Do Our Local Climate Action Plans Lead the Nation?

We need to cut our emissions in half (or more) by 2030 and get to a carbon-neutral world by 2050 (or sooner) to sustain a livable planet, but who’s in charge of reaching those goals? The answer? Us. It’s up to us. Despite the clear climate emergency, there are no legal mandates for nations, states, regional agencies, or companies to cut emissions. Even in California, it’s voluntary for cities and counties to develop their own climate action plans, and many agencies are doing so because it is one way to meet the environmental review requirements for updates to General Plans.

We are fortunate that our local cities and counties are taking climate change seriously. The Cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola, Watsonville, Monterey, and Gonzales and the County of Santa Cruz have all adopted climate action plans, and planning is funded or underway in the Cities of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Salinas, and Hollister and the Counties of Monterey and San Benito. The City of Santa Cruz is even actively working on their second 10-year plan this year!

What impact do cities have on emissions? The World Bank reports that cities account for over 70% of global CO2 emissions and that city systems are one of their top five focus areas worldwide to cut emissions and prepare for climate change impacts. Over the past three decades, more than 600 local governments across the United States adopted their own climate action plans setting greenhouse gas reduction targets. A recent Brookings Report studied 100 of the largest U.S. cities in relation to climate pledges and their results. They found that, while only 45 had climate action plans or pledges, those 45 plans represented a projected reduction of 6% of the total annual U.S. emissions compared with 2017 levels—the equivalent of 365M metric tons of carbon pollution or taking 79M vehicles off the road.

But does having a plan make a difference? The short answer is yes. The Brookings Report found that 32 cities had completed greenhouse gas emission inventories to map the progress toward their goals. 26 of the 32 experienced a decrease in emissions compared to their baseline emission levels, while 6 cities experienced an increase.

Our local agencies are not only leading the nation in having developed climate action plans, they are also on the cutting edge of best practices for climate planning, including integrating adaptation planning (i.e., what we need to do to prepare for climate change impacts) with emissions reduction plans and centering equity and green jobs development. This month, I’m excited to share how the City of Santa Cruz’s plan is engaging all residents and the innovative ways it is doing so.

The City of Santa Cruz has been our regional leader in climate policy, establishing an initial 2010-2020 Climate Action Plan that made progress on all key milestones, achieving the majority of them. The city passed a Climate Emergency Declaration and Green New Deal Resolution. They have also adopted a city-wide Climate Adaptation Plan that featured the city’s first sea level rise assessment and the first social vulnerability assessment. Climate is centered in their Health in All Policies work, and they are seeking state approval for the Resilient Coast: West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan. They are now partnering with the community to develop their citywide Climate Action Plan 2030, Resilient Together, which includes:

  • Centering Equity: A new study led by UC Santa Cruz found that most California cities still have a long way to go in addressing equity as part of their climate action plans. Our City is ahead of the curve, having actively engaged and compensated representatives from under-resourced communities to weigh in on the plan and provide feedback based on lived experience. The City has provided in-person and virtual engagement opportunities, ensured that all engagement materials and the plan webpages are in English and Spanish, and prioritized equity representative availability when scheduling meetings. They kicked off the planning process with education on Santa Cruz-specific redlining and other systemic injustice findings. Stakeholders evaluated all climate actions proposed for inclusion in the plan not only for emissions reductions and costs, but also for key community indicators such as accessibility, green jobs, community health and safety, cultural vibrancy, and accountability. The plan will uniquely feature a Green Economy section.
  • Innovative Engagement Approaches: During the Community Visioning phase, City staff solicited from citizens spoken, written, or artistically rendered articulations of a future climate-thriving city. The City hosted a Virtual Community Visioning Collage and gained feedback on the 100 climate actions in an interactive platform that fostered (Visit their ‘ConsiderIt!’ site in English and Spanish to see the overwhelming community support for all the proposed actions.) They are also the first local agency we know of to use virtual reality in a planning process, developing the “Sea Level Rise Explorer” for their Resilient Coast West Cliff Drive planning process.
  • Every Person Plan: The Climate Action Plan will be short and infographic-rich and will explain how climate change impacts our everyday lives, demonstrating how these conclusions are supported by data and science. The goals, targets, and actions will be expressed in layperson language so that everyone understands what actions are needed and how they can join in.

I am honored to serve as Ecology Action’s representative on the City’s Climate Action Task Force and participate in developing the plan. This June, the draft plan will be finished and ready for public review. Visit the Resilient Together page to view the plan, provide feedback, and sign up for updates. To learn more about the impacts of climate change on the City of Santa Cruz, visit the City’s CAP 2030 educational page.

With these plans in place, it’s time for us as citizens to do our part. In the words of Vince Lombardi, “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” We look forward to working with you and our local Climate Action Planning partners to make a climate-thriving world that works for everyone.