Sacramento County has been working on its Climate Action Plan for years. Now, it’s likely just a few months away from adoption.
County officials reviewed a final draft of the plan at a public hearing on March 23. It lasted several hours with dozens of local environmentalists, realtors, contractors and others providing comment and feedback.
The 614-page document describes measures to cut greenhouse gases, aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Reaching this goal will require adaptations throughout the county. Proposals to cut emissions cover every area from transportation to the electrification of buildings.
The county has released statements about its approach to tackling climate change before, like in a 2020 declaration of climate emergency. The Climate Action Plan, also referred to as CAP, would mark a huge step forward in the county’s commitments – and this final draft ties in many goals outlined in the 2020 declaration. County officials hope that after recommendations from the hearing are implemented, the plan will be adopted in coming months.
But ever since work toward the current plan began in 2016, the county has received criticism from all sides.
At the March 23 hearing, representatives for realtors and contractors warned that certain measures carried unmanageable cost burdens, saying the plan doesn’t provide enough financial support to make them feasible. Alongside that, members of local environmental groups said the plan wasn't aggressive enough to reach the goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.
“Half the room thinks we’ve not gone far enough, the other half thinks we’ve gone too far,” said Phil Serna, supervisor for the county’s First District.
Todd Smith, the county’s principal planner, says that this draft was intended to try to address these concerns.
“A lot of it was really emphasizing the need to do more,” Smith said. “We really need to make as much progress as possible. 2030 is not far away.”
In the past, people have criticized the county for not clearly outlining exactly how what it’s proposing would lead to carbon neutrality by 2030.
Oscar Balaguer, a member of the environmental group 350 Sacramento, says that this final draft was supposed to answer that question. He points to language in the 2020 declaration that said the climate action plan would explain “the County’s approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.”
“Its standard operating procedure is, kick the can down the road, bait and switch and then not perform,” Balaguer said of the county’s approach.
The county’s sustainability manager, John Lundgren, agrees. He says the plan doesn’t fully explain how it would achieve carbon neutrality.
“We want that CAP in place so we can start achieving that,” Lundgren said. “We're acknowledging it doesn't get us to carbon neutrality.”
A plan to fill this gap is described in the latest draft. Smith, the county planner, says this draft provides a clearer timeline for when this question would be answered.
The added language indicates that within one year of the plan’s adoption, the county – in coordination with a new, community-led task force – will vet additional measures and create a concrete outline to get at exactly how the county’s plan would meet its 2030 goal.
Ultimately, Smith says, it would be the county’s responsibility to complete this plan. He adds that the plan will describe 2030 as the county’s target for carbon neutrality, which would then make reaching it by that year a regulatory requirement. This, he says, would put the county ahead of the statewide target for zero-net carbon by 2045.
Cutting emissions throughout the county
There are a variety of changes in the plan that could impact everything from how people get around Sacramento to where they live.
This includes the transition to electrification, which is the process of moving buildings away from natural gas to all-electric power. One example is a measure requiring developers to prove, in certain cases, that new growth in their existing projects will be carbon neutral.
Other details include encouraging infill development. This kind of planning focuses on development on undeveloped land or open-space in urban areas, which can reduce vehicle emissions from long commutes.
But as critics of the plan pointed out in the March 23 hearing, many of these changes are costly. Smith said the latest draft added more opportunities for carbon offsets as one potential solution to help fund these efforts.
A carbon offset is meant to balance emissions produced from one project by financially contributing to cutting them elsewhere. In this plan, developers would have this opportunity after they’ve incorporated what’s described as “all feasible on-site [greenhouse gas] mitigation” in their own project.
Smith says the final draft prioritizes local offsets, beginning with offsets in communities that are heavily impacted by emissions in the county.
“We felt it was important to keep those offsets as local as possible to be able to clearly demonstrate how we're achieving those reductions at the local level,” he said.
Smith said offsets would not be the first choice for cutting emissions.
“Once [developers] can do all those things and figure out what the gap is, that's when the offsets kick in,” he said. “It's not an automatic go to offsets and you can do whatever you want to new growth areas.”
Jill Peterson is a member of the Sacramento chapter of the environmental group Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She says that she’s skeptical of these opportunities for offsets. Even if they are local, she argues, there’s no offset that could make up for plans that would increase emissions in the long term.
“It’s antithetical to the idea of eliminating greenhouse gasses,” she said. “If all these measures are offset measures, how are we getting ahead?”
Eight years left
At the meeting, Fifth District Supervisor Don Nottoli estimated that the County Board would reconvene at some point “mid-year” to consider adopting the CAP.
Planner Smith says it’s now his job to work on implementing recommendations the board has made into this draft. He says he hopes it will be adopted after these revisions are made.
“It's really important that the county takes this initial step, so that we can have a regulatory structure in place, so we can begin getting on that path to carbon neutrality by 2030,” he said. “We've only got eight years left.”
Environmental activist Peterson disagrees with the thinking that adopting a plan is necessary to enact the measures in it. She says some of it can be implemented even before adoption. This is an approach she supports, as she doesn’t think the plan is ready.
“There’s nothing that prevents [the county] from taking those actions now,” she says. “They don’t have to have the CAP to do this.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that environmental groups have clashed with a county’s climate action plan. In 2020, San Diego County’s plan was declared “unlawful” after a lawsuit was filed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. Some of the issues that were raised concerned lack of funding and reliance on measures to reduce emissions that were outside the county’s control.
Balaguer says he sees “clear parallels” between his concerns and those raised in the San Diego lawsuit.
“Our perspective is that the county should be doing due diligence on its CAP and ensuring that it's not vulnerable to legal challenge,” he said.
At the March 23 hearing, Amanda Olekszulin, an environmental planner working with Smith, presented an argument against these parallels. She said that when comparing Sacramento’s plan to San Diego’s, she saw distinct differences that would make Sacramento County’s approach sound.
“The CAP is enforceable through adopted policy [and] there is a funding structure in process,” Olekszulin said.
But there’s one thing all parties can agree on: 2030 will be here soon and cutting emissions must happen quickly, if the county is going to meet its goal.
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