The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen may have ended without an international commitment to specific greenhouse gas reduction targets, but the development community still needs to prepare to meet stringent targets in the next five to ten years. Both California and the U.K., among others, have already started down the path that the rest of the world is likely to soon follow.


California’s climate change legislation portfolio has rapidly expanded in recent years. Assembly Bill (AB) 32, Statutes of 2006, requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a level commensurate with 1990 levels by 2020. This represents about a 15 percent reduction from current levels and about a 30 percent reduction from projected 2020 business-as-usual levels. With few mass transit alternatives provided, cars are the primary means of transportation in California. As a result, addressing transportation is a key factor in GHG reduction strategies.

The dependence on cars is the result and ongoing cause of lowdensity development patterns, and California recognizes the importance of designing sustainable communities in addressing transportation-related GHGs. Senate Bill (SB) 375, Statutes of 2008, aligns GHG reductions for cars and light trucks with transportation and land use planning at the regional level. SB 375 will require California’s 18 metropolitan planning organizations to produce a sustainable-communities strategy that shows how they will achieve mandated GHG reduction targets by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

The state has also written climate change into its environmental regulatory law. Senate Bill (SB) 97, Statutes of 2007, acknowledges that climate change is a prominent environmental issue warranting consideration in California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) documents. When a city or county reviews a proposed development project, plan, policy, or code change, it is required to evaluate whether that action would result in a significant climate change impact. If it does, appropriate mitigation measures must be put in place. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Bay
Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) is updating its CEQA Guidelines to review, revise, and develop GHG significance thresholds, assessment methodologies, and mitigation strategies.

A number of California cities and counties, big and small, are developing climate action plans (CAPs) to help their communities identify how they are to achieve both the state’s reduction targets and, in some cases, their own more stringent targets, as well as comply with CEQA requirements. Climate action planning has evolved to bring together integrated teams of planners, air quality specialists, and economists to provide local governments with comprehensive, quantified plans to achieve their GHG reduction targets. Early CAPs did not have the level of quantification that is now seen as essential to meet CEQA compliance requirements and to help municipalities monitor their progress toward hitting their reduction targets.

Understanding the cost of individual mitigation strategies is an important part of the CAP development process, because it allows for the prioritization of the most cost-effective ones. Fortunately, there is a range of funding streams and financing mechanisms to help, such as AB811, passed in July 2008, which allows land-secured loans for businesses and homeowners who install energy-efficiency projects and clean-energy generation systems, to be paid back through assessments on individual property tax bills. If the property is sold, the outstanding loan balances are taken over by the new owner. AB811 means that property owners can avoid upfront installation costs while at the same time requiring little or no investment of local government general funds. Cities and counties across California are looking to see how they can set up what are called AB811 districts.

Development of CAPs also includes extensive public outreach and coordination with municipal or county advisory committees to make sure the plans have both the support of the community and buy-in from multiple department stakeholders. The plans typically include measures that offer incentives for green buildings in new developments and energy-efficiency retrofits in existing ones, encourage land use planning policies that limit vehicle miles traveled, encourage mixed-use development and smart growth, and provide opportunities for renewable energy generation.

By 2050, the United Kingdom is mandating an 80 percent emission reduction compared to 1990 levels. As mass transit has been developed to a more reasonable extent in the U.K. than in the United States, buildings are addressed as the primary factor in reducing emissions through new development. To help achieve this goal, English Partnerships, the U.K.’s national development agency, launched the Carbon Challenge, with the objective of helping to accelerate the homebuilding industry’s response to climate change. The Carbon Challenge has mandated that residences achieve the sixth and most difficult level of the U.K.’s Code for Sustainable Homes. From an energy perspective, level six requires a home to be net-zero carbon—which means that the energy taken from the grid must be less than or equal to that returned through renewable technologies. The U.K. government intends all new residences to be net-zero carbon by 2016. Work on the first Carbon Challenge project, Hanham Hall in Bristol, started in November. The project’s 195 homes will be heated and powered through an on-site biomass combined heat and power plant, which will have sufficient capacity to export heat to local community buildings.

Establishing renewable or low-carbon energy sources within cost-effective proximity to those communities is crucial to create zero-carbon communities. Decisions regarding which areas are suitable for development, and what types and intensities of development, therefore, depend upon existing or planned decentralized renewable or low-carbon energy sources that could supply them. To make these decisions, each English borough or planning authority must determine the feasibility of implementing sustainable energy options in the context of their local conditions.

The English city of Dover carried out a study to assess these factors. Published last April, the study addressed four objectives: renewable and low-carbon energy generation, selection of land for development, local requirements for decentralized energy to supply new development, and local requirements for sustainable buildings. To meet these objectives, the Dover District Council sought to establish locally applicable targets, establish advanced targets for strategic sites, develop an understanding of local-renewable resources and the local delivery context, and identify opportunities to include district heating and combined heat and power into development proposals.

The council and consultants aimed to develop an approach that was sufficiently flexible given the changing nature of climate change understanding and policy, while ensuring that this approach was readily implementable. The study took into account Dover’s particular vulnerability to water scarcity, a challenge that will be intensified by climate change. Data were gathered from a wide range of sources, and, where possible, a geographical information system was used to map the data. A cost analysis was also carried out drawing on nationally published guidance on the cost of implementing the U.K.’s Code for Sustainable Homes.

Many studies consider either the existing stock or standards for new buildings in isolation. This study combined the two to provide an appreciation of how a challenging reduction of total carbon emissions from energy use could be enabled and to understand the various effects of different strategies, such as the carbon reduction achieved through implementation of better insulation compared with inclusion of various renewable alternatives. Public consultation on Dover’s core strategy ended in March 2009, and the study was found to be sound at the examination in public last October.

Climate action plans for California cities and counties, CEQA compliance that includes GHG reduction, and a study that links renewable energy opportunities with community development patterns in Dover are just a few examples of the serious, quantitative planning work that will soon become necessary throughout the United States and in other countries, whether the world adopts an international agreement or proceeds on a state-by-state, nation-by-nation basis.

Climate change policy will not be without cost and some social resistance, but it will become a factor that the development community must address. A sooner-rather-than-later approach that seeks quantified, actionable data; identifies the most cost-effective measures; and builds community support around them is the wisest choice today.