Atlantic Cities

Do Cities Really Take the Lead on Climate Change?

Do Cities Really Take the Lead on Climate Change?
Reuters

Climate change is at least a distant fifth in line for attention from the federal government, behind sequestration, debt ceiling, gun control, and immigration. Couple that position with the fact that many Congressional lawmakers don't even think warming exists, and the United States isn't likely to take meaningful climate action anytime soon. That means it's up to localities to take the lead — states in a general sense, but really cities themselves when it comes to the details.

To better understand the motivation for local action, UCLA urban planner Rui Wang has been studying how cities go about taking action on climate change. Wang recently reviewed California planning surveys to determine climate actions taken in 2008 and 2009 by the state's 480 cities. In an upcoming issue of Urban Affairs Review, Wang reports that cities tend to adopt climate change policies in increments — pushing simple policies first, then in some cases working toward more challenging ones.

In other words, writes Wang, cities pick for the "lower-hanging fruits." (Even in California, with state environmental laws like S.B. 375 and CEQA in place, cities must implement the policies.)

Take the adoption of local actions to mitigate harmful emissions. For 2008 and 2009, Wang found that the most widely adopted policy climate actions were at the individual project level, such as mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in a major public project (71 percent). Efforts to tackle the problem at a systemic level were far less common. Only 15 percent of cities calculated their community baseline emissions, and only 9 percent set formal emission reduction targets.

A similar pattern emerged with regard to particular projects in 2008. Cities more commonly adopted project measures that improved energy efficiency in buildings or reduced car travel (48 and 44 percent, respectively). When it came to sequestration measures, such as planting trees to trap carbon, that rate fell to 23 percent. Only 2 percent of cities went so far as to purchase carbon offsets.

These findings show us two things about city climate actions, according to Wang. The first is that local climate actions in California occur incrementally — not haphazardly. Cities willing to adopt tougher systemic actions (like baseline targets) or project measures were very likely to have already adopted the easier policies that most cities chose.

Of course the second thing we see with the results is that most cities stop at the easier policies. The easier individual mitigation strategies can be "win-win": reducing building energy, for instance, not only helps the environment but saves money. The tougher ones, like purchasing offsets, require direct costs and have fewer tangible benefits for developers.

So the goods news is that, at least in California, localities are working up toward strong policy in an incremental fashion — not tossing darts and seeing what they hit. The less good news (it's certainly not "bad," per se) is that many cities are stopping at what Wang calls the "easier" actions:

The above observations indicate that some actions were adopted first and more frequently, whereas other actions, probably because of their higher costs or institutional barriers, were mainly adopted by a subgroup of those who adopted the “easier” actions. This incremental pattern of adoption sup¬ports the existing literature’s finding that cities tend to focus on win-win measures but fail to adopt a systematic and structured strategy to tackle climate change.

This analysis must be kept in broader perspective, especially compared to federal inaction. Yes, some cities may be picking what Wang calls the "lower-hanging fruits" when it comes to climate change policies. At the same time, climate action remains a very new part of the policy world, and in some cases the easiest policy may also be a good fit. What climate actions cities are picking is important to know — but that they're picking deserves recognition as well.

Top image: A parking structure at the University of California San Diego uses innovative solar trees to collect renewable energy from the sun. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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