New Report: How to Fight Climate Change and Save California’s Landscapes

SCS_Conservation_Report_CoverThanks very much to this week’s guest author on ClimatePlan’s blog and our partners at The Nature Conservancy and the Sequoia Riverlands Trust.

March 7, 2016
Guest post by: Adam Livingston, Director of Planning and Policy, Sequoia Riverlands Trust; Coordinator, Southern Sierra Partnership

Imagine a California where conservation and transportation work hand-in-hand to fight climate change.

SB 375 can help us get there. This state law, which is central to ClimatePlan’s work, requires transportation agencies to prepare Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCSs) that bring together land use, transportation and climate policy. Ultimately, these strategies are designed to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing the need for driving.

Conservation can help make this happen, while providing other benefits as well. And a new opportunity is coming up.

The opportunity: Eighteen (yes, eighteen) new plans

Between 2011 and 2015, transportation agencies in eighteen regions of California prepared their first SCSs.

Over the next four years, all eighteen SCSs will be updated. This provides an opportunity to revisit—and strengthen—plans that will influence land use and transportation around the state.

The tools we need

To make the most of this opportunity, The Nature Conservancy and my organization, Sequoia Riverlands Trust, have released a new report, Sustainable Communities Strategies and Conservation: Results from the First Round and Policy Recommendations for Future Rounds.

The report highlights approaches to conservation based on the first round of existing SCSs, as well as input from advocates and agency staff. It offers a selection of policies and best practices for future rounds. These recommendations can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while providing a host of additional benefits.

Reducing GHG emissions

Most importantly for the goals of the SCS process, a growing body of research shows that land conservation is essential to achieving GHG reductions.

Recent studies indicate that per-acre GHG emissions from farmland in California are an average of 58 times lower than those from the state’s urban areas, that per-acre emissions from rangeland may be up to 217 times lower, and that natural landscapes such as oak woodlands can sequester millions of tons of carbon.

An American Farmland Trust study found that reducing California’s farmland conversion rate by half would prevent 55 million metric tons of GHG emissions over the next decade, which would be equivalent to avoiding emissions from more than 129 billion vehicle miles traveled.

Benefits beyond carbon

Of course, conservation provides a host of additional benefits as well:

Economic vitality: Natural and working lands contribute billions of dollars a year to our state’s economy, with crop receipts alone totaling $54 billion in 2014. They also support jobs in areas ranging from agriculture to outdoor recreation.

Clean water: Natural and working lands contribute to water availability and water treatment, as watersheds channel melted snowpack from high altitude areas to farms, ranches and cities, and wetlands and forests help remove contaminants from water.

Public health, equity, and sustainable growth: Conservation supports SB 375’s goals of encouraging compact growth and investing in disadvantaged communities. This is already showing benefits in places as diverse as the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, and Southern California, as transportation funding decisions are supporting walking, biking, public transit – and public health.

Great examples from around the state


Sustainable Communities Strategies and Conservation outlines policies and best practices that can help realize these benefits, including these promising examples:

The Bay Area’s first SCS includes a clear geographic framework to channel conservation and development resources to the right places.

San Diego’s SCS has a comprehensive regional program to mitigate the impacts of transportation projects on natural and working lands.

Tulare County uses “San Joaquin Valley Greenprint” layers as constraints to development to ensure that important natural resources are not lost.

The Tahoe region directly attributes its claimed greenhouse gas reductions to changes in land use and transportation, setting an important standard for transparency in future rounds.

Taking it further

Other recommendations are drawn from consultation with advocates and agency staff. These may not yet be included in plans, but could provide significant benefits for regions that adopt them. For example:

– Using water conservation as a criterion for selecting a land-use pattern can support more water-efficient development patterns.

– Similarly, taking a more active approach to climate adaptation can help ensure the long-term resilience of transportation investments, and the communities that rely on them, in a changing climate.

With these policies and best practices (and many others), Sustainable Communities Strategies and Conservation gives advocates and agencies the tools they need for the next round of the SCS process.

Want to use this in your work? Have questions? Email me.

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