A Necessary Collision: Climate Change, Land Use, and the Limits of A.B. 32

Stern, Henry
August 2008
Ecology Law Quarterly;2008, Vol. 35 Issue 3, p611
Academic Journal
The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 20061 (Assembly Bill 32, or A.B. 32) represents the nation's first sweeping effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The law sets an aggressive goal for reducing emissions, but leaves open the question of how to reach that goal. Therefore, A.B. 32 will only be a transformative piece of climate change legislation if it results in regulations as sweeping as the law itself. Since a regulatory regime of this scope will encompass the broadest possible spectrum of activities that generate emissions, A.B. 32's implementation will inevitably collide with prior policymaking paradigms that fail to consider climate. One of the most difficult challenges will be the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. Powering more efficient cars with lower carbon fuel stocks will not necessarily be enough to meet A.B. 32's goals of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 20202-Californians must drive less. Managing the demandside of transportation-typically measured in vehicle miles traveled (VMT)--implicates land use as a major indirect source of greenhouse gas emissions. While a general plan or a zoning ordinance is not commonly considered equivalent to a smokestack or a tailpipe, development patterns wield tremendous influence over the transportation choices people make, the vehicle miles they travel, and therefore, the emission of greenhouse gases. The transportation-land use connection suggests that the California State Air Resources Board (CARB or "the state board"), the primary state regulator of greenhouse gas emissions, must confront the infirmities in local land use decision-making to curb the rising rates of VMT per capita. The necessary collision between state environmental goals and local land use authority will test the legal limits of A.B. 32 and CARB's administrative authority, as well as the political capacity of a growing coalition of climate action advocates to break a decades-old stalemate between developers and state and local governments. The near exclusive authority of cities and counties over general planning and zoning combined with their inability (or unwillingness) to internalize the costs of broad environmental externalities associated with auto-centric development patterns are undermining the state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Political and economic factors, manifested through state and local laws and regulations, have left California with a system that deters density and promotes sprawl. The logic of land use has historically been dictated by selfinterest; individual cities and counties make decisions based on insular, local demands, which may or may not align with broader state goals. But because A.B. 32 does not explicitly equip CARB with preemptive authority to regulate local land use, it is unlikely that this landmark law will alone be capable of aligning land use decision-making with California's push to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis.


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