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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.