Best Practices in Local Climate Action Planning. Part II: Mitigation vs. Adaptation Plan

Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Cynthia R. Harris

Former Staff Attorney; Director of Tribal Programs; Deputy Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

Part I of this four-part blog series provided an overview of local climate planning and elements common to most plans. This article distinguishes the components of a mitigation plan from those of an adaptation plan.

Elements Specific to Mitigation Plans

Mitigation plans establish the local jurisdiction’s baseline emissions levels—the GHG inventory—using a respected standard (for example, Global Protocol for Community-Scale and Government-Scale Greenhouse Gas Inventories); best practices include third-party verification. The plan then forecasts future emissions scenarios and establishes a reduction goal. Sources of GHG emissions and emission reductions are categorized by sector, generally focusing on those contributing the greatest amount of GHG emissions and for which the municipality both has jurisdiction over and can effectively influence. These sectors generally are power generation, buildings, transportation, water and wastewater management, solid waste, and carbon offsets.

Skyscrapers surrounded by Earth and leaves

Regarding power generation, local governments typically aim to shift to renewable energy sources and expand distributed generation. Actions items aimed at the building and construction sector focus on incentivizing energy efficiency and renewable energy use through reporting mechanisms, modernizing building codes, voluntary accreditation (for example, LEED), retrofits, expanding on-site and off-site renewable energy generation, and streamlining permitting processes. The plan may require existing buildings (over a threshold measured in square feet/meters) to benchmark and report their annual energy and water consumption annually. Plans may also recommend setting a Carbon Emissions Performance Standard requiring buildings (again, meeting a floor area threshold) to meet fixed carbon targets that decrease over time.

Transportation measures may include: expanding transit networks and providing fare subsidies; mode-shifting through Complete Streets and traffic safety measures; installing supportive infrastructure for electric vehicles/zero-emission vehicles (EV/ZEV); increasing density and transit-oriented development; removing parking minimums; incentives for employers to implement telecommuting; and transportation demand management and congestion pricing. Water and wastewater management strategies span wastewater recycling, conservation, stormwater capture, locally sourced water, and submetering. Waste reduction efforts address: decreasing construction and demolition debris and food waste; composting; recycling, reuse, and repurposing; energy generation at landfills; extended producer responsibility measures; and appropriately pricing refuse pickup services.

Measurable outcomes address emissions, percentage of energy deriving from energy sources, energy efficiency (per capita and square foot/meter), increase in EVs/ZEVs, transit participation, decrease in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), percentage of water supply sourced locally, number of “green collar” jobs, stormwater capture, waste diversion, and volume of wastewater recycled.

Elements Specific to Adaptation Plans

Adaptation plans are organized by anticipated climate impacts to vulnerable sectors and populations.

One example is emergency response to extreme weather events. This section will address public service delivery challenges and the need for community resilience hubs; these hubs are physical spaces that provide residents with safe places of refuge that house emergency supplies, communication tools, supportive services, and reliable power (for example, microgrids); serve as cooling centers during heatwaves; and are often already trusted locations in the community, such as public libraries and faith centers. Local governments will upgrade and expand emergency alert systems, leveraging both technology and existing grassroots networks, and prioritize supporting essential facilities (for example, water treatment plants and hospitals) and critical businesses (for example, providing water, food, and fuel). Plans will ensure sufficient backup power is available to prevent disruption of operations. They may also establish or enhance citizen disaster preparedness and response training, direct assistance programs during disaster recovery, and safety and security checks of vulnerable residents during and immediately after extreme weather events (for example, senior citizens, children, physically and intellectually disabled individuals, and people experiencing homelessness).

Discussion of infrastructure vulnerability may address: managed retreat to prevent or minimize displacement; moving critical infrastructure out of harm’s way; mitigating public harm caused by damage to power plants and chemical facilities; preparing for extreme heat compromising the integrity of transportation systems and the power grid; updating design guidelines and standards; and setting safety standards for outdoor workers. Response to stormwater and flooding may include: decreasing impermeable surface area through green infrastructure; prohibiting new development in updated floodplain areas; removing vulnerable habitable structures through buyouts, acquiring vacant properties outside of floodplains, and relocating residents to safe areas; and elevating existing structures. Response to extreme heat impacts on public health spans reinforcing the electricity grid, robust urban forestry and expanding green space, cool roofs and streets, shade corridors and associated apps, cooling centers, and conducting an inventory of residences with air conditioning. Adaption plans may also address sea-level rise, water supply and drought, wildfires, food security, and mental health. Many plans discuss economic diversification, especially if the local economy is particularly dependent on high GHG-emitting industries.

Local government finances are also explored, particularly if there is heavy reliance on petroleum (for example, fuel tax revenue) to fund road construction and maintenance, or on franchise fees charged to electric utilities. Several plans recognize this reliance may create perverse incentives to increase fuel or electricity use. Alternatives may include switching to taxing VMTs rather than fuel use and relying more heavily on sales tax revenue or certain other franchise fees. Some plans anticipate increases in property tax revenues from wind and solar-energy projects or even propose putting a community climate property tax on the ballot.

Part III will identify common shortcomings to avoid in developing climate plans and look at two instances of legal challenges to county plans in California.

Visit the ELI Center on State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs.