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Another Inconvenient Truth

To Achieve Climate Change Goals, California Must Remove Barriers to Sustainable Land Use

It has now been about a decade since California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006 and followed it with the supporting Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act in 2008. These landmark pieces of legislation, AB 32 and SB 375, set goals for the reduction of greenhouse gases statewide and for improving the ways in which we plan our communities. Yet California is falling short of its climate goals. Recent data from the California Air Resources Board shows that the state failed to meet the 1.0 percent required reduction in emissions in 2014 and is well behind the 5.2 percent per year reduction required to meet its 2050 goals. If the state’s level of greenhouse gas emissions continues on its current trajectory, by 2050 over five billion additional metric tons of carbon dioxide will be emitted—the emissions equivalent of 57 million passenger vehicle trips to the moon.

California Off-Track in Race to Meet 2030 and 2050 Climate Goals
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Job Growth Accelerates, but Housing Construction Lags
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Population Percentage Change, 2000-2014
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High Housing Costs Leading Cause of Poverty in California
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One of the main causes of California’s failure to achieve its climate goals is sprawling land use patterns driven primarily by local barriers to producing sustainable, affordable, transit-oriented housing—especially near major job centers in the coastal communities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Bay Area (which is the focus of this analysis). The lack of compact development has led to increased sprawl, the consumption of inland greenfields, and substantial increases in traffic and congestion as people commute farther to work. A set of studies partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency found that compact development could reduce vehicle miles traveled by 20 to 40 percent and could reduce emissions from transportation by 9 to 15 percent by 2050.

If the state’s level of greenhouse gas emissions continues on its current trajectory, by 2050 over five billion additional metric tons of carbon dioxide will be emitted—the emissions equivalent of 57 million passenger vehicle trips to the moon.

Transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the state of California and is responsible for 160 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 36 percent of the state’s total. That share is even higher in the state’s coastal metros. The transportation sector accounted for 40 percent of total emissions in the Bay Area and 34 percent in the Los Angeles region. A reduction in emissions in the transportation sector is therefore essential to achieving the climate goals outlined in AB 32.

In addition to its effect on transportation and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, lack of housing supply is the leading cause of poverty in the state and of a housing affordability crisis that affects people at all income levels. The housing supply deficit has two main drivers:

Failure to build in Priority Development Areas – The primary goal of SB 375 is the reduction of passenger vehicle miles through building within Priority Development Areas. Despite a goal of 80 percent the Bay Area was successful in locating only 54 percent of permitted housing units within PDAs. This situation prevails for a variety of reasons—most stemming from local policies—including high land costs, delays in the approval process, development fees, and code requirements.

Outsourcing of housing to inland regions far from job centers – The high cost of housing in coastal communities has pushed many residents to look farther inland for more affordable housing. Comparable housing in the San Joaquin Valley can be had for one third of the price in the Bay Area. As a result, the number of commuters crossing regional boundaries within the Northern California megaregion on a daily basis has grown by 78 percent since 1990, with most of those trips being by car.

California can no longer ignore another inconvenient truth: its climate goals are being undermined by land use regulations that block infill, while sprawl remains easier and less costly and is therefore growing more quickly. The state must either immediately change land use controls statewide to facilitate infill development or be prepared to redirect efforts toward megaregional growth planning that includes hundreds of billions of dollars of immediate investment in infrastructure to support interregional commuting at scale.