A Tale of Two Climate Action Plans within Southern California

This past year, both the County of San Diego and the County of Los Angeles have unveiled ambitious Climate Action Plans (CAPs) that mark steps in California’s drive towards environmental sustainability. These plans, while tailored to their respective regional needs and capabilities, share a common goal: to substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in alignment with state targets. This article discusses the intricate details of both counties’ CAPs, focusing on their reduction targets, the role of carbon offsets, and the innovative off-site reduction programs they pursue. Furthermore, it examines how each plan not only addresses current environmental challenges but also lays foundation for future project-specific GHG emission analyses necessary for compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The iteration of San Diego’s draft 2024 Climate Action Plan (dated October 2023) considered in this discussion can be found here. Additionally, the applicable iteration of Los Angeles’ draft 2045 Climate Action Plan (dated March 2023) can be found here.

Status of Each Plan’s Processing

County of San Diego

In October 2023, the County of San Diego released its Draft Climate Action Plan (San Diego CAP), which sets forth a framework to reduce GHG emissions and achieve a goal of net zero carbon emission by 2045. The plan sets forth nine strategies, 21 measures, and 70 actions that the County must take to reduce GHG emissions from five sectors: Built Environment and Transportation; Energy; Solid Waste; Water and Wastewater; and Agriculture and Conservation. This plan represents the County’s third attempt at developing a viable CAP, following extensive controversy and litigation associated with its 2012 and 2018 CAPs.

The public has been invited to review the draft CAP and Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (Draft SEIR) for a period from October 26, 2023 to January 5, 2024, and provide feedback. The County currently anticipates conducting public hearings on the plan before its Board of Supervisors in the fall of 2024.

County of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles County 2045 Climate Action Plan (Los Angeles CAP) represents the region’s strategy to align with the objectives of the Paris Agreement and to attain a carbon-neutral status for unincorporated areas. The 2045 CAP includes 10 strategies and 25 measures that, when combined, achieve all three of the GHG emissions reduction targets for 2030, 2035, and 2045. This plan is an extension and enhancement of the efforts initiated in the Unincorporated Los Angeles County Community Climate Action Plan 2020. This earlier plan, which was adopted in October 2015, formed a part of the Air Quality Element within the broader Los Angeles County General Plan for 2035.

The revised draft of the Los Angeles CAP was made available for public review from March 16 through May 15, 2023. Comments received from the previous public review in 2022 were considered during the revision process.

On November 15, 2023, Los Angeles County’s Regional Planning Commission (RPC) convened to discuss the 2045 CAP. The meeting saw participation from seven community speakers representing various organizations, such as the Building Industry Association, Los Angeles County Business Federation, Endangered Habitats League, Urban Environmentalists, and several nonprofit groups aligned with industry and workers’ unions.

A significant point of contention during the November 2023 public hearing was a proposal made by speakers representing the Building Industry Association, Los Angeles Business Federation, and the Los Angeles Homeowners Federation to delay approval of the 2045 CAP by one calendar year in order to conduct an extensive economic impact analysis. Critics emphasized concerns over the County’s capability to achieve the ambitious target of creating 300 jobs per acre, which was identified as a performance objective under CAP Measure T2 (Develop Land Use Plans Addressing Jobs-Housing Balance and Increase Mixed Use). On the other hand, supporters of the CAP argued against the delay, suggesting that an economic impact analysis would be an unnecessary and costly venture. They pointed out that technological and infrastructural advancements would naturally evolve to support the ambitious goals of the CAP. The proposal was not approved by the RPC.

At the conclusion of the public hearing, a motion was made to recommend certification of the final environmental impact report for the 2045 CAP, along with the adoption of necessary findings, statements of overriding considerations, and a mitigation monitoring and reporting program. This motion also included a recommendation from the RPC for the Board of Supervisors to approve the CAP, along with amendments to the air quality element and its implementation program. The RPC voted unanimously in favor of these motions, marking a significant step forward in the County’s environmental planning and sustainability efforts.

The County will conduct public hearings on the 2045 Plan before its Board of Supervisors, presumably in the coming calendar year.

Climate Action Plan Reduction Targets

County of San Diego

The San Diego CAP sets forth ambitious targets for reducing GHG emissions, aiming for a significant decrease from the levels recorded in 2019. By 2030, the plan outlines a goal to achieve a 43.6% reduction from 2019 levels, marking a substantial step towards environmental sustainability. By 2045, it sets an objective to nearly halve the emissions again, targeting an 85.4% reduction from 2019 levels. The plan also identifies an “aspirational goal” of net zero emissions by 2045.

County of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles CAP sets forth a series of progressive targets aimed at reducing GHG emissions over the next few decades. Initially, the plan targets a 40% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, using 2015 as the baseline year. This ambitious goal is just the first step, as the plan further escalates its objectives. By 2035, it aims to cut emissions by 50% below the 2015 levels. The plan’s long-term vision culminates in an even more substantial target: by 2045, it aims to achieve an 83% reduction in GHG emissions compared to 2015 levels. The plan also identifies an “aspirational goal” of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.

Carbon Offset Options

County of San Diego

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved policy recommendations to guide the preparation of the San Diego CAP on January 13, 2021. Those recommendations directed the Chief Administrative Officer to develop a CAP that does not rely on the purchase of carbon offsets to meet the plan’s emission reduction targets. Therefore, the San Diego CAP does not rely on or discuss the utilization of carbon offsets.

County of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles CAP, on the other hand, discusses that carbon offsets are likely needed to achieve the plan’s long-term targets and goals. The 2045 CAP itself does not establish or implement a carbon offset/credit program, but rather discusses the possible feasibility of an offset program in the event that the strategies and measures in the plan are insufficient to attain the County’s carbon neutrality goal (see Measure ES5: Establish GHG Requirements for New Development). As contemplated within the Los Angeles CAP, such a program would consider the use of carbon offsets from outside of the boundaries of unincorporated County areas.

Notably, the CAP does not currently permit carbon offset credits to be used as alternative project emissions reduction measures for new development (see Measure ES5 in the 2045 CAP, as well as Appendix F thereto). Rather, the offset program would be considered for potential implementation later, and only after completion of the feasibility study.

Availability of Off-Site Reduction Programs

County of San Diego

In its current draft, the San Diego CAP does not set forth provisions for off-site carbon reduction strategies that can be utilized by project applicants processing CEQA compliance documents with the County. This exclusion is noteworthy, given the evolving landscape of environmental regulation and the increasing emphasis on comprehensive approaches to mitigate GHG emissions. Presently, the plan is in the preliminary stages of public scrutiny and comment, and it is reasonable to anticipate substantive revisions based on the feedback. As the CAP progresses towards final approval, stakeholders should closely monitor these developments, understanding that the final iteration of the San Diego CAP could significantly differ from its present form.

County of Los Angeles

In contrast, the Los Angeles CAP aims to establish an Offsite GHG Reduction Program (Offsite Program) as a pathway for new developments to comply with the plan and to finance programs that reduce GHG emissions in the built environment (see Action ES5.4, as well as Section F.4 of Appendix F to the 2045 CAP). This Offsite Program would work alongside the 2045 CAP Consistency Checklist, described in detail below, allowing projects to propose alternative GHG reduction measures not encompassed by measures and strategies in the checklist. The offsite reduction measures must be additional, meaning they are not required by law and would not have happened but for the requirements placed on the project by the 2045 CAP Checklist, and be located within the boundaries of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Of note, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) supports off-site GHG mitigation for projects that have implemented all feasible onsite GHG reduction measures but still cannot reduce their impact to a less-than-significant level. The Offsite Program aims to align with this CARB guidance by facilitating local, off-site direct GHG reduction strategies. The program is built to encompass reduction activities included in the 2045 CAP measures and reduction activities not included in the 2045 CAP measures. For offsite reduction activities already included in the CAP, a project would need to go beyond, or accelerate measures or actions already identified in the CAP by providing additional funding to the program. For offsite reduction activities not included in the CAP, a project could fund programs for implementation of new technologies or new emission reduction measures.

Under the Los Angeles CAP, all offsite reduction activities must adhere to six stringent standards to be considered environmentally sound. These standards mirror those employed by CARB under its Cap-and-Trade Program and require that GHG reductions achieved are real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable, enforceable and additional.

The proposed process for utilizing the Offsite Program as an alternative GHG reduction measure includes several steps. Applicants must provide evidence of meeting the required GHG reduction amount, demonstrate compliance with all six standards, obtain necessary permits and approvals, submit timing and monitoring documentation, and disclose the impacts of any offsite projects proposed for funding or implementation. This is only a framework for the program as the actual program will be developed after the 2045 CAP is adopted.

Streamlining Subsequent CEQA Analyses

County of San Diego

The San Diego CAP is intended to be used for future project-specific GHG emissions analyses by being prepared consistent with the tiering and streamlining provisions of Section 15183.5 of the CEQA Guidelines.

The San Diego CAP’s “Part 6 Consistency Checklist” is a comprehensive guide designed to align with California’s 2022 Scoping Plan and legislative GHG reduction targets for 2030 and 2045. Additionally, it includes modifications to the County of San Diego 2011 General Plan Update (GPU) to focus on achieving net zero GHG emissions by 2045, highlighting the County’s commitment to environmental sustainability and regulatory compliance. The Plan uses a two-step process to distinguish between projects to determine if they are consistent or inconsistent with the CAP:

Step 1 of the Checklist confirms whether a project aligns with the County’s future plans for growth and development. To do this, first, the project needs to show that it fits with the General Plan’s vision for the region. Every project must prove that it is in line with the General Plan’s categories for different regions and the types of land uses it allows. This includes making sure the project matches the kinds of buildings and activities that are allowed in that area, as well as how dense and intense the development can be, according to the Zoning Ordinance.

Step 2 of the Checklist confirms whether a project is consistent with the CAP consistency requirements, including any necessary demonstration as to why such requirements are not applicable.  The CAP requirements are split into two categories, one set that applies to privately-initiated projects and the second set that applies to County-initiated projects. To be considered in compliance with the CAP consistency Requirements for Privately Initiated Projects, the project must comply with the County’s Code of Regulatory Ordinances, Active Transportation Plan, Transportation Demand Management, Landscaping Ordinance, the Native Landscape Program.

County of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles CAP also is structured to constitute a qualified GHG emissions reduction plan under CEQA. Future non-CEQA-exempt projects requiring discretionary approvals may demonstrate consistency with the 2045 CAP if they are consistent with the General Plan, the 2045 CAP’s future growth projections, and the GHG emissions reduction measures. Projects consistent with the CAP would not require additional GHG emissions analysis or mitigation under CEQA Guidelines Section 15183.5(b)(2), provided that the project’s environmental document identifies 2045 CAP requirements that are applicable to the project, and, for those requirements that are not binding or enforceable, incorporates these requirements as mitigation measures.

The Los Angeles CAP Consistency Checklist provides individual projects with the opportunity to demonstrate that they are reducing GHG emissions with four steps. Step one is to determine if the proposed project is consistent with the General Plan. The proposed project must be consistent with the existing land use designation of the Land Use Element and the 2021-2029 Housing Element. If the proposed project is not consistent with both elements, the project is not consistent with the general plan and may not streamline its GHG impact analysis using the CAP. Like the San Diego CAP checklist, therefore, this consistency program does not apply to projects requiring a General Plan Amendment.

The second step allows for screening out of the checklist all together if the project would achieve net-zero GHG emission compared to existing on-site development at the project site. The third step ensures the proposed project demonstrates consistency with the CAP requirements in terms of energy supply, transportation, and building energy and water. Lastly, the fourth step includes explaining if the project proposes alternative GHG emission reductions outside of those included in the CAP requirements.


When comparing the efforts of these two Southern California counties, both the San Diego and Los Angeles CAPs are pursuing considerable GHG emissions reduction targets. San Diego has a firm stance against using carbon offsets, while Los Angeles is open to the idea of utilizing carbon offsets, especially in the long term. Similarly, while San Diego has not yet chosen to implement any sort of off-site reduction program, Los Angeles is currently working to achieve an off-site reduction program.

Both counties are using their CAPs to streamline subsequent project-specific CEQA analysis for projects consistent with the jurisdiction’s land use framework, employing consistency checklists as tools to integrate CAP measures into project planning and development. This approach not only facilitates compliance with environmental regulations but also aligns projects with broader sustainability goals.

As neither CAP has been formally adopted by the ultimate decision-making body within each county’s jurisdiction (the Board of Supervisors) and as each CAP remains the subject of ongoing administrative proceedings, interested stakeholders should continue to monitor the development and status of these CAPs.

[This alert does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by viewing or responding to this alert.  Legal counsel should be sought for answers to specific legal questions.]