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Endless Bad Zoning Decisions in LA and Beyond - Why Paris Climate Change Talks are Bound to Fail

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Some local stories on the sabotaging of the California Environmental Quality Act and the Complete Streets Act help explain how millions of small land use decisions in Los Angeles, the entire country, and for that matter the entire world, virtually guarantee the failure of the climate talks now taking place in Paris. Called COP 21, short for the Conference of Parties, this is the 21st United Nations conference on climate change. 

The approach of COP21, like the previous UN conferences, is to hammer out a broad agreement among the participants. So far, prior agreements have been inconsequential because of their vagueness and a lack of enforceability. In fact, global CO2 levels, along with temperatures and extreme weather events, have continued to rise as fast as the piles of accords from the previous 20 climate conferences. 

The reasons are complex, and these are some of the most common – but not fully convincing -- explanations. 

First, with over 190 participating countries, as well as many more NGO’s and private firms, a COP21 consensus over climate change CO2 targets and Green House Gas (GHG) reduction programs is impossible to obtain beyond upbeat agreements patched together with weasel words. 

Second, CO2 reductions are only limited to production, not to consumption. Countries like the US that export significant industrial production and also import an enormous amount of manufactured goods disguise their cumulative and individual carbon footprint by “out-sourcing” it. Thus, the US reduces its climate targets by foisting them off on producer countries that are then stuck with unreachable goals. 

Third, closely related to the separate treatment of Green House Gases (GHG) related to production and to consumption, are the fundamentally different perspectives of advanced industrial countries and currently industrializing countries. The former, like the US, are intent on preserving their legacy of affluence. In contrast, the industrializing countries, such as India, are undergoing rapid economic growth. 

While this economic growth plays an important role in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, it is also energy intensive. This is why India remains adamant about the continued extraction and burning of coal for the energy it needs to grow its economy. Like nearly all other countries, they see this economic need clearly, while lowering GHG levels is not only on the distant horizon, India also cannot see any way to pursue climate programs without slowing down economic growth. 

While all three of these closely connected factors play a role in understanding the failure of international climate agreements, like COP 21, they also point to a deeper economic process that is not clearly faced, analyzed, and addressed at climate change conferences. 

THE ECONOMIC GROWTH IMPERATIVE:  All capitalist economies have a built-in growth dynamic, and in 2015 this includes all 190 countries participating in COP 21. To a lesser or greater extent, they actively or passively support economic growth. Continuous, incremental economic expansion is not, however, by choice, but stems from the economic system itself since profits are perpetually reinvested into new products and enterprises.  

Even anemic growth rates, such as 2 percent year, double the size of an economy in 35 years. Over a century, this means an economy will increase eight fold. Even small growth rates, therefore, result in an enormous expansion of the production and consumption of energy and goods, as well as the generation of massive waste and pollution. To facilitate this growth, a society’s infrastructure, land use patterns, and public services must go through comparable upgrades, further contributing to environmental havoc. 

When growth rates, however, reach the dizzy levels of China, around 7 percent per year, an economy doubles in size every 10 years. If this level of economic expansion could be maintained over a century, an economy, like China’s, would increase in size by over 2000 times. The amount of raw materials, energy, skilled workers, markets, land, new buildings, and infrastructure required to accommodate this growth and waste, is nearly beyond comprehension. 

To further aggravate these problems, private firms do not consider economic externalities, like pollution, when weighing potential profit and risk for their investment decisions.  Except for an occasional lawsuit, like British Petroleum’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or regulations, like the Federal Clean Air Act, the trail of waste, pollution, and disease caused by the production and consumption of their products is of little concern.  At best it is a public relations problem solved through a grant to PBS! 

In California, for example, we have several important regulatory tools that, if implemented, could at least slow down climate change. But, the two following Los Angeles case studies illustrate how the economic and political dynamics of an advanced, free market economy sabotage regulatory programs that begin to address catastrophic climate change. In both cases City Hall’s full throttle commitment to “growth” through real estate speculation thwarts these modest regulatory tools. 

CALIFORNIA ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY ACT:  In California, the most important regulatory tool is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and in recent years, it has been upgraded to require the careful measurement and assessment of the production of Green House Gases, especially in Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). Lo and behold, these EIR’s, whether for private or public projects, such as the Update of the Hollywood Community Plan, report the generation of unmitigatable levels of Green House Gases. 

The City Council, which is the final decision maker in LA, then has the choice of approving the project as is with a Statement of Overriding Considerations, rejecting the project because of its excessive Green House Gas emissions, or forcing design changes, such as reducing a project’s size, to properly mitigate the production of Green House Gases. Given these choices, City Hall invariably goes the route of a Statement of Overriding Considerations. A project’s alleged benefits, typically vague promises of jobs (which are then never measured), are the rationale to ignore its adverse climate impacts. 

Real estate projects get approved despite their dangerous levels of pollution because major investors have enough political clout to perpetuate a “pro-growth, business-friendly” institutional culture at City Hall. The investors obviously want to maximize profits, and the results, again and again, in LA and elsewhere, are that their priorities trump sound decisions to address climate change.  

COMPLETE STREETS ACT AND THE MOBILITY ELEMENT:  A second regulatory requirement in California is state laws that force cities to address climate change through their planning process, in particular the Complete Streets Act.  It requires cities to put less carbon intensive transportation modes, largely walking, biking, and transit, on the same footing as automobiles. In LA the Complete Streets Act guided the preparation and adoption of the new Los Angeles Mobility Element. 

But, like the much grander global climate pacts, the Mobility Element is toothless. It only has one small enacting ordinance. It is not linked to the city’s budget or to departmental work plans. It also has no effective monitoring program to determine if its programs have been implemented or if they are working. It has also met political and legal opposition from LA residents who – in my view – are so habituated to driving private cars, that they cannot support a new General Plan Transportation Element that raises the importance of personal safety and alternative transportation modes to the same level as cars. 

ALTERNATIVES?  Some policy wonks think they can square this circle through a new economic system called green capitalism. So far, however, capitalism’s built-in growth dynamic has prevailed.  But, even if these visionaries could finally work out the kinks and succeed at regulating economic expansion and profit out of capitalism, the result would undoubtedly be a deep market crisis, high unemployment and impoverishment, waves of bankruptcies and foreclosures, political extremism, and eventually wars. The cure might be as bad as the disease.  Where, then, does that leave us? 

While I hate to be a prophet of doom and gloom, I think it is critical to describe the objective climate situation as clearly as possible. This means that the real choice facing humanity is maintaining the planet as a livable environment or maintaining free market economies -- despite their built-in growth imperative and devastating externalities.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who writes on planning issues for CityWatch. He serves on the Board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and welcomes questions and comments at rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.





Vol 13 Issue 100

Dec 11, 2015