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CEQA and General Planning

Every city and county must have a general plan, which is the local government’s long-term framework or “constitution” for development. A general plan is a project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), so a local government must analyze – and where feasible mitigate – the plan’s significant impacts. Unlike project-by-project permitting, CEQA review for the general plan looks at the “big picture,” allowing a community to align its long-term vision with important objectives, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advancing environmental justice by avoiding additional impacts to communities already affected by pollution.

Climate Change

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Every community has an obligation to consider how its general plan update may affect its community-wide greenhouse gas emissions and to take affirmative, decisive action to reduce and control these emissions.

Addressing climate change at the programmatic, general plan level - provided it's done right - allows for the streamlined review of individual projects under CEQA. Where the lead agency adequately addresses emissions at the plan level, the agency may determine that projects consistent with the plan will not have significant greenhouse gas-related impacts. Shortening the CEQA process can save time and money for these projects.

In 2009, the CEQA Guidelines were amended to add a new provision, Section 15183.5, pdf, which provides a framework for programmatic greenhouse gas emissions reduction plans. An adequate plan must:

  • Quantify existing and projected community-wide greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Establish greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets over the life of the plan which, if achieved, would render the community's greenhouse gas emissions to be less than significant;
  • Identify and analyze the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from sources in the community;
  • Identify a set of specific, enforceable measures that, collectively, will achieve the emissions targets;
  • Establish a mechanism to monitor the plan's progress and to require amendment if the plan is falling short; and
  • Be adopted in a public process following environmental review.

Documents related to this and other greenhouse gas-related provisions are available at the Resources Agency’s website. For additional information and specific examples of greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies, see CEQA and General Plans - Additional Resources.

Environmental Justice

Because CEQA requires that environmental impacts must be considered in context, cities and counties should pay special attention to whether a project might cause additional impacts to communities that already are affected by, or particularly vulnerable to, environmental impacts like air and water pollution. For more information see Environmental Justice at the Local and Regional Level.

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) in its General Plan Guidelines recommends that local governments' planning efforts squarely address environmental justice. Local governments can integrate environmental justice into the mandatory elements of the general plan or include an optional environmental justice element. The general plan for National City, a city of about 58,000 located 5 miles south of downtown San Diego, contains a "Health and Environmental Justice, pdf" element. As the general plan states, “[t]he purpose of this Health and Environmental Justice Element is to identify public health risks and environmental justice concerns and improve living conditions to foster the physical health and well-being of National City’s residents.” National City’s approach ensures that impacts to already affected communities will not be overlooked in future project permitting.

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