What are Climate Action Plans?

December 2, 2019

It is always easier to reach a goal when you have a plan and a way to track progress. This is true for our small personal fitness goals all the way up to tackling complex global challenges. A Climate Action Plan is the application of that principle for one of the most significant challenges of our time: reducing contributions to global climate change.

A Climate Action Plan, commonly shortened to CAP, is a comprehensive framework used by a government or organization to measure, plan, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These plans can also track other climatic impacts and be a part of broader sustainability efforts, but the core metric is GHG emissions reduction. Every CAP is unique to the characteristics and priorities of the adopting organization but, at a minimum, include an inventory of GHG emissions, reduction targets for those emissions, and a plan with actionable strategies for how those targets will be met.

Climate Action Plan

Who Uses Climate Action Plans?

Climate Action Plans are being adopted all over the world by any government or organization that is motivated to take measurable actions on their climate impact. CAPs are used at all scales of government, from the federal level down to the states, counties, and cities. The popularity of Climate Action Plans has been growing for decades. There are currently 34 U.S. states with a Climate Action Plan, and worldwide over 10,000 cities and local governments have committed to CAP objectives through an alliance called the Global Covenant of Mayors.

These plans are not restricted to governments. There are hundreds of universities and colleges with their own Climate Action Plans, often as a part of broader coalitions such as the Climate Leadership Network. Corporations also utilize CAPs. It is now common for large public companies to disclose their environmental impacts to reporting groups, like CDP. In fact, 211 of the biggest companies have joined RE100, a global corporate leadership initiative, and have committed to 100% renewable electricity. To achieve these goals, many businesses, including Walmart and General Motors, have developed Climate Action Plans.

Why Use a Climate Action Plan?

Climate Action Plans are a proven and well-defined method for governments and organizations that want to take productive action against climate change. A CAP is customized to fit the opportunities and constraints of the adopting group, and there is an established infrastructure of resources and consultants that guide groups through the process. By building around the single core metric of GHG emissions, CAPs make it possible to accurately and efficiently communicate progress made towards climate goals.

Another key feature of Climate Action Plans is that their use allows sub-national governments to take action when the federal objectives fall short. The United States’ plans for withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, for instance, has driven many cities to develop Climate Action Plans that emphasized their local commitment regardless of federal support. Climate change is a global problem, but mitigation efforts can take any scale. The cumulative result of cities, states, colleges, and companies working towards the same climate goal is potentially tremendous. Counting cities alone, there are already 800 million residents living in an area governed by a Climate Action Plan. There has truly never been a better time to join the process and create local change of your own.

What is the Process of A Climate Action Plan?

It is no small task to understand an entire community’s climate contributions and determine how to alter that path toward a more sustainable future cost-effectively. Luckily, there is no shortage of examples and resources to follow. Here are the most common steps involved in developing a Climate Action Plan:

The initiation of a Climate Action Plan process starts with strong, motivated leadership. This can be top-down support from the mayor’s officer or a bottom-up push from proactive grassroots organizations. CAPs will require the involvement of multiple departments and recommended actions that do not fit neatly into traditional silos, so it is crucial to have influential champions involved from the start.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they must first be understood. That information comes from completing a GHG inventory, an estimation of all emissions for a defined scope and time. Taking inventory means looking at the operations of various sectors, like transportation and electricity generation. This process establishes a city’s emissions baseline that will be used as a reference to measure future reductions for comparisons. It also identifies the most significant emissions sources and where the best opportunities for reductions will be. By following a reporting methodology, like the GHG Protocol, the results can be compared to hundreds of CAP users.

The GHG inventory gets a picture of the current uses, but it is also essential in analyzing future scenarios. It is important to consider estimated future emissions trends and population growth to set an accurate reduction goal, say by 2050. Fort Collins, for example, adjusted its reduction goals based on the anticipated growth of renewable energy already starting in the area. The GHG inventory and future scenario modeling require intensive quantitative analysis, so it is generally recommended to seek outside specialized support who can accurately account for these future trends.

The next step is setting GHG emission reduction goals, ideally over the short, medium, and long term. A reduction goal usually sets a certain percentage of reductions compared to a baseline year, i.e., a 50% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. A typical long term goal for many CAPs is carbon neutrality by 2050. Carbon neutrality means having net-zero GHG emissions achieved through reducing emission and offsetting remaining emissions.

With goals in place, the climate action team must then identify and prioritize what reduction measures will get them there. A balance is generally struck between the reduction goals and logistical and cost constraints. Some example actions include promoting building efficiency improvements, incentivizing renewable energy generation, and transitioning mass transit fleets to cleaner fuels. Once a set of strategies is approved, the CAP team must work out the details of implementation. This process includes setting timelines and assigning responsibility to the various agencies that the reduction actions will involve.

Once the Climate Action Plan is in motion, it is all about tracking the progress. All phases of implementation are monitored, and emissions are often reinventoried on an annual basis. This serves as the ultimate scorecard of the CAP’s effectiveness. Since these goals span decades, they must be evaluated along the way and updated accordingly. Adjustments can include small course corrections and periodic updates of the entire plan. For example, Fort Collins created its first CAP in 1999, then updated it in 2008 and again in 2015, each time setting more aggressive reduction targets based on the most recent available data.

Climate Action Plans are an effective and popular tool for any organization or government that wants to make meaningful and quantifiable progress in reducing its carbon footprint.

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