejection from courts

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Meeting Chambers
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

County staff will meet with stakeholders, update plan with more analysis of cumulative environmental impacts and alternatives for “smart growth”


San Diego County is again developing a new Climate Action Plan.

On Wednesday, Sept. 30, County Supervisors unanimously directed county staff to develop a new plan and adopted a resolution vacating its 2018 Climate Action Plan, which the 4th District Court of Appeals struck down in June.

Among other things, the court objected to the way the county planned to allow housing developers to buy their way around restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions using so-called carbon offsets. That legal decision marked the sixth time in nearly a decade courts have ruled against the county’s proposals for responding to climate change.

The county had hoped to use the offset program as part of an ongoing push to approve a slate of housing projects on undeveloped land in unincorporated areas. The county had approved eight new residential projects totaling about 10,000 new units last year, but nearly all those projects have been derailed or delayed by lawsuits.

Wednesday’s decision by the county to go back to the drawing board instead of seeking an appeal at the State Supreme Court comes after the county spent more than $1 million in legal fees defending its climate action plans in recent years.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who has been critical of the county’s plan, said the impact of climate change has become more apparent in the decade the county has struggled to adopt a legally defensible climate plan. He pointed to record wildfires, prolonged drought and record-high daily temperatures as examples.

“Climate change is real, it is here, and we have to take actions and put forward policies that align with that reality,” Fletcher said.

One point of controversy in the county’s 2018 plan was its proposal to allow housing developers to buy carbon offsets as a way to get around restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, which would come from new vehicle traffic to and from their developments.

Land conservation, sustainable agricultural and logging groups sell carbon offsets on a per-ton basis to businesses and corporations, which use them instead of complying with government environmental regulations. The county plan would have let developers use carbon offsets from anywhere in the world.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued in an amicus brief that San Diego County’s offset proposal could undermine the state’s goals of slashing emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050.

Ultimately the appellate court said the county’s approach was unlawful and based on “unenforceable performance standards.” The judges also criticized the county’s plan for lacking quality controls.

The county’s new Climate Action Plan should steer clear of the mistakes of the past, said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

“Way too much money has been spent and way too much time has been wasted,” she said. “Let’s get it right this time.”

Meanwhile environmentalists said they want to see more public input in the next version of the Climate Action Plan.

“The county should proceed with a robust public outreach program, halt any consideration of climate busting sprawl projects, and work closely with key stakeholders on this critical document,” said Matthew Vasilakis, co-director of policy at Climate Action Campaign.

The Board of Supervisors will next meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday October 13.

— Charles T. Clark is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune