Climate Change: What Can Local Governments Do?
October 8, 2020
Category: Climate Change
By early September, wildfires up and down the West Coast blazed, scorching millions of acres, razing entire communities, displacing thousands, and causing over a dozen deaths. In Washington State, the Town of Malden was virtually destroyed. Other communities also suffered extreme losses, including loss of life. The Pacific Northwest experienced prolonged exposure to toxic smoke—with cities here registering the worst air quality in the world. Scientific experts are telling us that we can expect these climate-related disasters to both continue and worsen in the decades to come—even if we act aggressively now to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And unfortunately, local governments end up absorbing many of the costs associated with these events.
While climate change may feel “too big” to tackle locally, the reality is there is a lot that can be done to address climate-related issues in our own communities. Indeed, many local governments in Washington State and around the country have adopted ambitious Climate Action Plans and other policies intended to both cut emissions as well as anticipate and prepare for climate-related impacts. Additionally, Washington State has prioritized a clean energy future. In 2019, the legislature passed SB 5116, which will eliminate coal power from the electrical grid by 2025 and transition the state to 100% clean electricity by 2045.
This blog will cover the basic elements of a Climate Action Plan, provide examples, and share some of the many resources related to climate policy available to local governments.
The Basics of Climate Action Plans
Climate Action Plans (CAPs) are “comprehensive roadmaps that outline the specific actions that a community will undertake to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and adapt to the effects of climate change. See Institute for Local Government. This Climate Action Planning Guide describes a CAP as:
A strategy document that outlines a collection of measures and policies that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Using the GHG emissions inventory as the foundation, a CAP defines GHG reduction goals based on local priorities for reducing emissions and provides the guiding framework for achieving those goals. A CAP can be a standalone document or it can be integrated into an existing plan, such as a comprehensive plan or a sustainability plan.
Local governments often incorporate adaptation and resiliency policies into their CAPs, as well (e.g., relating to sea level rise, drought, or wildfires).
Jurisdictions are wise to approach climate change policy through an equity lens. Equity in the climate change context means ensuring the just distribution of the benefits of climate protection and alleviation of unequal burdens created by climate change. See this Primer on Climate Action Plans developed for the City of Bend, Oregon. Effective CAPs will also quantify the benefits and co-benefits of implementing the various policies, demonstrating both the economic and ecological gains of such policies.
According to this Climate Action Audit prepared for the City of Salem, Oregon, in 2020, a CAP will typically cover the following five topic areas:
- Buildings and Energy
- Land Use and Urban Form
- Transportation and Fuels
- Consumption and Materials Management
- Natural Systems and Community Wellbeing
A CAP will generally include policies in each of the identified topic areas intended to reduce emissions and promote sustainability — including, for example, incentivizing high-quality and energy-efficient buildings, planning for transit-centered and walkable communities, and adopting waste-reduction strategies.
Salem’s aforementioned Climate Action Audit includes a comprehensive review of 12 adopted CAPs (including CAPs from the cities of Tacoma and Bellingham), a ranking of different policies as “essential, priority, and additional,” an analysis of various public engagement strategies for the CAP adoption process, as well as a review of existing city policies that advance several of the goals of a CAP.
Examples of Climate Action Plans
If your community has not yet adopted a CAP or is looking to update its existing plan, there are many examples to model from — including several on MRSC’s Climate Change webpage. Cities and counties in Washington State with ambitious and comprehensive climate and sustainability-related plans are listed below.
- City of Bellingham (available on the Climate Protection & Energy webpage)
- City of Shoreline (available on the Sustainable Shoreline webpage)
- City of Olympia’s Sea Level Rise Response Planning (2018)
- Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan (2020), a draft regional plan that includes Thurston County and Cities of Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater.
- King County Strategic Climate Action Plan (2020), "The 2020 SCAP will focus on reducing regional greenhouse gas emissions, preparing for climate change impacts, and supporting resilience in communities disproportionally impacted by climate change.”
- City of Spokane’s 2009 Sustainability Action Plan and 2018 Resolution forming an Ad Hoc Sustainability Action Subcommittee.
Many resources are available to assist local governments of all sizes in developing CAPs and climate adaptation strategies. The following are just a handful:
- ICLEI USA – Local Governments for Sustainability. ICLEI is a member organization that provides resources and toolkits for local governments to assist in developing climate and sustainability policies.
- Center for Quality Communities, Association of Washington Cities (includes the Growing the Green Economy in Washington State report.)
- Climate Action Planning Guide, Climate Smart Communities, New York
- Powering the Clean Energy Future from the Ground Up, 2012 Climate Solutions report reviewing the New Energy Cities program, including projects in small and mid-sized cities in the Pacific Northwest.
- Shift Zero, a Zero Carbon Building Alliance in Washington State with toolkits for local policy makers.
- Climate Change Resources, American Planning Association
- Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington
- Pathways to a Low-Carbon Future for the Northwest, Clean Energy Transition Institute
- State of California Climate Action Portal Map, an interactive map linking to different CAPs in California.
- Institute for Local Government, resources for developing CAPs (focused on California).
- Small and Medium-Sized City Climate Action Plan Creation and Implementation in Western Washington and Oregon, Arielle Simmons, Master's Thesis, Evergreen State College, 2018.
- History and key documents of climate planning and action in Portland
- MRSC webpages (we are in the process of updating and improving these materials):
MRSC recognizes that addressing climate change and its impacts will necessarily be a priority for local governments in the years to come. In line with this, we aim to improve and expand our existing climate-related content on our website. We also intend to provide timely and useful guidance to assist local governments through blog posts, trainings, and our inquiry service. We would love your feedback regarding what would be most helpful to your local government’s climate-related efforts moving forward. You can email any ideas or suggestions to email@example.com.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.