Climate Action Wish Lists, Roadmaps and Plans – A Field Guide

By Jerry Tinianow 

When is a plan not really a plan? I raised this issue in an article last year about how the latest generation of municipal climate action plans should be evaluated:

A number of climate change “plans” aren’t really plans. They take a variety of forms: assessments, vision statements, frameworks, roadmaps, or sometimes just wish lists…. A plan doesn’t just describe what a city could or might do. It describes what a city will do.

Several new state and local plans for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have since been published. Some are real plans. Others are something less; a roadmap or a wish list.

The differences among wish lists, roadmaps and plans matter. The path to climate action can start in wish lists and roadmaps, but meaningful actions only happen after those wish lists and roadmaps turn into plans.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has again reminded us that more and faster actions are needed to avert climate change disaster. The road to avoiding disaster gets steeper every time the IPCC issues a new assessment. State and local governments say they want to play a role in solving this problem, but it’s hard to impose accountability on officials when they don’t have real plans against which their actions can be gauged.

Wish lists and roadmaps do have value. If done well, they can set the stage for great plans. But they aren’t plans, so they don’t inherently produce actions or create accountability.

Three words – could, would, will – separate plans from wish lists and road maps.

A wish list describes strategies that could lead to lower GHG emissions. It does not contain a commitment to implement any of those strategies. It sets out options that the governing authority could choose to implement if it decides to progress to a plan.

A roadmap goes further. Sometimes referred to as a “pathway,” it charts out a route of strategies that would lead to the desired GHG reductions if implemented. It is not a plan, however, because it doesn’t say whether and to what extent the governing authority will follow the route.

A plan tells constituents what that governing authority will do. It should contain a timetable for implementation (a start date and a completion date), some interim benchmarks so constituents can see if implementation is on track, a projection of costs, identification of the sources of revenue to cover those costs, and a statement of who will have responsibility for each strategy. Such a document tells constituents what will happen, when it should happen, what the expected results will be and who to hold accountable.

One example of a wish list is the City and County of Denver’s recent “Renewable Heating and Cooling Plan” for existing buildings. This is an outstanding document in many respects. It takes on one of the thorniest challenges in climate action planning: how to replace natural gas heating and hot water systems in a lot of existing buildings with renewable electric power systems by 2030. It has an excellent analysis of options. It also analyzes the ability of the local electric utility to provide a reliable and affordable grid even if electrification of buildings and a rapid uptake of electric vehicles occur concurrently. It addresses the equity issues that can arise when low-income residents who can’t afford to convert to all-electric appliances get trapped in a natural gas system with rates that are rising as the customer base declines.

By the end of this document, however, it becomes clear that it is not actually a plan. There is no indication of which of the many options identified in the document will be chosen, who will be responsible for implementing them, and when and it what order they will be implemented. Potential sources of revenue are discussed in admirable detail, but none is yet selected or committed to.

Berkeley, California is producing a similar document. Berkeley is another true climate action leader, especially in the area of building electrification. It was the first U.S. city in the country to require new buildings to be all electric, a strategy that Denver is also pursuing (but has not yet enacted).

Berkeley recently released a draft “Existing Buildings Electrification Strategy.” This document is just as impressive as the Denver existing building plan, but Berkeley does not call its document a plan.  Berkeley says the document’s purpose is to “analyze the existing building stock of the City, with a focus on low-rise residential, and identify a pathway for an equitable transition to all-electric buildings” (emphasis added). It’s another document that describes what could be done. It does not say what will be done.

If Denver and Berkeley proceed to adopt true plans – and I believe they will – these documents will be valuable resources leading to that next step. These documents are already available to other cities that want to develop their own plans for the electrification of existing buildings without reinventing the wheel. Great plans may be in the offing. Denver, Berkeley and other cities aren’t quite there yet.

Berkeley says its Strategy sets out a “pathway.” This sounds like a roadmap. Roadmaps get a step closer than wish lists to actual plans. If a wish list is like a buffet, a roadmap is more like a fixed menu. Both show you possibilities, but neither commits you to a meal.

The State of Colorado has taken the roadmap approach to GHG reduction. In 2019 its legislature directed the governor to devise a detailed plan for getting the state to reduce its GHG emissions 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Gov Jared Polis, however, did not release a plan. Instead, in January 2021 he released a “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap.” This document “lays out an achievable pathway to meet the state’s science-based climate targets …” (emphasis added).

The shortcomings of a roadmap became apparent when the Polis Administration failed to propose legislation to implement key short-term actions that the Roadmap said were necessary. Legislators introduced their own bill, but Polis threatened to veto it. Ultimately Polis compromised with the legislators on a lesser measure that included some, but not all, of the short-term legislative actions that the Roadmap said were necessary to get Colorado on track to meet its GHG reduction goals.

The accountability problem the accompanies a roadmap is evident. The Colorado Roadmap only described a “pathway” that would get the state to its goal if implemented. It did not commit anyone – not the governor, not the legislature – to taking all the steps in that pathway. Therefore no one could be blamed for deviating from a plan. There was no plan from which to deviate.

Fortunately, there are examples of climate action plans that deserve to be called plans.

The “Living Carbon Neutrality Plan” produced by Ann Arbor, Michigan is one such document. It has all the elements of a true plan. It not only identifies numerous strategies that the city will pursue to become carbon neutral, but also estimates the cost of each strategy and, for the major ones, projects the GHG reduction that the strategy will produce. The plan identifies the entity or entities responsible for implementing each strategy, and sets forth a timetable for implementation, with interim benchmarks. In many instances the benchmark dates fall before the next municipal election, thereby ensuring that the elected officials who approved the plan will have some accountability for its implementation.

The Ann Arbor Plan is not just well worth reading; it is well worth utilizing as a template.

Wish lists, roadmaps and plans are on a continuum that can lead to meaningful climate change actions – actions that gets us to the GHG reductions that the IPCC says we need. Having a true plan is essential to taking such actions. Use the “could, would, will” test to determine where your state or local community is on that continuum today.

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