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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: Three regions in California recently implemented transportation plans as part of a statewide strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Can you explain?
– Bill Oakes, Reno, NV

Three regions in California -- San Diego, Sacramento and Southern California -- have now formally adopted transportation plans designed to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, per the mandate of the state's Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law (SB 375), which was passed in 2008.

Graphic credit: NRDC

Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about global warming even as Washington politicians continue to debate whether or not to mandate emissions cutbacks. In lieu of federal action, some states and municipalities are taking action on their own to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Not surprisingly, California leads the pack, having passed the 2008 Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law (SB 375), which calls on each of 18 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to prepare a “sustainable communities strategy” to show how it plans to meet previously established greenhouse gas reduction targets through integrated land use, housing and transportation planning. Over the past year, three regions—San Diego, Sacramento and Southern California—formally adopted transportation plans specifically designed to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

“All three regions have found that most people want to live closer to jobs and retail, and yearn for ways to live without spending so much time driving,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been tracking California’s progress on sustainability. “These regions are planning communities that reflect these preferences while also reducing harmful air pollution, creating jobs and saving people money.” NRDC adds that the sustainable community strategies “lay the foundation for smarter, more efficient growth and healthier communities, each of them offering lessons for other regions to follow.”

Under the terms of SB 375, each of the MPOs crafted plans based on local priorities, needs and resources, while adhering to strict statewide emissions reduction goals. San Diego’s 2050 Regional Transportation Plan was the first of its kind in the country when implemented last year. It calls for investing $214 billion in various local, state and federal transportation initiatives around San Diego over the next four decades.

“The largest proportion of the funds will go toward transit, which will receive 36 percent of the funds in the first 10 years, with 34 percent going to highway improvements (largely for the addition of high occupancy vehicle lanes to existing freeway corridors) and 21 percent to local roads and streets,” reports the San Diego Association of Governments, one of the agencies that helped design the plan. “The percentage dedicated to transit will grow each decade, up to 44 percent from 2021 to 2030, 47 percent in the third decade, and 57 percent in the last decade of the plan.”

Most environmental leaders view SB 375 as a step in the right direction, though others worry that it doesn’t go far enough. “The plan will worsen health risks in communities that already suffer from disproportionate levels of pollution,” reports the California-based Environmental Health Coalition (EHC). EHC is concerned about the health of low-income communities of color and feels that the plan allocates too much funding toward highway expansion while deferring investment in public transit for too long.

Meanwhile, 15 more plans will come to light soon across California, giving the rest of the nation that many more models for planning responsibly for a warmer, less environmentally secure future.

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: Hurricane Sandy brought more sea water onto shorelines than I’d ever witnessed before and many communities near where I live are now being required to raise their homes up. What is the prognosis for sea level rise in the years immediately ahead? – Scott P., Fairfield, CT

Most Earth scientists agree that future sea levels will rise at a greater pace than during the last 50 years. Coastal communities will suffer the most, as flooding from rising water levels will force millions of people out of their homes. Pictured: flooding in Marblehead, Massachusetts caused by Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012.

Photo credit: The Berkes

Since sea level measurements were first recorded, in 1870, global averages have risen almost eight inches. The annual rate of rise has been 0.13 inches over the past 20 years, which is close to twice the average from the previous 80 years. Future estimates for sea levels vary according to region but most Earth scientists agree that sea levels are expected to rise at a greater pace than during the last 50 years.

Predicting the amount of rise is an inexact science and depends on many factors including climate change and ice sheet flows. The U.S. National Research Council predicts a possible sea level rise of between 22 and 29 inches over the 21st century in the U.S. Sea levels are anticipated to continue rising for centuries.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), land elevation changes also have a large impact on the effects of rising water levels. Subsidence (sinking) or uplift (rising) of the land can help determine the relative sea level rise. The EPA’s relative sea level estimates, assuming a two foot global sea level rise by 2100, are 2.3 feet at New York City, 2.9 feet at Hampton Roads, Virginia, 3.5 feet at Galveston, Texas and one foot at Neah Bay in Washington state.

The main factors contributing to sea level rise are thermal expansion (created by an increase in ocean water temperatures) and the melting of ice caps and glaciers. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, combined with natural activities, have contributed to the rise of the earth’s surface temperature over the past century. According to National Geographic, about 80 percent of this additional heat is absorbed by the oceans. The above factors are well studied, but more research is still being done on how climate change will impact large ice sheets in areas such as Greenland and the Antarctic. An extra foot of sea level rise could be a possibility depending on what happens with these larger ice sheets.

Even small changes in sea levels can have adverse effects on coastal areas. Erosion, flooding of wetlands, aquifer and agricultural soil contamination and habitat loss for fish, birds and plants are all problems resulting from rising sea levels. Also, higher sea levels usually mean more destructive weather events as storm surges get bigger and more powerful and devastate everything in their way. Coastal communities will suffer the most, as flooding from rising water levels will force millions of people out of their homes.

As for what can be done, reducing our collective carbon footprint is no doubt the first and most important step. Individuals should drive and fly less, walk and bicycle more and take advantage of public transit. But sweeping policy changes will have the most impact: A recent commitment by the Obama White House to require coal-burning power plants and other large industrial operations to minimize greenhouse gas emissions should finally help get the United States started on the right track, but many wonder if such moves represent too little too late.

CONTACTS: U.S. National Research Council, www.nationalacademies.org/nrc; EPA Climate Change Future, www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/future.html; National Geographic Sea Level Rise, ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/critical-issues-sea-level-rise/.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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