Author: Oscar Balaguer
What is a Climate Action Plan (CAP)?
Climate Action Plans (CAPs) are the State’s preferred way for cities and counties to meet their responsibilities to help meet the State’s climate goals. They are important because the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are, in order, (1) passenger cars and (2) building energy. And both are best controlled through local agency permitting and land use authority.
The State says strong local action is essential to meeting California’s 2045 carbon neutral goal. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), CAPs enable cities and counties to use their regulatory tools at a program level, where policy choices can most effectively address GHG reduction. For example, cities and counties can prioritize infill to meet housing needs, rather than continuing auto-centric sprawl development.
The Problem with Weak CAPs
Under CEQA, if an agency adopts a CAP through a public process, and it has feasible, effective, and enforceable GHG-reduction measures, later developments which comply can avoid further GHG analysis or mitigation. This “streamlining” is efficient, but if a CAP doesn’t meet CEQA’s requirements and its measures are weak, future projects’ GHG emissions will not be effectively reduced. For this reason, a bad CAP is worse than none. Enforcement of CEQA requirements is through public-interest law suits.
However, some agencies in our region have historically welcomed sprawl development driven by an economic model based on land-speculation, and seek to adopt weak CAPs which they claim entitle them to the CEQA “streamlining” benefits. In effect, plans that are supposed to make GHG-reduction more efficient are actually being used to facilitate high-GHG sprawl.
350’s CAP Team aims to help local jurisdictions adopt effective, CEQA-compliant CAPs by documenting any technical and legal deficiencies during public review.
For more on CAPS, see 350 Sacramento’s one-page fact-sheet, “What’s a CAP?”.
The City of Rancho Cordova CAP
Breaking News: 350 Sacramento is Forced to Litigate
The City of Rancho Cordova (CRC) initiated its CAP in early 2021. 350 closely followed the CAP’s development through a number of draft documents. We submitted eight sets of detailed comments including an attorney’s letter, asserting that the CAP’s measures, though conceptually sound and potentially effective, do not meet CEQA’s standard for certainty of mitigation because merely aspirational – lacking implementing-specifics, timing, funding, responsibilities, and therefore not shown to be feasible, effective, or enforceable. The City nonetheless adopted its CAP on September 18, 2023. On October 19, 350 filed a suit, alleging that the City abused its discretion in improperly adopting a deficient CAP and associated environment documents.
Sacramento County – (Very) Cautious Optimism
On November 9, 2011, when climate change was a (seemingly) faraway threat, Sacramento County promised to adopt a CAP “within a year” and undertake other climate actions. These promises were presented as mitigation for potential GHG emissions from the new development enabled under the County’s then-updated general plan. Such mitigation commitments are legally binding. Now, 12 years later, extreme weather and its effects are all too common, but the County has not yet adopted a CAP and has failed almost all its other 2011 GHG promises
It’s fair to say there has been foot-dragging. In 2017, County staff did finally schedule a Board of Supervisors workshop on the CAP. However, although the legally required CAP was then already over five years overdue, Supervisors balked at possible requirements and did not direct staff to proceed. The CAP languished further, purportedly awaiting the outcome of a CAP-related legal suit in San Diego County, although 350 pointed out at the time that other jurisdictions in the region were then successfully drafting and adopting CAPs.
Finally, after a January, 2020 threat of 350 legal action, County Supervisors directed Staff to initiate the CAP in March, 2020.
However, 350 and other environmental groups have critiqued five drafts of the CAP for lacking detail and substantiation of meeting CEQA requirements, and two announced adoption dates were missed. At a September 27, 2022 hearing, Supervisors declined to adopt the final draft CAP, directed certain changes, and announced that consideration of adoption would be continued to the December 6, 2022 meeting, or earlier if possible. However, the item was deferred without explanation, and no further action on the CAP has since been publicly scheduled.
After multiple requests, 350’s CAP team recently determined that the CAP is being again revised, and obtained a copy of the current consultant contract. To our pleased surprise, the scope of work appears to address many of 350’s repeated concerns:
- The GHG emissions forecast will recognize approved or pending developments outside the adopted growth boundaries (Contract Task 3.1).
- GHG reductions from other agencies’ programs will only include those proceeding under current laws and regulations (Task 3.1).
- The CAP will present interim GHG reduction targets, in addition to the statutory end-points (Task 3.2).
- The CAP will include implementation details, e.g., responsible parties, staffing costs, funding sources, timelines, and enforcement mechanisms (Task 4.1).
- The CAP will present performance standards or criteria that need to be met for each measure (Task4.1).
- Each measure will include one or more specific “implementing actions” that identify responsible County implementing entities, non-County implementing entities, timelines, funding sources or mechanisms, and whether the measure may be relevant to CEQA tiering/streamlining. (Task 4.2).
- The County will conduct a full environmental review with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Preparing an EIR study means the County acknowledges that the CAP may have direct, indirect, and/or cumulative impacts which it will need to evaluate and mitigate. It also means the County will define and analyze alternatives to meet the CAP’s GHG-reduction objectives. 350 Sacramento believes such alternatives should include meeting growth-needs by prioritizing infill over high-GHG sprawl development.
Final Thoughts and Call to Action
We are gratified that our, and our allies’, advocacy has yielded substantial improvements to the CAP process. But we’re mindful that 12 years have been wasted to get to this point; and almost four years since the County agreed to begin the CAP. During those years of legally deficient draft CAPs, the County approved numerous development proposals without the benefit of a programmatic GHG-reduction plan, including two very large ones outside the County’s adopted urban growth boundary. Several more such are still pending.
We also note that the consultant’s contract is silent on three important matters:
- Consulting State and regional agencies with GHG-reduction responsibilities, early during CAP development.
- Defining mitigation alternatives.
- Using the CAP to streamline CEQA review for the County’s pending general plan update.
There will be only one public review period for the draft CAP and its environmental documents, so if the CAP’s measures are less than feasible, effective, and enforceable, 350 will have to mobilize quickly.
Please watch this space.