Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC: Post 7: The Land Use Stabilization Wedge: Sequestration: A Series by John R. Nolon

[This post is the seventh in a series. See below for links to previous issues.]

Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC.

The Land Use Stabilization Wedge: Sequestration

by John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor of Law

Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

The green edge of the land use stabilization wedge is the biological sequestration of CO2.  It occurs within the vegetated environment: resources such as forests, pastures, meadows, crop lands, urban trees, and green infrastructure. These landscapes naturally absorb and store approximately 15% of domestic CO2 emissions. Perpetuating and expanding the sequestering environment is fundamentally a land use issue, one that is well within the capacity of land use law to address.  

The previous blog on transportation described how shaping human settlements to promote walkable, livable communities directly mitigates climate change by reducing vehicle miles travelled and energy consumed in buildings. Compact, mixed-use and sustainable neighborhood development promoted by land use regulations are, therefore, essential strategies for lowering emissions. Fortunately, they also promote biological sequestration. Such development attracts population growth to urban places by creating healthy neighborhoods for living, working, and recreating, which preserves existing open space in outlying areas.  One estimate calculates that doubling urban density alone would accommodate the entire projected population increase by mid-century, thereby saving an area the size of Connecticut – and all of its sequestering resources -- from development.

Strategies that create green infrastructure in developing and developed places, while adding marginally to sequestration, are necessary if urban communities are to attract additional residents and workers.  They are essential adaptive techniques as well. In developed cities, for example, tree canopies can be increased; green infrastructure added; urban gardens promoted; and buildings oriented to cool living environments, lessen the heat island effect, make cities attractive places to live, and soften the effects of higher densities

If urban places do not accommodate population growth, outlying lands become targets for residential and commercial development.  In these places, land-use law can be particularly effective in designating and protecting lands that sequester carbon. As suburban subdivisions are developed, they can be better situated into the existing vegetated landscape through thoughtful land use regulations. Furthermore, local governments can shape suburban and ex-urban land development to reduce land coverage and impervious surfaces, limit flooding, retain and add vegetation, protect community character, and prevent ground and surface water pollution. Together, such strategies limit development densities and tend to push population growth back toward developed centers and corridors.

Municipal governments in suburban and ex-urban areas have a long history of concern for the loss of open space and eco-system services to encroaching development.  Decades-old local open space preservation laws and programs yield a number of strategies that can now be employed as sequestration techniques These include standards regarding environmentally sensitive area designation, erosion and sedimentation control, grading, filling, drainage, soil disturbance, removal of vegetation, floodplains control, natural resource management, watershed, groundwater, watercourse, and wetland protection, landscaping requirements, ridgeline, steep slope, scenic resources, shoreline regulation, stormwater management, timber harvesting regulations, tree protection and canopy expansion, and the transfer of development rights from lands to be preserved to developable areas.

Most local environmental laws and natural resource protections of this type are enacted because of perturbations at the community level: the loss of a treasured viewshed, the gradual decline of visible open space, surface water or groundwater contamination, increased flooding, or the disappearance of treasured wildlife, among others. These disturbing influences motivate local stakeholders, and their elected officials to act to address their causes.  As a result, local governments are becoming increasingly reliable partners in the global effort to manage climate change. 

This comes at a critical time.  Local legal strategies that preserve and enhance the sequestering environment now have a place on the global stage due to the advent of Nationally Determined Conditions (NDCs) in the Paris Agreement of the 21st Conference of the Parties. NDCs include contributions to climate change mitigation adopted by local governments that can be counted toward participating countries’ efforts to achieve international climate mitigation goals.

See Managing Climate Change Through Biological Sequestration: Open Space Law Redux

Material from this series will appear in Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC, an article to be published by the Arkansas Law Review.

Previous posts in this series are available here:

Post 1:  Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC

Post 2:  Post-Paris Contagion

Post 3: Carbon Emissions: The Land Use Connection

Post 4:  Shaping Human Settlements

Post 5:  The Land Use Stabilization Wedge: Buildings

Post 6:  The Land Use Stabilization Wedge:  Transportation

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