A proposed Scoping Plan Update released by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) targets the land use sector and development projects for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. The proposed update was spurred by the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 32 and Assembly Bill (AB) 398, which codified California’s goal of reducing GHG emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and extended the Cap-and-Trade Program, respectively.

In a shift from prior versions of the Scoping Plan, which largely avoided discussing the California Environmental Quality Act’s (CEQA’s) role in addressing climate impacts from new land use development, ARB recommends that local agencies cut GHG emissions from the land use sector in three key ways:

  1. Local Climate Action Plans: The proposed Scoping Plan Update recommends that local agencies prepare climate action plans that achieve specific per capita GHG emissions targets consistent with the state’s ambitious 2030 and 2050 climate goals. Local agencies can rely on climate action plans to evaluate the climate impact of projects undergoing CEQA review. ARB’s proposal, however, offers little guidance to local agencies for meeting these goals, even though the vast majority of statewide GHG reductions are expected to come from future regulatory mandates and broad technological advances beyond the control of local governments.
  2. CEQA Significance Thresholds: ARB recommends that CEQA projects incorporate mitigation measures to minimize GHG emissions if the local agency has not prepared a climate action plan that adequately addresses the state’s 2030 and 2050 climate goals. ARB advises that “[a]chieving no net additional increase in GHG emissions, and no contribution to GHG impacts, is an appropriate overall objective for new development.” The proposed Scoping Plan Update recognizes that lead agencies can develop non-zero GHG significance thresholds and recommends GHG mitigation strategies focused on onsite and local measures.
  3. VMT Reductions: ARB recommends that local agencies consider policies to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) beyond what is proposed to be achieved by Senate Bill 375.

ARB will consider the Scoping Plan Update at its December 14 meeting.

Background: California’s 2030 Climate Goal Spurs Scoping Plan Update

In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger kick-started California’s leadership on climate policy by issuing Executive Order S-03-05, which set goals of reducing California’s GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. In 2015, Governor Brown’s Executive Order B-30-15 set an interim goal of reducing GHG emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The 2020 and 2030 targets were codified by AB 32 in 2006 and SB 32 in 2016, respectively. AB 32 and SB 32 require ARB to adopt and update the Scoping Plan as the framework for meeting the state’s targets, as well as to imbue ARB with broad regulatory powers to achieve the necessary GHG reductions.

Although California is on a glide path to meet AB 32’s 2020 target, statewide GHG emissions will need to dramatically decline in order to meet the 2030 and 2050 targets. The state’s population is expected to reach 50 million people by 2050, compared with an estimated population of 30 million in 1990. Therefore, per capita GHG emissions must plummet from about 15 metric tons of CO2-equivalent (MTCO2-e) in 1990 to below 2 MTCO2-e by 2050. In short, GHG emissions have to “fall off a cliff” after 2020, as this chart from ARB [1] illustrates.

The majority of California’s GHG emissions come from the transportation sector, as the following figure from ARB [2] illustrates.

ARB recognizes that the majority of emission reductions from the transportation sector will come from technological advancements and lower-carbon fuels. [3] This position is consistent with a study from a third-party consultant prepared for ARB and other state agencies, which concluded that statewide regulatory programs and sweeping technological advancements are necessary to achieve the state’s long-term climate goals. [4]

Proposed Local Land Use Recommendations

The proposed Scoping Plan Update recognizes the authority of local governments to make land use decisions. Accordingly, the Scoping Plan Update provides guidance to “support local governments in their efforts to reduce GHG emissions,” clarifying that “this guidance is voluntary and should not be interpreted as a directive or mandate to local governments.” [5]

The Scoping Plan Update’s recommendations for the land use sector include:

1. Local Climate Action Plans with Rigorous 2030 and 2050 Reduction Targets

The proposed Scoping Plan Update recommends per capita statewide targets based on California’s 2030 and 2050 GHG goals:

ARB recommends statewide targets of no more than six metric tons CO2e per capita by 2030 and no more than two metric tons CO2e per capita by 2050. The statewide “per capita” targets account for all emissions sectors in the State, statewide population forecasts, and the statewide reductions necessary to achieve the 2030 statewide target under SB 32 and the longer term State emissions reduction goal of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. [6]

To achieve these targets, the proposal “recommends that local governments evaluate and adopt robust and quantitative locally-appropriate goals that align with the statewide ‘per capita’ targets.” [7] ARB recognizes that climate action plans or other local planning documents can streamline CEQA review for projects:

ARB advises that local governments also develop community-wide GHG emissions reduction goals necessary to reach 2030 and 2050 climate goals. Emissions inventories and reduction goals should be expressed in mass emissions, per capita emissions, and service population emissions. To do this, local governments can start by developing a community-wide GHG emissions target consistent with the accepted protocols as outlined in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research’s (OPR) General Plan Guidelines Chapter 8: Climate Change. [8]

The proposed Scoping Plan Update provides little guidance, however, on how local agencies can achieve the state’s ambitious per capita targets. Most of the GHG reductions needed to achieve the state’s 2030 and 2050 climate goals are expected to come from statewide regulations (such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard or Cap-and-Trade Program) or technological advancements (such as in electric or renewable natural gas-fueled vehicles) that are largely beyond the control of local governments.

2. Greater VMT Reductions

When describing the need for local action to support state climate policy, ARB proposes achieving greater VMT reductions than are envisioned by SB 375:

While the State can do more to accelerate and incentivize these local decisions, local actions that reduce VMT are also necessary to meet transportation sector-specific goals and achieve the 2030 target under SB 32. Through developing the Scoping Plan, ARB staff is more convinced than ever that, in addition to achieving GHG reductions from cleaner fuels and vehicles, California must also reduce VMT. Stronger SB 375 GHG reduction targets will enable the State to make significant progress toward needed reductions, but alone will not provide the VMT growth reductions needed; there is a gap between what SB 375 can provide and what is needed to meet the State’s 2030 and 2050 goals. [9]

The proposal outlines several high-level strategies without identifying a mechanism for achieving VMT reduction:

It is recommended that local governments consider policies to reduce VMT to help achieve these reductions, including: land use and community design that reduces VMT; transit oriented development; street design policies that prioritize transit, biking, and walking; and increasing low carbon mobility choices, including improved access to viable and affordable public transportation and active transportation opportunities. [10]

3. Significance Thresholds for CEQA Projects

For the majority of CEQA projects located in jurisdictions lacking a climate action plan that is consistent with California’s long-term climate goals, the proposed Scoping Plan Update recommends that projects incorporate GHG mitigation to minimize emissions. ARB supports a “no net additional increase in GHG emissions” as “an appropriate overall objective for new development.” [11]However, ARB recognizes that lead agencies may adopt non-zero GHG significance thresholds:

Achieving net zero increases in GHG emissions, resulting in no contribution to GHG impacts, may not be feasible or appropriate for every project, however, and the inability of a project to mitigate its GHG emissions to net zero does not imply the project results in a substantial contribution to the cumulatively significant environmental impact of climate change under CEQA. Lead agencies have the discretion to develop evidence-based numeric thresholds (mass emissions, per capita, or per service population) consistent with this Scoping Plan, the State’s long-term GHG goals, and climate change science. [12]

4. GHG Mitigation Strategies for CEQA Projects

The proposed Scoping Plan Update recommends GHG mitigation strategies for CEQA projects. ARB “recommends that lead agencies prioritize on-site design features that reduce emissions, especially from VMT, and direct investments in GHG reductions within the project’s region that contribute potential air quality, health, and economic co-benefits locally.” [13] For offsite GHG mitigation, which is allowed under CEQA, the proposal states that “[w]here further project design or regional investments are infeasible or not proven to be effective, it may be appropriate and feasible to mitigate project emissions through purchasing and retiring carbon credits.” [14] The proposed Scoping Plan Update also emphasizes the need to “better ensure that environmental justice communities see additional benefits from our clean air and climate policies.” [15]


The proposed Scoping Plan Update’s guidance for local agencies is voluntary. However, because ARB is the state’s leading climate authority, the Scoping Plan Update may influence how local agencies demonstrate compliance with state climate policy when preparing long-range planning documents and evaluating projects under CEQA, as well as courts reviewing such local agency actions. Latham will continue to monitor the progression of the Scoping Plan Update and its impact on new land use development in California.