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One gaseous goal 

The state wants locals to help plan paths away from global warming but it's not saying how

California's ambitious new plan to shoehorn the state's lug-soled boot of a carbon footprint into a slimming strappy little number depends in part on getting local governments to radically change the way communities develop and grow.

Trouble is, nobody's yet told the planners how to craft the sort of strategies that would meet the goals, there's no money to pay for any changes yet, and so far there's no way to tell even if they do meet the targets.

"I'm afraid it's truly a situation where the details are to follow," Suzanne Reed, a policy expert for the Sacramento-based Center for Clean Air Policy, told a group of land-use planners during a March 30 conference at Sycamore Mineral Springs in Avila Beach.

The first-in-the-nation effort that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law last year demands a 25-percent cut in emissions of state greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from current levels by 2020.

That would bring them to the same levels California experienced in 1990, regardless of how many more people move to the state.

Ultimately, every business that emits greenhouse gases could be affected by the law, but mandatory caps on emissions aren't slated to be in place until 2012.

Most of the savings are expected to come through more fuel-efficient vehicles and energy efficiency. But the law's authors are also banking on the loosely defined rubric of urban planning strategies to achieve at least 12 percent of the savings.

Broadly, that means they want communities to zone for high-density housing, allow more infill development, encourage shorter commutes, demand green and energy-efficient buildings, and change their general plans to look for ways people can walk or bike to work.

But Reed said planning for climate change also means acknowledging that "the creek will rise, so where we used to build with a fair amount of confidence may not be where we'd want to build in the future."

So those are the goals. The specifics, however, regulators are leaving to local governments.

SLO City Attorney Jonathan Lowell, who attended the conference, said the law will likely eventually have the city considering the potential emissions of proposed projects in its environmental review process.

"Could it add to the cost?" he asked. "Perhaps, but we have developers right now who are already considering this issue. For them, it won't be a major impediment."

Reed, a former legislative and U.S. Senate staffer, said lawmakers don't plan to force changes. Instead, they'll likely try to encourage changes by working with cities and counties and offering grants.

Larry Allen, San Luis Obispo Air Pollution Control Officer, said the primary motivation for change for now is "good government. There is no requirement in place."

But he said the goal is a good one, and San Luis Obispo County is already focused on it.

In November of 2005, the Air Pollution Control District Board adopted a strategy to catalog where greenhouse gases are emitted in the county. Later, it plans to move to address them

"I think the state's goals are achievable. It's simply a matter of public will. People have to understand the scope of the problem," Allen said.

There's been good news on that front. The Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and a recent report by the nation's climate scientists finding that global warming is very likely caused by human actions has changed the tenor of debate on the subject. Now, the major 2008 presidential candidates from both parties are touting plans to address the problem.

"I do believe among my peers, the professionals out there absolutely believe this is a priority," Allen said. "The people who need to be convinced are the politicians."

Developers are already watching out for the coming changes, said Geoffrey Willis, a land-use attorney from Orange County. His clients are big developers, like shopping mall owners.

"They are all grappling with this issue," he said.

If it sounds like a situation where California, by attacking a loosely defined problem, is doomed to fail, experts point to past environmental successes.

Because it started regulating environmental issues before the federal government, California has traditionally been in a position to lead the nation as a whole. A broad array of strategies have allowed the state to keep per-capita energy use essentially flat for 30 years, while numbers increased by 50 percent nationally.

There are myriad details to work out on the climate law lawmakers this session have introduced dozens of bills on the topic of global warming. And a major battle is brewing over whether to tackle the problem through so-called market-based solutions that, for example, could allow corporations to purchase the right to emit more greenhouse gases from companies that have lowered their own. Schwarzenegger likes that approach, but opponents would rather see the savings achieved through strict regulation.

But it's easier to measure tailpipe emissions or total vehicle miles traveled than it is to quantify the green-quotient of individual cities or neighborhoods.

"We don't have those models yet," Reed said, "and we may not for some time to come."

Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com.

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