We know from writing our report, Why Local Climate Planning Has Failed, that cities are more likely to achieve their climate goals when they have a robust plan that outlines the best actions to take, identifies when to take them, and is supported by both scientific evidence and funding commitments. But drafting a good climate action plan (CAP) takes time, particularly when you’re waiting for your initial greenhouse gas inventory, working on constituent engagement efforts, and garnering support from local elected officials.
Climate change, however, is an emergent crisis; we don't have the luxury of waiting for eighteen months for a community engagement process and detailed plan to start taking action. Science 1 , and our citizens 2 , demand action now. Fortunately, there are a few high-impact strategies that cities can get started with today that usually wind up in most CAPs eventually and will help get the ball rolling on reducing emissions now. In this blog post, we’ll also talk about three strategies that look attractive, but should probably be postponed until the CAP is complete.
A quick note on methodology: these high-value, low-cost strategies were selected from the CivForge Strategy Library as having relatively high impact in terms of emissions reductions and relatively low cost in terms of initial outlay and staff time. Obviously, not every strategy is a great fit for every city. We think the solutions featured in this post work well just about anywhere, but every city's situation is different.
Reducing municipal operations emissions by re-thinking lighting
A great number of cities want to lead by example for their communities—this is a good governance principle and, when it comes to climate action, it's usually a relatively easy thing for them to do. From ensuring that employees at City Hall recycle to installing water-efficient toilets in county parks reduces emissions, these types of improvements help the private sector see what can be done to improve climate outcomes.
A surprising amount of a city's carbon emissions come from energy used to produce light, whether that's in buildings or for streetlights, parking lot illumination, or traffic lights. A typical high-pressure sodium light, which can consume up to 1000 watts per hour, is responsible for up to a ton and a half of CO2e per year. A comparable LED light produces around just 220 pounds of CO2e per year, a reduction of nearly 93% in some cases. In Roanoke, VA, a city of about 100,000 people with 10,000 streetlights, emissions reductions from installing LED streetlights could be up to 13,900 mtCO2e and cost savings could exceed $300,000 per year.
Lighting replacement is a great first step while climate planning is underway. It leads by example, something every government should seek to do. It promotes fiscal sustainability while promoting environmental sustainability by reducing annual operations costs. And it's highly visible to the public—people walking their dogs or returning from a night out notice when amber sodium lights are replaced by blue-white LEDs. This builds confidence in the climate plan that's being constructed, as citizens see the local government is serious about getting things done.
How to pay for this action
Of course, there is an up-front cost to LED conversion, but the energy savings over time typically recoups this cost. In fact, some cities use performance contracts to retrofit and maintain LED streetlights, paying for upfront costs over time based solely on energy savings. Similar programs help with large-scale commercial lighting retrofits in city offices, libraries, fire stations, and the like. And, while the scale is smaller, emissions reductions for other government lighting uses like traffic lights and signage also add up.
Reducing transportation-related emissions by fostering EV-friendly businesses
Buy-in and participation from municipal leadership is also important. This means every department at City Hall should participate, and the City Council should be involved in the process. One way a forward-thinking city can do this is by adopting EV-friendly business and apartment building codes. This has limited cost (just some minor retooling in the permit process) and just requires a bit of coordination between city departments and approval from local elected officials.
These types of ordinances involve a few changes, but they apply only to new or substantially remodeled buildings, meaning that they don't place a new burden on existing businesses. And, according to the EPA, installing EV infrastructure in new construction is four to six times cheaper than retrofitting an existing structure. There are several options, but most cities use some of the following:
- Require designated EV parking spaces in lots over a certain size
- Require EV-ready infrastructure (e.g., appropriately sized electrical connections)
- Require installation of EV charging stations at businesses of a certain size
- Require exclusive-use signage (and empower traffic and parking enforcement)
How to pay for this action
Besides the cost of staff time, this action is essentially free of external costs. This is a high leverage action for cities to take because it utilizes local permitting and land use regulation to promote private action. EV-readiness is something that works easily in a commercial context, because both the relative cost (compared to retrofits) and the absolute cost (often less than half a percent of the per-space parking cost) are very low. Cities can also encourage existing businesses to retrofit to attract EV-driving customers to their restaurants and stores.
Reducing emissions from building energy and heating by weatherizing buildings
A household is energy impoverished when energy costs exceed 10% of household income. 3 This can occur because income is too low, fuel prices are too high, or the home has poor energy efficiency, causing too much energy to be used. Fixing the latter of these three problems has the added benefit of reducing emissions, and can be a straightforward place to start for a city interested in taking climate action with an eye toward equity.
Over half of U.S. household energy use is related to heating and cooling, according to the Department of Energy. It follows that the fastest way to reduce energy bills (and associated emissions) is to reduce the amount of cooling and heating needed by weatherizing these homes: better insulation, improved windows and doors, more effective thermostats, and similar measures.
The federal weatherization assistance program offers an energy audit and up to $2600 in improvements recommended by it, but is subject to such a strict means-testing requirement that even some energy-impoverished households don’t qualify. Cities can expand who qualifies for this type of benefit directly, or establish rebate or bulk-buy programs for particular types of weatherization interventions. These can range in cost from fairly expensive (replacing doors and windows), to moderate (adding attic insulation), to affordable (installing programmable thermostats).
A Mississippi State University publication estimates that programmable thermostats can save up to $220 annually on heating and cooling costs. That amount can bring a household out of energy impoverishment, but it also represents, on average, roughly 1 mtCO2e reduction per thermostat each year. These thermostats can be purchased in bulk quite inexpensively, and installed by the homeowner, meaning the cost of starting a pilot program is quite low.
How to pay for this action
Smaller weatherization improvements are relatively inexpensive, and the best way to pay for them is probably just through the city’s discretionary fund. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan Act provided a large infusion of funds for COVID-19 relief and recovery in March 2021. The Treasury has officially stated that weatherization is an eligible use of this money as well (see Page 3 of this funding matrix). 4
Three strategies that are less effective while creating your climate plan
To start off, these strategies aren't bad: they're chosen to illuminate some common pitfalls when it comes to taking climate action while developing an overall climate strategy. This is because they're either staff-time intensive (while staff are already handling the climate plan creation process), slow to produce measurable results, or of limited benefit without understanding the composition of the community's emissions in the first place. After completing a climate plan and understanding mid-term and long-term goals, these strategies might be great choices.
Building energy benchmarking
Building energy use is one of the largest sectors on any city's emissions inventory, and energy benchmarking is very popular right now. The idea behind a benchmarking program is that larger buildings—usually commercial over a certain size, multifamily residential, and public buildings—are required to calculate and submit energy efficiency performance reports, and publicly post the topline results. This is attractive because it seems simple and drives voluntary, private-sector funded change in energy use, sometimes resulting in reductions up to 14%. 5
The pitfall for energy benchmarking is in the staff time required to execute the program. While it seems simple, as the actual measurement is done by each property owner, cities who have adopted benchmarking programs report otherwise: in the first year, FTE estimates ranged from 1.5 to 4.25; ongoing FTE estimates ranged from a little under 1 FTE to 4 FTE. 6 Staff time is needed to inventory buildings, to provide support and resources to property owners, and for enforcement. Doing all this while working on developing a climate plan is a very tall order for overworked staff.
Increasing gas taxes or parking fees, or reducing the availability of parking
One of the most effective ways to reduce transportation-related emissions is to make driving more costly. 7 This can be done by raising gas taxes (where state law allows it), increasing the cost of parking, decreasing the number of parking spaces, or reducing on-site parking requirements for new buildings. In addition to the need for community input on these items, they work better over time rather than right away.
This makes intuitive sense as we look at what factors go into a decision on how to make a trip. People have likely decided to take a job based on their ability to commute to work, and are unlikely to immediately change jobs when the commute gets marginally more expensive. People who have cars have car payments, and are unlikely to simply abandon them immediately. And most importantly, where people have chosen to live was based on the current paradigm surrounding costs of transportation and accessibility of work, recreation, and shopping. All of these patterns are influenced by the cost of driving, but none are likely to change quickly, meaning the strategy won’t produce immediately measurable results.
Create solar subsidy programs
Solar is one of the most visible ways to take climate action, so it makes a lot of sense to create energy behind climate action by incentivizing solar adoption. This can be pricey, but the main reason it's not the best idea right away is that solar is only as effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as the grid-based energy it replaces is polluting. Some utilities are already providing high percentages of carbon-free energy (Seattle City Light, for example, provides 90% of its power renewably), and solar installations in these areas are not cost effective.
An effective solar program takes into account current renewable energy generation from the grid. It also considers planned future uses—if new renewable energy will be grid-distributed in the next few years, installing solar will likewise have diminishing value in terms of emissions reductions. These are all considerations that are best given attention after the CAP process is concluded.
Climate action begins with, well, action—not just planning. So many climate plans fail to achieve the emissions goals their sponsors target because they turn into amorphous plans to plan, rather than plans to act. 8 By kicking off the planning and acting processes in parallel, cities can create the right atmosphere for planning to act, show the community they're serious about getting climate change under control, and take advantage of precious time needed to avert the ever-looming consequences of unchecked climate change.
According to a 2020 Pew Research survey of 10,957 U.S. adults, 65% think the government is doing too little to address climate change, and overwhelming bipartisan majorities favor climate actions including carbon taxes, power plant emissions restrictions, and planting a trillion trees. ↩
Marilyn A. Brown. High energy burden and low-income energy affordability: conclusions from a literature review. 2020 Progress in Energy. February 4, 2003. ↩
Natalie Mims, et al. Evaluation of U.S. Building Energy Benchmarking and Transparency Programs: Attributes, Impacts, and Best Practices. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 2017. ↩
Without going into great detail, research consistently shows that the cost of driving in the U.S. is too low, because drivers exploit externalities in using cars: most roads are not tolled, most parking (especially at commercial establishments) is free, and gas taxes are tuned to be a revenue generation system rather than a means to encourage less polluting behavior. In addition to the emissions drivers don't pay for, there are millions of dollars devoted to the road system that takes them from a suburban house to a grocery store. There are plenty of ways to rebalance the incentives surrounding driving so that we are both economically and environmentally healthier. ↩