Daniel Weintraub: Brown has seen the future -- and it looks like Marin

08/16/2007 12:00 AM

08/16/2007 4:41 AM

SAN RAFAEL -- It is only 83 miles -- as the SUV drives -- from the Capitol offices of the Republicans in California's state Senate to the Marin County Civic Center here, near the shore of San Pablo Bay. But it might as well be a million, given how differently the occupants of the two places view the world and the issue of global warming.

In Sacramento, Senate Republicans have been holding up passage of the state budget for weeks while demanding that their fellow lawmakers rein in Attorney General Jerry Brown, who has been pressuring cities and counties to consider the effects on climate change before approving new development.

In Marin County, government officials are more likely to say, "What's the problem?" They have been doing what Brown is insisting upon for years, without anyone having told them to.

Brown, in fact, cites Marin as a model for how every local government should be complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires cities and counties to identify potential environmental impacts from proposed developments and take reasonable measures to mitigate them.

And Marinians are glad to be setting an example.

"This isn't rocket science," Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan told me last week as we chatted in his office in the Civic Center, the last building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright before he died in 1959. "Anybody can do what we have done."

McGlashan was an environmental consultant and activist before entering politics, and he can recite from memory the long list of steps Marin County is taking to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions believed to cause global warming. But he is also not afraid to admit that Marin has more work to do than most.

"Marin County is no saint," he says. "We have an ecological footprint that far exceeds our land area."

The amount of greenhouse gas a place generates is, more or less, correlated with wealth. Marin is one of the wealthiest places in America. And its global footprint (which includes more than just its emission of greenhouse gases) was estimated in 2001 at 27 acres per person, the amount of land it takes to support each person's lifestyle. The U.S. average is 24 acres.

If everyone had Marin's footprint, it would take nearly five Earths to support the globe's population.

"When you're as affluent as Marin County is, you tend to have larger houses, you tend to drive more, fly more, consume more," said Alex Hinds, head of the county's Community Development Agency and the man directly responsible for Marin's "sustainability" ethic.

To shrink that footprint, Marin adopted a "greenhouse gas reduction plan" last year committing the county to lowering emissions at least 15 percent from 2000 levels by 2020, and by as much as 20 percent for the government's own operations.

To get there, the county plans to take steps affecting nearly every aspect of life in the region, from transportation and energy consumption to agriculture, housing development, building design and water use.

The county already promotes the consumption of locally grown vegetables and grass-fed beef, and it provides a "green building" seal of approval to structures that are built or modified to meet the latest energy efficiency standards. It has the highest recycling rate in the state.

Perhaps the boldest measure the county plans to take is to break free from Pacific Gas & Electric for its electricity supply and instead buy, and generate, its own energy. The county's goal is to increase the share of renewable energy in its electricity portfolio to 40 percent by 2015, which could include a big expansion in the use of solar power and even a plant powered by wave energy from the Pacific Ocean.

Energy consumption is responsible for an estimated 44 percent of Marin County's greenhouse gas emissions. But an even larger share -- 53 percent -- comes from transportation. To reduce that output, the county is promoting policies that locate shopping and jobs close to where people live, and it hopes to vastly increase the availability, and use, of public transportation for those who cannot walk or bike to where they need to go.

The county plans an elaborate network of buses, shuttles and jitneys to help people avoid the use of single-occupant cars, and there are still hopes for a commuter rail corridor connecting to Sonoma County, although a proposal to fund that train with a sales tax increase fell short at the polls last year.

"It's an all-out effort in every respect of public policy and county operations," McGlashan said. "We need to do anything and everything we can to avert the worst effects of climate change."

Even in Marin, some of these policies have prompted fierce debate, especially the idea of building densely populated "infill" housing in already urbanized areas.

But is what might be good for Marin good for every city and county in California? The Republicans in the Senate say no, or at least that no other county should be forced to follow suit. The Democrats say yes. And on that dispute hangs resolution of the next state budget.

Contact Daniel Weintraub at dweintraub@sacbee.com. Readers can see his blog about health care at www.sacbee.com/healthcare.

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