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November 25, 2014

California Appeals Court Rejects Transportation Plan for Ignoring 2050 Climate Targets

Southern-California-trafficPhoto by Daniel R. Blume, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2005, former Governor Schwarzenegger issued an Executive Order setting a target for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. At the time it was issued, the Executive Order tracked scientific consensus on the emissions reduction trajectory needed to avoid significant disruption of the climate. The Legislature subsequently enacted AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, to require the Air Resources Board to develop a plan and take sufficient action for the state to meet the 2020 target. While the Executive Order's 2020 target was enacted into law though AB 32, the force of the 2050 target and its effect on agency decisionmaking remained a source of debate until yesterday. 

In a sweeping victory for the climate and clean air, the California Court of Appeal agreed with the Sierra Club and its allies that a $200 billion auto-centric Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for failing to disclose and mitigate the Plan's inconsistency with the Executive Order's 2050 targets.1 The Court's decision is both a victory for clean air and sustainable land use and transportation in San Diego, and for all Californians, as public agencies throughout the state can no longer avoid consideration of the long-term climate impacts of their decisionmaking.

SANDAG's RTP was the first in the state to contain the Sustainable Communities Strategy required by Senate Bill 375, a state law intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through smarter land-use and transportation planning. Unfortunately, far from functioning to reduce emissions, SANDAG's plan front-loaded the expansion and extension of freeways at the expense of public transit, inducing sprawl and reinforcing the region's dependence on car-oriented transportation. As a result, as shown in the graph below, SANDAG's Plan would increase greenhouse gas pollution from development and transportation through mid-century, at precisely the time when dramatic reductions are necessary to avoid dangerous climate disruption. 

In its environmental review for the RTP, SANDAG refused to analyze or mitigate the project's inconsistency with the Executive Order emissions reduction trajectory on the grounds that an Executive Order is non-binding policy without the force of law. The Court of Appeals rejected SANDAG's arguments, finding that "[b]y disregarding the Executive Order's overarching goal of ongoing emissions reductions, the EIR's analysis of the transportation plan's greenhouse gas emissions makes it falsely appear as if the transportation plan is furthering state climate policy, when, in fact, the trajectory of the transportation plan's post-2020 emissions directly contravenes it."

The investment choices we make today, such as whether to widen a highway instead of building light rail or to construct a new gas plant instead of renewables and energy storage, have profound impacts on our ability to achieve the continued reductions needed to meet long-term climate goals. Instead of being swept under the rug, yesterday's Court of Appeals decision helps ensure the consequences of these choices are now fully disclosed and minimized.

1The Sierra Club was represented by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP and brought this case with Center for Biological Diversity and Cleveland National Forest Foundation.  Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a separate action challenging SANDAG's RTP.

- Matt Vespa is an attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program

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