Are Climate Action Plans Worthwhile?

17 Apr

Although it’s clear that we need to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, there’s little consensus on how we go about reaching long-term emissions targets. In fact, we don’t even agree on what those targets should be, whether it’s economically feasible to implement broad emissions reduction strategies, or if it’s already too late to take meaningful action. In the absence of a coherent global or national strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the battle to curb emissions in the U.S. is being waged at the local level.

One tool that is being used is the Climate Action Plan. These plans – the good ones at least – lay out a clear framework for how local governments plan to reach explicit emissions reductions targets. They detail policies, implementation strategies, and tracking mechanisms to help reach long-term goals and codify local ambitions to become more environmentally sustainable.

Not surprisingly, cities with the most green cred have some of the most ambitious Climate Action Plans. Berkeley’s plan, which was the result of a successful voter initiative, calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. In a similar vein, Portland’s plan calls for a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and an 80% reduction by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). In California, the Institute for Local Government has a catalogue of cities and counties across the state with model Climate Action Plans.

Although some 600 municipalities throughout the country have implemented (or are drafting) a Climate Action Plan, for the most part, the documents aren’t mandatory. In California, metropolitan planning organizations are required to draft a regional Sustainable Communities Strategy, per Senate Bill 375. However, this requirement doesn’t compel municipalities to draft a local Climate Action Plan.

The cities that have implemented model Climate Action Plans are largely codifying their existing environmental and sustainability practices. Recent research indicates that cities with Climate Action Plans have “more green buildings, spend more on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and have implemented more programs to divert waste from methane-generating landfills.” These changes didn’t come about because of the Climate Action Plan per se. Establishing causation is always a tricky business.  Instead, cities with ambitious Climate Action Plans may just be more likely to have residents and policymakers who agree that they need to encourage more green building techniques, invest in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and implement waste diversion policies.

So is the exercise of drafting, implementing, and adopting a comprehensive Climate Action Plan an exercise in frivolity? We say no. Setting forth long-term emissions reduction targets and aligning them with existing and planned policy interventions, tracking mechanisms, and a commitment from residents and local authorities to meet these goals is a worthwhile endeavor. It demonstrates an extended commitment to environmental sustainability and builds support for a long-term strategic vision. Eventually the national policy debate will catch up to the reality and sense of urgency about combating climate change that many local governments have already grasped.  Some major natural event or catastrophe will be the tipping point that engenders a consensus around the necessity of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.  And when that happens, these plans will be ready and waiting to inform more far-reaching policies.

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