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Best Practices: Climate Action Plans

What is a CAP?

Climate action plans (CAP) are tools designed to help state and local governments mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change on their community. Although the specifics of each economy, available resources, and political structure provide different opportunities for addressing climate change, a climate action plan can help guide these efforts by detailing actions that can be taken to help meet sustainability goals. Climate action plans tend to build upon information compiled through greenhouse gas inventories and focus on those activities that can achieve the greatest emissions reductions cost-efficiently.

Local climate action plans have become more prevalent in the United States since the adoption of the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, the creation of the Climate Mayors in 2014, and the pledge to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2017. In the United States, the first city to take action on Climate Change was Portland, Oregon, with the publication of its Global Warming Reduction Strategy in 1993.

At the state level, 33 states have released a climate action plan or are in the process of creating one as of August 2022. This includes 22 states that have released plans, 9 states that are updating their plans, and 1 state that is developing a plan. Only one state, Alaska, has rescinded its climate action plan. At the local level, over 400 municipalities have a climate action plan in some stage, whether committed, in development, or being implemented.

How Do You Create a CAP?

According to the King County, Washington Climate Action Toolkit, there are 5 key steps for creating and implementing a successful climate action plan. These steps are intended to be iterative and take communities through the entire climate action planning process, from initial assessment to successful implementation. These steps include -

  1. Understanding your community’s emissions

  2. Assessing and strengthening your community’s level of commitment

  3. Developing a climate action strategy tailored to your community

  4. Implementing emissions reduction action

  5. Measuring & reporting progress

During the first step, actions include calculating your municipality’s greenhouse gas inventory to understand where your community’s largest contributor of greenhouse emissions are. This allows communities to align their mitigation and adaptation efforts with those that will go the furthest toward reducing greenhouse gasses.

The second step includes an assessment of community assets and characteristics that may help (or hinder) efforts to reduce emissions. A thorough evaluation will consider the unique fabric of each locale, including its geography, resources, infrastructure, and amount of leadership buy-in, and how those factors influence the creation of climate-oriented goals.

The third step involves taking those climate action goals and conducting deep-rooted community engagement to ensure that the climate action plan receives feedback and buy-in from residents, organizations, and businesses. Without a level of community support, there is little chance of success for the climate action plan.

The fourth step determines what actions your climate action plan’s leadership team intends to commit to and how those actions will be carried out. The implementation plan should include accountability measures and a plan for funding to ensure that the agreed-upon actions can occur.

The fifth and final step involves progress monitoring and reporting. Unless the change is tracked, it is difficult to demonstrate success and maintain support for continued climate change efforts through the plan. The King County Toolkit recommends that tracking success metrics be an ongoing task but that GHG inventories be completed at 2-, 3-, or 5-year intervals.

Notable Examples of CAPs

Three particularly notable CAPs come from cities with small, medium, and large populations - Alameda, California (approximately 80,000), Washington, D.C. (approximately 702,000), and New York City, New York (approximately 8,380,000).

The City of Alameda plans to increase the availability of EV charging stations to encourage the purchase and use of electric vehicles.

Alameda released the Alameda Climate Action and Resiliency Plan in 2019, intending to reduce emissions by 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. The City plans to do this by encouraging more environmentally friendly practices in transportation, buildings, sequestration, and waste. The City would like residents to use shared and sustainable modes of transportation, including taking the bus, biking, and walking. The City also plans to encourage the purchase and use of electric vehicles (EV) by increasing the availability of EV charging stations and promoting the purchases of zero emissions and low emissions vehicles. With the planned 100% green-energy conversion of the electricity grid in Alameda, the City’s greenhouse gas emissions from buildings would come from natural gas use. The City encourages the complete electrification of buildings, requires complete electrification of new residential construction, and encourages fuel switching in appliances like clothes dryers and heat pump water heaters to challenge natural gas use. To sequester more carbon, the City plans to apply compost to all vegetated areas of the city and plant more trees. To tackle waste or consumer-based emissions, they suggest implementing behavioral changes such as using less single-use plastics, reducing flight use, and embracing a zero-waste culture.

DC's CAP will ensure all Washington, D.C., students graduate with knowledge of how to protect the environment.

Washington, D.C., created their most recent CAP, Sustainable DC 2.0, in 2019. It features goals in the following topics: governance, equity, built environment, climate, economy, education, energy, food, health, nature, transportation, waste, and water. This city’s view of sustainability is more holistic since its plan touches almost every aspect of a person’s life. On the topic of the built environment, their goals include sustainably accommodating future population growth, supporting existing neighborhoods, improving the performance of existing buildings, and having high standards for new building construction. Regarding climate, goals include mitigation through reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation through evaluating vulnerabilities, strengthening emergency preparedness, and requiring all new developments to be aware of the development risks. DC’s CAP is unique among other cities in that it involves a focus on education, which ensures that all Washington, D.C., students graduate with knowledge on how to protect the environment in addition to community education and engagement efforts about sustainability.

Increased building energy performance mandates is just one focus area of New York City's CAP.

New York City released its updated CAP, Aligning New York City with the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017. This plan is based on their 2014 Roadmap to 80 x 50 CAP and has the following focus areas: buildings, energy, transportation, and waste. Each of these areas includes goals related to reducing consumption and increasing efficiency, the transition to clean energy, or climate change leadership. New York City proposes increased building energy performance mandates, energy retrofits to city-owned buildings, sustainable transportation, and organics separation from waste. Then, they plan to use 100% renewable energy for city operations, have a renewables-based electricity supply, and improve electrical vehicle charging infrastructure. Finally, the City proposes carbon and other externalities accounting, creating a protocol for carbon neutrality, and enhancing climate communication to the public.

Takeaways from CAPs

The above paragraphs go over the goals of the CAPs from a variety of cities ranging in size. From diving into these three climate action plans and others, we have identified three major similarities in their structure. First, they all build on existing planning and work towards global progress. For example, the New York City CAP’s central goal is achieving an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, thus supporting global efforts to stay under 1.5° celsius of warming by 2100. This goal understands the bigger impact of the work and doesn’t look at the city in a vacuum.

Second, the plans integrate the needs of the community with the needs of the environment. Washington, D.C., does this well with its focus on equity and education. These topics have a two-pronged effect of helping the environment and supporting opportunities for disadvantaged people.

Third, these plans implement quantitative goal setting. The Alameda plan includes meaningful and measurable actions that the municipality can use to achieve its 2030 greenhouse gas emissions goals. For example, to support the goal of vehicle electrification and the specific action of “the increased availability of EV charging stations citywide,” the city’s buildings must meet the California Green Building Standards Code that requires a mandatory EV charging space for every single-family home, 10% of spaces for multifamily homes, and more than 17 spaces for non-residential developments. Having numerical metrics allows for easy, unbiased monitoring of the climate action plan strategies.

What Can You Do?

Although climate change has the potential to create lasting, catastrophic change in communities worldwide, there are ways to mitigate and adapt to these effects. Climate action plans are one-way communities can respond to climate change in a way that engages deeply with their residents and strives to create a more equitable world. Climate action plans have the potential to alter the timeline of climate change by responding directly to current environmental issues while anticipating future concerns.

If your community does not currently have a climate action plan, please consult the community resources included below and contact your local officials to begin creating a climate action plan.

Community Resources

Climate Action Toolkit - King County - Provides step-by-step technical resources to assist communities undertaking the climate action plan planning process or updating and strengthening existing plans.

EPA Local Greenhouse Gas Inventory Tool - Includes pre-programmed emissions and jurisdictions parameters.

ICLEI Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Inventories - Offers cities and local governments a robust, transparent, and globally accepted framework to consistently identify, calculate, and report on city greenhouse gas emissions.

ICLEI Greenhouse Gas Protocols - Offers guidance for communities to account for carbon pollution accurately and consistently.

The Climate Registry - Operates a registry that sets consistent, transparent standards for businesses and governments throughout North America to calculate, verify, and publicly report GHG emissions.

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