Best Practices in Local Climate Action Planning. Part IV: Recent Developments in Local Climate Action Plans

Monday, January 24, 2022
Cynthia R. Harris

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

Part III of this four-part blog series discussed common shortcomings to avoid in developing climate plans and examined two instances of legal challenges to county plans in California. This article explores emerging trends in climate planning: equity, incorporation of new technologies, leveraging community participation, and expanding mitigation considerations to Phase III GHG emissions, as well as providing a short list of resources helpful to local governments and community members alike.

(Read Parts I, II, and III.)


Skyscrapers surrounded by Earth and leaves

The most significant trend in climate action plans is a focus on equity. This means directly addressing the priorities and needs of populations considered especially sensitive to climate impacts, at heightened risk of being negatively impacted by mitigation or adaptation actions, or likely to receive fewer benefits of such action compared to other residents. These populations are termed “communities of concern”; in the United States, they include minorities, low-income individuals, indigenous peoples, the elderly, young children, pregnant women, immigrants, physically or mentally disabled individuals, people experiencing homelessness, and those with limited educational attainment. Mapping applications, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), can help local governments identify these communities of concern. Qualitative research and intensive stakeholder outreach is necessary, however, for populations not easily defined geographically, such as people experiencing homelessness or those with disabilities. The county of Los Angeles’ recently released Climate Vulnerability Assessment is an early example of quantitative and qualitative analysis that considers the intersection between social and infrastructure vulnerability on both a geographic and holistic basis.

Climate action plans will identify existing inequities likely to be exacerbated by climate change. These plans recognize that undesirable land uses, such as landfills, polluting and hazardous facilities, and infrastructure projects, are more likely to be sited close to communities of concern. Local governments are especially concerned about mitigating the urban heat island effect through providing sufficient green space and issuing notifications about heat events and nearby cooling resources. Plans often seek to improve food security (access to sufficient fresh, healthy, and affordable food) through farmers markets, community farms, food recovery programs, and retail siting policies to encourage siting of grocery retail in underserved areas. Climate plans may also address pollution; access to transit and multimodal transportation options; healthy, adequate, and supportive housing; affordability of electricity needed to power air conditioning; and providing critical information in multiple languages and formatted for the visually and hearing impaired.

Planners are increasingly concerned about preventing externalities, or negative consequences associated with implementing the plans themselves. One example is ensuring a “just transition” in phasing out jobs in high GHG-emitting sectors through work skills training in sustainable jobs and business incubators. Another is preventing displacement resulting from managed retreat, climate gentrification, and loss of affordable housing. In high flood risk areas, the price of making improvements (for example, elevating homes) disproportionately impacts homeowners with lower property values, as costs can exceed the value of the structure itself. Affordable housing measures include community solar, energy-efficiency improvements, subsidized utility bills, and tenant protections such as measures to prevent passing on building retrofit costs to tenants.

Incorporation of Technological Advances

Climate action plans are increasingly incorporating the use of smart sensors, innovative communications and asset management technology, and mobile devices, such as app-based food rescue programs, shade corridor mapping, and heat event advisory warnings.

Leveraging of Community Science and Volunteers

Planners are leveraging members of the public in conducting both assessment and implementation activities. This includes environmental monitoring, such as air and water quality, as well as heat mapping, participating in disaster training and food recovery, and providing welfare checks on vulnerable residents during and immediately after extreme weather events.

Expanding GHG Inventories and Mitigation Measures Beyond Scope 1 and 2 Emissions to Scope 3 Consumption-Based Emissions

Most climate mitigation plans account only for Scope 1 and 2 emissions associated with activities occurring within the jurisdiction and energy generated elsewhere and used locally. Localities are now anticipating making plan updates that will account for Scope 3 emissions associated with residents’ consumption of goods manufactured and shipped from outside of the jurisdiction. This includes conducting product life-cycle analysis and consideration of both upstream and downstream emissions. Portland, Oregon, was the first city in the United States to publish a consumption-based emissions inventory. Other cities, like Long Beach, California, are experimenting with limited versions of these inventories.


The form and principal functions of climate action plans continue to evolve as local governments respond to rapidly changing climate conditions, available resources, community input, and lived experience in implementation. Newer generations of planning documents are incorporating an ever-broadening range of considerations, spanning environmental protection, economic resilience, and equity. The key is understanding that local climate planning efforts are an iterative process, with each updated plan incorporating new data on both a technical and human level.


ELI Resources

List of U.S. Local Climate Plans



Chief Resilience/Sustainability Officer Networks

For Tribal Governments:

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