The power of local governments to plan for climate change

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

In a coun­try where the pres­i­dent has been forced to work around Con­gress on cli­mate strat­e­gy, the onus may be on local gov­ern­ments to take the chal­lenge of long-term cli­mate plan­ning into their own hands.

And local gov­ern­ments around the U.S. and the globe seem to be attempt­ing just that, accord­ing to the results of the Urban Cli­mate Change Gov­er­nance Sur­vey, con­duct­ed by researchers at MIT and ICLEI – Local Gov­ern­ments for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

The report ana­lyzes the results of a glob­al sur­vey of mem­bers of ICLEI, an inter­na­tion­al asso­ci­a­tion of hun­dreds of local and city gov­ern­ments. ICLEI works across 86 coun­tries to spread knowl­edge of best prac­tices for cli­mate plan­ning.

But while the results show that local gov­ern­ments around the globe wel­come the idea of plan­ning for cli­mate change, they also reveal that more effort is des­per­ate­ly need­ed to fos­ter inno­va­tion and to inte­grate cli­mate plan­ning with eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment goals.

The dis­con­nect between gov­ern­ment plan­ners and the pri­vate sec­tor sur­faces through­out the report. For exam­ple, the report states that world­wide, 59% of respon­dents had com­plet­ed inven­to­ries to quan­ti­fy their green­house gas emis­sions. But act­ing on the find­ings of those inven­to­ries has so far meant most­ly that cities have reduced emis­sions from sources they direct­ly con­trol, like city-owned vehi­cles and gov­ern­ment build­ings.

The­se are steps in the right direc­tion, but the report calls on local gov­ern­ments to imple­ment more efforts to reduce the GHG emis­sions they have quan­ti­fied. The report states that cur­rent­ly, “the scale of mea­sure­ment far exceeds the scope of action.”

Local busi­ness­es and indus­try also come in last — behind non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions and com­mu­ni­ty based orga­ni­za­tions — when it comes to pro­vid­ing input or sup­port for imple­men­ta­tion of local gov­ern­ments’ cli­mate poli­cies, accord­ing to the report.

Lack of engage­ment with the pri­vate sec­tor may stem from a mis­guid­ed belief among city plan­ners that cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion work is incom­pat­i­ble with eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment goals.

Asked their top over­all pri­or­i­ties, and then to rank whether mit­i­ga­tion had made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to sup­port­ing them, 82% of respon­dents said that their cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion work has con­tribut­ed lit­tle to their eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment goals.

This shows that the oppor­tu­ni­ties for syn­ergies between cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion and oth­er local devel­op­ment pri­or­i­ties that have been dis­cussed and doc­u­ment­ed in the lit­er­a­ture on local respons­es to cli­mate change have yet to be real­ized in most cities,” the report states.

The report also point­ed to a gap between plan­ners’ sup­port for cli­mate plan­ning and inno­va­tion and the lack of pro­grams actu­al­ly imple­ment­ed to sup­port new ideas.

Despite show­ing aware­ness about the impor­tance of inno­va­tion, most cities are not adopt­ing tried and true mea­sures to cre­ate the con­di­tions that make inno­va­tion pos­si­ble,” it states.

The sur­vey asked par­tic­i­pants what inno­v­a­tive prac­tices were in place in city gov­ern­ments, such as time to pur­sue per­son­al projects, the­mat­ic work­ing groups, or speak­er series to bring in new ideas. Nei­ther the­se prac­tices, nor the oth­ers men­tioned in the sur­vey, were being imple­ment­ed by the major­i­ty of respon­dents’ city gov­ern­ments at all — not just on issues of cli­mate change. 87% had no oth­er ini­tia­tives in place dif­fer­ent from the ones men­tioned in the sur­vey.

One of the bright spots of the report was the find­ing that glob­al­ly, the major­i­ty of local gov­ern­ments are now inte­grat­ing cli­mate adap­ta­tion plan­ning with more long­stand­ing efforts to mit­i­gate the effects of cli­mate change. And, com­pared with their orig­i­nal cli­mate plans, most respon­dents said their cur­rent ones use a cross-sec­toral approach, involv­ing mul­ti­ple agen­cies involved in city plan­ning.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the U.S. respon­dents lagged behind their glob­al coun­ter­parts in inte­grat­ing adap­ta­tion work into their strate­gies. In the U.S., “only 58% of cities report engag­ing with both adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion. The Unit­ed States is also the coun­try with the high­est per­cent­age of cities con­duct­ing only mit­i­ga­tion plan­ning (41%),” the report states.

One find­ing that did not vary by region was the impor­tance city gov­ern­ments’ attrib­ut­ed to sup­port from a may­or or oth­er senior offi­cials.

For New York­ers, that means hold­ing May­or Bill de Bla­sio to a high stan­dard on cli­mate pol­i­cy – one some crit­ics say he is show­ing no signs of meet­ing, despite rapid pro­gress in oth­er areas.

On Wednes­day, the may­or approved tax relief for New York­ers impact­ed by Super­storm Sandy. While the approval will provide a much-need­ed break for home­own­ers, the results of the sur­vey show how cru­cial his role is in pre­vent­ing future dam­age.