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At the Local Level, Big Action Against Climate Change Starts With Small Steps

Feb 19, 2018 4 MIN. READ

For localities looking to effect significant change in the fight against climate change, 2018 is a defining moment.

Across the U.S., local governments are taking big steps to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Some have committed to aggressive action plans, like cutting emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (“80 x 50” reductions). Some have agreed to adhere to the tenets of the Paris Climate Accords. Others have formed or joined local government networks in pursuit of a collective approach to climate change mitigation. And we’re not talking about a handful of examples here: some 164 American communities have joined the Global Covenant of Mayors on Climate and Energy and 392 mayors have joined Climate Mayors to commit to the Paris Accord goals.

Despite good intentions, these communities face hard realities in pursuit of such lofty goals. In addition to common bureaucratic headaches like funding and stakeholder resistance, others need to contend with policy limitations — meaning that even if they can identify the source of GHGs in their area, they may not have the authority to mitigate those emissions.

Yet some are making progress by breaking down their aspirational, long-term goals into shorter-term, more achievable targets. How are these communities doing it? And how are they responding to hard questions about scope of authority, evaluation methods, partnerships, and risk assessment? We chatted with ICF energy efficiency expert Bill Prindle to find out.

Compared to state and national policies and programs, the idea of making big strides against climate change can be intimidating for local governments. What are some examples of communities at this level that have successfully “bent the curve” on GHG emissions?

Local efforts can get a community part way to ambitious goals, at least on paper, but wider policy and market forces are needed to reach 80 x 50-scale goals. Recent efforts in cities like Aspen, Baltimore, and Minneapolis show that local government efforts can go a long way toward such goals. And in Philadelphia, the Office of Sustainability recently showed rewarding progress toward its established climate goals in its Greenworks progress report, while also committing to an Energy Master Plan for the City’s facilities and a Powering the Future vision for the city as a whole.

How can smaller communities measure progress against goals? Where can they get data for broad-based inventories, specific sector initiatives, and performance measurement?

  Collecting and compiling GHG inventories, carbon footprints, and other baseline datasets — and integrating it into a tool that enables updates and scenario analysis — can be labor-intensive. Tools are available to help communities looking to develop baseline inventories and assess progress towards goal. EPA’s local greenhouse gas inventory tool can be used to develop a baseline inventory. GHG Protocol’s tools for cities/counties can be used to assess progress toward GHG reduction goals and estimate the impact of policies and actions. The willing collaboration of energy suppliers, state agencies, and others can be essential to developing rigorous data. In Philadelphia, the new Greenworks dashboard integrates data, indicators, and graphics in an easy-to-read online format.

How are communities measuring local co-benefits such as air quality and health?

Some communities are beginning to examine climate action plans and GHG reduction strategies through the lens of local benefits that can be measured in terms of jobs, economic development, improved air quality, and improved health. These kinds of analyses may be increasingly important in building the broad base of support needed to gain long-term traction for climate policy implementation. For example, New York City has measured the local air quality impacts of programs such as Clean Heat, which reduces both GHG and criteria air pollutant emissions by converting old oil boilers and furnaces to efficient natural gas systems.

How have risk management and resilience factored into GHG reduction strategies?

While climate change remains controversial in some policy circles, local action on adaptation and resilience has quickly moved to the practical solutions stage as droughts, floods, sea level, and other climate impacts present tangible risks with concrete solutions. In many communities, such efforts have moved beyond partisan debates to consensus solutions. The U.S. federal government’s Climate Resilience Toolkit provides case studies and resources for local governments and others to pursue adaption and other resilience strategies.

Want to continue the conversation? Learn more about strategies and partnerships to meet ambitious local climate goals at the Climate Leadership Conference in Denver February 28 – March 2, where Bill will moderate a panel of local climate and sustainability leaders, including Vicki Bennett from Salt Lake City, Tom Herrod from Denver, and Jeff Thompson of Wisconsin’s Gunderson Health System. If you haven’t already, register for the conference here and use CLC-ICF-15 for 15% off registration.

Dana Coffman is a Development Associate with the Climate Registry.