Local Sustainability and Climate Policy: More Talk than Action?

ARTICLE | Jul 3, 2012

Local government is where the action is today on sustainability and climate policy.  Despite the massive attention given to energy efficiency and sustainability issues in recent years, broad federal actions to create more sustainable communities or to mitigate climate change has not emerged. As a consequence, a growing number of local governments have adopted policies aimed at energy efficiency, conservation and environmentally sustainable economic development. This report examines how local governments see their role in promoting energy conservation and sustainability based on a 2010 national survey of local government managers in U.S. cities conducted by Florida State University.

We identify local government priorities for sustainability and green development, and then examine how these priorities are born out in city planning and programs.  Next, we describe how and to what extent municipalities are addressing climate change and energy efficiency.  Green economic development efforts are then assessed by examining how economic development incentives and strategies are being utilized by local governments.

Local Priorities in Climate Change and Energy Sustainability Policy

Energy efficiency and green development are clearly important issues, but this does not always translate into action.  Tables 1 and 2 show that the degree of importance that a municipality gives to energy efficiency and attracting green business is not indicative of whether they have adopted goals aimed at climate protection, energy efficiency and/or the reduction of greenhouse gases. About 75% of cities report that they seek to attract green business and that energy efficiency is at least “somewhat important” to economic development.  On the other hand, over sixty percent (62%) have not adopted climate protection and energy efficiency goals in their planning documents.  Even among the 140 cities that claim these issues are highly important, over half (71%) have not addressed them in their planning documents.


This uneven record of incorporating sustainability goals in the planning process is also reflected in local government adoption of greenhouse gas (GHS) reduction goals. Three-fourths of cities report that attracting “green businesses” to their jurisdictions is “important,” but less than 40 percent of these cities have adopted a GHG reduction goal.


Forms of Local Climate Change and Energy Sustainability Policy and Activity

Across the U.S., cities are involved in a number of climate change and sustainability activities in both government and community facilities. The majority of cities report that, among “energy/climate related issues” they address, green buildings, retrofits for existing buildings as well as installation of energy efficient devices are the most popular. 


What stands out clearly in Charts 1 and 2 is that local governments are much more likely to engage in climate mitigation and energy efficiency practices in government facilities and operations than in the community. For example, energy efficient device installation and building retrofits are more likely to be addressed in government facilities (69%) than in the community (40%).

This may not be surprising since governments have much more control and face less risk of pushback from community groups with projects in government facilities than in the community at large.


Survey respondents also report that public information campaigns and alternative transportation systems were the most frequently used in the community. Smart grid/net metering was the least frequently used in government facilities while green procurement and smart grid/net metering were the least frequently used in the community.

Green Economic Development: Incentivizing the Private Sector

In the last decade sustainability has been added to the vocabulary of economic development as more local governments have encouraged private actors and industry to create more sustainable communities through an assortment of incentives for building retrofits and energy efficiency upgrades. These include loans, grants, rebates and tax incentives. Although research suggests that many of these incentives have been successful, surprisingly few local governments have applied them – 20 percent of the respondent cities reported that they used loans or used grant funding. This is particularly surprising since 40 percent of the local governments that were surveyed reported that retrofitting buildings was one of the ways that they addressed energy and climate change issues.


Aside from incentivizing building retrofits and upgrades, local governments also engage in green economic development strategies to encourage private actors to engage energy efficiency, conservation and the use of green technologies through the development permitting and regulatory processes. By using these green development strategies, local governments give preference to businesses that are making their communities more energy efficient and sustainable.  While recognized as a best practice, most city governments are not actually using these strategies.  Only 54 percent reported using even one of the strategies identified in Chart 3. None were used by more than 20 percent of the cities.


Policies that encourage sustainability and energy efficiency are slowly being adopted by local governments. There are, however, a few commonalities among local governments that are taking sustainability seriously.

Creating Sustainable Communities: What Local Governments Can Do

Two common elements that characterize local governments dedicated to creating sustainable communities are collaborative relationships and involvement in national organizations and networks. Collaborative relationships with other local or regional entities aimed specifically at sustainability, energy efficiency or climate protection are reported in 77 percent of the cities. Similarly, 75 percent of municipalities that engaged in the green economic development strategies identified in Chart 3 also reported having collaborative relationships with other local or regional entities aimed specifically at addressing sustainability, energy efficiency or climate protection. Thus, governmental and institutional collaboration appears to be positively related to the use of green incentives and development strategies.

In the last few decades, city participation in national organizations like ICLE-USA that assist local governments in adopting and implementing climate protection and sustainability programs has increased tremendously. The U.S. Conference for Mayors, National League of Cities and ICMA have each taken up this role as well. Cities that are active in energy conservation and climate protection are more likely to be participating in these networks and organizations.  For example almost half of the local governments that reported offering the incentives identified in Table 3, report they were signatories to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.


Considerable money and attention has been funneled toward local energy and sustainability efforts in the last few years. To some extent, local governments are developing policies that reflect this. However, the survey findings identified a number of areas where local governments are doing less than might be expected, and can do much more than they are doing now.  In general, local sustainability efforts have targeted the low-hanging fruit.  A majority of municipalities address energy efficiency in government facilities and operations.  Many fewer take on the same issues in the larger community. Yet, it is the actions of residents and businesses in the community that provide the greatest potential for reduction in energy consumption.  Furthermore, some programs, such as incentives aimed at creating more sustainable communities through building retrofits and green economic development are used infrequently. 

The findings reported here indicate that progress is being made, but some municipalities are doing much more than others. It appears that collaborative relationships and affiliations with organizations such as ICMA and the Alliance for Innovation, and participation in networks of sustainable communities can reduce the barriers to expanding local efforts and thus may play an important role going forward to encourage and support local governments’ energy efficiency, conservation and green development efforts. §

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