California is addressing climate change more aggressively than perhaps any government entity on earth. With bold initiatives like its Global Warming Solutions Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020, its zero net energy requirements for new residential and commercial buildings, is Low Carbon Fuel Standards and its action against Short Lived Climate Pollutants like methane, California is in the vanguard of change.
But when it comes to fashioning a regulatory system that facilitates the multitude of actions required to reduce emissions like solar installations in its cities and towns, alternative fueling stations, organic waste recycling facilities like anaerobic digesters, and bikeways and other alternative transit corridors, it has made little if any progress. I was reminded of this the other day when I read about the frustrations of bikeway advocates in Los Angeles who have labored for years to implement bikeways only to be thwarted by the many barriers that have been thrown up under the guise of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Hundreds of miles of bikeways that should be in place by now in California remain unrealized due to CEQA challenges and other regulatory factors.
CEQA was enacted in the early 1970s to insure that projects in the state adequately assessed environmental impacts. As such, it was a revolutionary and much needed information tool to guide decision makers in cities, special districts, counties and state government.
But more than forty years is a long time for any tool to perform well and in the case of CEQA and other measures, including the state’s convoluted environmental regulatory system. In 1991 when I became an executive in the just created California Environmental Protection Agency, I thought this agency might be an effective means of reforming a regulatory system that was by all measures too complex, too time consuming and too expensive to deal with. But that didn’t happen, and several attempts over the past 20 years to reform the system have gone nowhere.
While the regulatory system has driven many necessary environmental protections and it performs a vital check and balance in the governance of development, is this system up to the task of ushering in a post fossil fuel infrastructure in the timeframe required to make a difference?
The importance of maintaining a strong regulatory framework is critical in our increasingly complex world. But we have an urgent task; we must remake our fossil fuel world and do it in a timely way. We need to move like we did when we built our railroads, our electrical and gas grids, our dams and waterways and our highways. Reconciling the importance of regulation with the need to move quickly is a 21st century imperative.
For more on the regulatory challenge please refer to my book, Out of the Wasteland: Stories from the Environmental Frontier, “Rethinking Our Regulatory World.”