Carbon neutrality requires sustainable, equitable development

Governor Newsom wants 3.5 million new homes in California within the next 6 years. The type of housing that’s built, the location of new development, and the kind of transportation options connecting that housing to jobs and services will either increase greenhouse gas emissions or reduce emissions. If we build new housing near jobs and transit and adopt strong anti-displacement policies, then more Californians will have more options to get to work without driving long distances and emissions will decrease. But there’s even more to the impact of our housing, land use, and transportation decisions on our climate.

nwl-implementation-plan-concept-paper.jpgWhat is carbon neutrality? What does it look like?

California aims to be carbon neutral by 2045. Being “carbon neutral” means that the amount of emissions released in the atmosphere is the same as the amount of emissions sequestered (i.e., extracted and stored) from the atmosphere. How is carbon sequestered? Remember learning in 7th grade science about how plants breathe in carbon dioxide? One strategy for carbon sequestration is cultivating healthy natural resources to “breathe in” and store the carbon. (To learn more, see the California Air Resources Board’s webinar on carbon neutrality).

Sustainable, equitable development: Double bang for your buck

Achieving carbon neutrality requires two main strategies that work together: reduce emissions and sequester the remaining emissions. Here’s an example: Greentown, California builds a protected bike lane connecting the local university and the shopping mall, thus cutting down on car traffic and reducing emissions. Although Greentown has the most efficient construction process around, building the bike lane produces a small amount of carbon emissions. This is where the sequestration comes in—Greentown has a healthy forest on the outskirts of town, which extracts that extra carbon from the atmosphere. Greentown is carbon neutral.

Building within existing neighborhoods not only reduces emissions from transportation, it helps protect our natural and working lands from being developed. And that helps California’s capacity to sequester carbon and meet its goal for carbon neutrality. Equitable infill development not only reduces emissions but also supports sequestration.

California's Natural and Working Lands

A partnership of state agencies recently released the draft plan for increasing state-led conservation, restoration, and management activities: the California 2030 Natural and Working Lands Climate Change Implementation Plan. Along with many partners and allies, ClimatePlan supports the Implementation Plan and wants to see it strengthened. We'd like to see it updated to account for the full emissions reductions and sequestration needed to achieve carbon neutrality, as well as to emphasize the need for implementation by several agencies (see here for our comment letter on the Implementation Plan). For example, the Implementation Plan establishes a goal for reducing the annual rate of land conversion to 50-75 percent by 2030. Wow! This means that the state aims to dramatically reduce the loss of farmland and open space to development—achieving this will require both stronger implementation of existing law and policy, as well as new, robust strategies across sectors and agencies, including conservation, transportation infrastructure, and housing. Fortunately, there are existing efforts and resources with research and recommendations for building more sustainable and equitable communities (including the 2030 Scoping Plan Appendix C and the findings of ARB's 2018 Progress Report: California's Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act). These sustainable and equitable community-building tools, coupled with policies designed to protect wild and working lands, will help lay the groundwork for carbon neutrality in California.

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