June 2, 2023
State and local leaders want to accelerate local climate action. But not everyone agrees on how to get there and whether climate action plans are an essential step. In this article we explore whether to pump the gas – or the brakes – on climate action planning.
As we recover from a rough winter of atmospheric storms and look ahead to a hot, dry summer, local governments across California are considering how they can do more and go faster to combat the climate crisis in alignment with the State’s 2045 carbon neutrality targets. A significant percentage of State’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fall under the domain and authority of local government, particularly those community-based measures that cannot be addressed by industry or State regulation. This makes local governments indispensable players in achieving the largest emission reduction goal in the U.S.
“Responsible for an estimated 75 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, cities represent the single greatest opportunity for tackling climate change. The first step for cities to realize their potential is to identify and measure where their emissions come from — you can’t cut what you don’t count.” Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories, World Resources Institute, C40 Cities, ICLEI (2021)1
To CAP or Not to CAP
Typically making decisions about where to commit limited public agency capacity and investments most effectively, among all the varied local priorities and interests, requires information. To deploy climate action effectively, a municipality needs to understand current and projected sources and amounts of greenhouse gas emissions within its jurisdiction and determine what available interventions the municipality can implement or support to reduce them and how much of that intervention is needed. This information often takes the form of a Climate Action Plan, a policy document that directs staff in local departments to implement specific emission reduction measures. As of 2023, 281 of California’s 482 cities and 36 of California’s 58 counties have Climate Action Plans (CAP), covering 79% of the population of California.2 Back in 2019, when there were just over 200 CAPs in place, these plans already accounted for 283 million metric tons of CO2e, or about 63% of California’s total 2010 emissions.3
“Local governments are essential partners in California’s efforts to reduce GHGs. Their unique expertise and respective authorities allow them to shape growth and development patterns within their jurisdiction, and as a result, local actions remain critical for reducing GHG emissions from the built environment and transportation.” 2022 Scoping Plan and Local Actions Appendix D California Air Resources Board (2022)4
While CAPs share many features, no two CAPs are alike. Communities have different characteristics, strengths, priorities, and values, which help drive selected strategies. For example, a rural jurisdiction may have expansive agricultural lands or open space ripe for energy and water efficiency and healthy soils initiatives, while a sprawling suburban area may note that they could make the biggest impact through reducing transportation or residential housing emissions. An urban jurisdiction with industrial activity may find itself playing support to State regulation while focusing on changing the energy sources and uses of commercial or multifamily buildings. In fact, a County will often have all of these areas within its jurisdiction, in widely variable levels, and will have to tailor place-based solutions to meet its specific profile of emissions and specific area needs. Further, one city may be struggling to re-skill its underemployed workforce and need to focus on measures that stimulate the economy, while another may be in an extreme fire hazard area and need to focus on strategies that simultaneously build grid resilience. Many jurisdictions are seeking to ensure climate investments build resilience and opportunity for vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Identifying the best and most viable measures to target the unique needs of a community requires some analysis and planning.
Then again, there are some jurisdictions without a CAP that are implementing emission reduction measures. Often these measures have a designated and recurring funding source such ratepayer dollars to implement local building efficiency programs, or are free, self-sustaining, or revenue-generating such as joining a Community Choice Aggregation program. In its 2022 Scoping Plan, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) compiled a list of 13 “local priority actions,” such as zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) deployment, policies and plans to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and codes and programs for building decarbonization.5 This list aims to help municipalities bypass climate action planning, and virtually all emission quantification efforts, by encouraging all 540 local governments to implement this recommended menu of actions. While best practices are helpful and welcome, local governments, much like the State in its Scoping Plan, typically tailor and size their interventions to the specific need rather than blindly implementing one size fits all measures, especially if they must expend their own taxpayer dollars to implement.
We all wish we could dodge the long and arduous climate action planning process and move on to implementation. Sadly, it’s hard to imagine achieving substantial emission reductions without somehow giving decision makers an informed plan about what can be done to reduce its share of emissions in time to avoid the worst case climate scenario given real world monetary constraints, and a way to track the outcome of interventions and investments. There are, however, ways to make necessary climate action planning easier.
The Realities of Climate Action
If you’ve ever worked on a local climate action plan, you probably feel you’ve weathered your own extreme storm. It’s at the local level where climate change meets humanity and becomes more than a math problem. You have to engage meaningfully with the public about needs and solutions, ensuring inclusion while balancing competing interest groups and political ideologies, including those that don’t believe GHGs are a problem worth solving. You have to court executive leadership and educate, onboard, mediate, and oversee departments and divisions from Flood Control to Parks that may have never considered climate change. You have to regularly brief decision makers and endure public hearings where you’ll likely be derided for going too far and/or not far enough, for choosing strategies that may or may not positively affect various local economic interests, or for failing to do enough to course correct the economy towards equity. So when you step out to propose strategies, which will inevitably result in taxpayer investment and community impacts, you’d better be prepared to back them up with information that demonstrates the emission reduction measures in your plan will:
- Be compliant with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) mandates
- Be right-sized to successfully achieve the targeted emission reductions by the target date
- Be measurable to determine progress towards emission goals and targets
- Be reasonable and feasible in cost, with a preference for strategies that provide the biggest bang for the buck and have external or self-sustaining funding sources
- Be based on an accurate understanding of the community’s needs and perspectives
- Produce co-benefits that elevate equity and other important community priorities
- Minimize adverse economic impacts to the extent possible
“The most effective CAPs contain GHG emissions reduction strategies tied specifically to sources of GHG emissions identified and quantified in an inventory. This should make logical sense; if most of a community’s emissions are generated from transportation sources then most of the emissions reductions strategies should be aimed at transportation policies and programs. The most effective CAPs will also quantify the expected GHG reduction benefits and contribution of the strategies toward the overall reduction target.” Local Climate Action Planning Michael Boswell, Adrienne Greve, Tammy Seale (2012)
Imagine instead walking plan-less into a hearing proposing to implement contentious parking pricing or all-electric building policies. It’s likely you’d be skewered by elected officials and the public, and investment requests would likely be laughed into the minutes. So, as planners and public administrators, we prepare. We know the analyses of the best mix of measures and investments to combat climate change must rest on a solid understanding of current and forecasted emissions by source for the jurisdiction, otherwise known as a GHG inventory.
The GHG inventory is one of the first steps in a climate action plan, and it’s a doozy. These inventories are typically done every 5 years at a cost of approximately $40,000. Cities and counties have to request data from utilities and others, determine an appropriate inventory methodology, and acquire technical expertise to analyze and forecast emission data. The State’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs) used to fund core local staffing and free municipal access to ICLEIs ClearPath climate action planning tool that supported GHG inventories, but that funding sunsetted in 2020, and local governments report having significant challenges finding the dollars to keep their CAPs updated. Sometimes an Air Pollution Control District or other regional organization will support emission inventories across multiple jurisdictions, which greatly improves economies of scale, but even they struggle. Utility, Caltrans, agriculture and other key datasets must often be pulled by jurisdiction. The request process can be burdensome and lengthy, requiring someone with the expertise to understand how to request the data. Datasets often come in raw form, meaning someone in a jurisdiction needs to scrub and massage complex datasets and convert them to GHG emissions. Before starting the data analysis process, a jurisdiction also has to determine the methodology that it will use to conduct the inventory, as there are different approaches, not all of which are consistent with the State’s. Beyond CAPs, these inventories are critical for developing CEQA emission thresholds and projects, resource conservation plans, and CARB compliant offsets.
“Utility data is particularly challenging to obtain and use given the 15/15 rule that requires that datasets be anonymized to protect confidentiality. Local governments receiving this data must legally agree not to make public any sensitive data that would violate the 15/15 rule, taking on substantial technical burden and legal risk. Small jurisdictions may find that anonymized data may require merging and masking details like sectors and tariffs that are important for targeting emission reduction measures.” Anonymous local input
Solving a Key Barrier to Local Climate Action — Statewide Local Inventories
Given the relative expense, burden, and importance of GHG inventories, CivicWell and Contra Costa County are cosponsoring Senate Bill 511, proposed by Senator Blakespear of northern San Diego, formerly the mayor of the City of Encinitas. If enacted, SB 511 would fund CARB to prepare and provide GHG inventories to local governments for their use in preparing CAPs and in determining the best opportunities for investing resources to reduce GHG emissions. The bill would appropriate $2.5M in FY 2024-45 to CARB to develop and provide greenhouse gas emission inventories for the calendar year 2025 for each city, county, and city and county that requests one. The bill would require the state board, consistent with the preparation of the updates to the scoping plan and before January 1, 2033, and every 5 years thereafter, to update the inventories for the subsequent calendar years. The bill would require CARB, before January 1, 2026, to establish a local government advisory committee to inform its development of the greenhouse gas emission inventories.
“In addition, by making CARB responsible, SB 511 would ensure consistency in data collection and methodology. That allows for robust analysis of regional and statewide trends. Finally, having CARB collect these data will simply be more cost effective. Rather than funding each individual city and county to hire specialized staff to carry out this function, we can achieve economies of scale by directing CARB to do this.” Senator Blakespear (Remarks at Senate Environmental Quality hearing in April 2023)
The bill has received tremendous support from local agencies. It unanimously passed the State Senate on May 24, 2023 and is now on its way to the Assembly.
More Barriers and Solutions — We Need your Input
CivicWell’s California Climate and Energy Collaborative (CCEC) engages its network regularly on ways to rev up local climate action. We continue to hear that the challenges and burdens associated with local GHG inventories is one of the biggest barriers to revving up substantial climate action at the local level. But it isn’t the only one. Even with the cadillac of CAPs, effective implementation and progress tracking is an ongoing challenge for both single jurisdictions or regional consortiums. We believe closer coordination with our friends at CARB and other State agencies is one of the most important ways to unlock local potential and boost our collective statewide efforts.
“The focus today is on freeing municipalities up to take meaningful and sufficient climate action: the right measures in the right size, as quickly as possible, and somehow funded into existence. And we’re grateful CARB is here to help us identify ways they can help alleviate barriers to action.” Angie Hacker, CCEC Statewide Best Practices Coordinator, at the May 24, 2023 Listening Session
We want to hear from you. Should we pump the gas to overcome barriers to local climate action planning, or find a way to bypass CAPs altogether? What other local climate action barriers can the State be instrumental in helping us overcome? CCEC is holding listening sessions on Local Climate Action Barriers with CARB to discuss these and other related matters. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to participate. Stay tuned for a summary of local climate action barriers and solutions that result from these listening sessions.
- Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories World Resources Institute, C40 Cities, ICLEI (2021)
- CA Climate Action Plans 2023 Status Report Presentation by Dr. Michael Boswell (California Polytechnic State University) at CCEC/CARB Listening Session (May 24, 2023)
- 2019 Report on the State of Climate Action Plans in California California Polytechnic State University (2019)
- 2022 Scoping Plan and Local Actions Appendix D California Air Resources Board (2022)
- Local Actions Appendix D California Air Resources Board (2022)