Grading the Latest Municipal Climate Change Plans

By Jerry Tinianow 

Cities have been issuing plans to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions for years. Portland was the first in the United States, releasing its plan in 1993. Cities have not always met their targets, but they have reduced emissions individually and as a group. They have shown leadership when national governments have lagged behind or, in the case of the Trump Administration, been in active opposition.

In 2018 all of the progress that cities had been making was reframed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report. The IPCC said that the world was going to have to cut emissions deeper and faster than cities and many others had assumed. A lot of cities had just committed to an “80 by 50” goal – cutting emissions 80% by 2050 – when the IPCC said this wasn’t enough; the world needed to be carbon neutral by 2050, and down 45% by 2030. New plans were needed.

A good deal of new municipal climate change planning was going to occur in 2020 anyway. The term “2020 Goals” had a nice ring to it, so a lot of plans were built to end that year. Then the IPCC report came out, requiring new plans or revisions in existing plans that had target years after 2020. As a result, a lot of cities are doing climate change planning right now, either to replace expiring plans or to update them to meet the IPCC’s new targets.

Here are a few measures by which new or revised municipal climate change plans should be evaluated:

Is it really a plan? 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. There is nothing wrong with any of these forms (except perhaps the wish lists), unless the term “plan” is attached to them. A plan doesn’t just describe what a city could or might do. It describes what a city will do. A map can show you how you could get to a particular destination. Having the map does not, however, assure that you will make the trip.

Doing their part vs. just contributing. Plans should identify goals and then describe how the city will meet them. The level of ambition in these goals is important. Cities often say that they want to “do their part” to prevent the worst effects of rapid climate change. Their part … of what? Today the answer should be the city’s part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with what the IPCC says is needed, i.e. reducing the city’s emissions 45% by 2030 and eliminating them entirely by 2050. If the plan does that, the city is indeed setting out to do its part. If not, the city is planning to “contribute” but not to “do its part” fully. For a variety of reasons, not every city can “do its part,” but those that can’t still can contribute. We need everyone’s oars in the water even if some row harder than others.

Strategies have projected outcomes that add up. If the city has set a numeric greenhouse gas reduction target – which it should – residents need to know how much the city expects each strategy in the plan to contribute to hitting that target. Such projections are easier for some strategies than for others. It’s OK for the city to acknowledge this uncertainty, but a projection of some sort should still be made for each strategy. If a specific number isn’t possible, a range will do. The range should be expressed in numeric terms, as opposed to something vague like “high, medium or low.” Providing estimated outcomes for strategies will allow the city to determine during implementation if the plan is on track, and if not, what fixes are needed.

Provision for contingencies. The Scottish poet Robert Burns observed: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley.” No city will likely succeed in implementing every last strategy in a plan in full and on time, producing the full projected outcome. A good plan recognizes this and builds in resilience in the form of multiple strategies whose projected outcomes would cumulatively go well beyond just barely meeting the city’s target. The city knows some of those outcomes won’t be realized, but it still needs to hit its overall target. If we are to take the IPCC report seriously we have to acknowledge that the era of merely aspirational goals has ended.

Magical thinking. Not magic, actually; more like depending on the arrival of technologies that don’t exist yet or at least haven’t been proven to work at scale. Some climate change plans openly acknowledge that some of the technologies the city would need to meet its ambitious goals haven’t been invented yet. A climate plan can assume technological advancement, especially given the multi-year or even multi-decade time frames that these plans can encompass. If the plan assumes the advent of future technologies to get it over its goal line, however, it should be up front about this and describe such assumptions openly.

Interim benchmarks for checking progress. The IPCC has made clear that our current decade is critical, and that we can’t afford to fall behind or miss the mark. We can’t wait until, say, 2028 to see if we’re on track to meet the IPCC’s suggested target of a 45% GHG emissions reduction by 2030. A good plan should include multiple interim deadlines and measures to allow the city to determine if it is on schedule or falling behind. Extra credit should be given if some of the benchmarks will occur before the terms of the public officials who approved the plan will expire. If no benchmarks occur during the terms of existing office holders, residents won’t be able to reward them for being on schedule or hold them accountable for falling behind.

Budget, schedule, accountability. A good plan should attach both estimated price tags and projected schedules for the implementation of each strategy. Both the cost of a strategy and the time period of implementation can be expressed in ranges, but they need to be stated, so that the city and its residents can track progress. The city should also be upfront about which projected costs are already secured by designated resources and which will require future appropriations or fundraising. In addition, the plan should identify who is accountable for implementing each strategy, including securing the resources necessary for implementation. This doesn’t have to be a specific person or position title, but it should at least be a specific department or agency.

Wiggle room. Cities are often unable to resolve all open issues and secure all necessary resources during a climate planning process. A municipal climate plan can include language leaving the door open to further revision, for example, by describing itself as an “organic” document. Leaving such wiggle room is understandable, but firm commitments needs to outweigh future flexibility. Residents should see a lot of implementation actions under way as soon as the plan is released, or at least shortly after. They should not have to wait for another planning process to fill in blanks and get things started. Immediate commitments of new resources and immediate changes in city laws, regulations and programs at the time the plan is released will allow the plan to shine more brightly and be taken seriously.

Track record. If the city has made a climate change plan before, the new plan should be transparent about the city’s track record of implementation and achievement. A 2019 study of 130 cities with 2020 climate change goals found that only 20% of them had met their 2020 goals or were on track to do so. A city releasing a new or updated plan may have fallen short before. If so, the plan should include an analysis of that shortfall and indicate what will be different this time – particularly if the previous objectives were not as ambitious as the present ones. The media have criticized cities that set climate change goals, miss them, and then come back with even more ambitious goals. Ambition is good, but ambition alone does not eliminate operational weakness. Inclusion in a climate plan of a discussion of a city’s prior shortfalls on climate goals can reveal whether the city has learned anything from the shortfalls and made provision to avoid them in the future.

These measures of the quality of a climate change plan are not all or nothing. Cities won’t be graded pass/fail. The new plans will fall at different points on a continuum of evaluation under these measures. Some will be ambitious, detailed and transparent, and will include immediate commitments of resources and policies that make implementation success likely. These will become the best practice models for other cities. Other plans will be more nominal than substantive. Still others … probably most … will fall somewhere in between. And that’s OK. As previously noted, we need everyone’s oars in the water even if some row harder than others.

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