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A new study finds citywide plans are not as effective as smaller-scale initiatives.

It was 2005 when cities really started taking the lead in the government-level fight against climate change. Seattle's then-Mayor Greg Nickels made a pledge that even if the United States wouldn't comply with the greenhouse gas reductions called for by the Kyoto Protocol, at least his city could. He then challenged other cities to do the same. Within a few months, Nickels had another 140 mayors on his side. And ever since he formally created the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the leaders of more than 1,000 U.S. cities have pledged to take similar efforts to quell greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be hard to argue that these signatures don't carry weight, but signing an agreement is much different from actually enacting the regulations and policies to actively reduce a city's emissions. Often the next step is the adoption of a formal city climate plan. More than 600 cities are developing or have already enacted such plans, which would seemingly translate into real, tangible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the city level.

But as it turns out, climate plans aren't really doing all that much to bring greenhouse gas emissions down. A new study in the Journal of Urban Economics looked at the climate plans and greenhouse gas emission reductions of cities in California to find that there doesn’t seem to be any causal connection between greenhouse gas reductions and climate action plans.

That's not to say that emissions aren't going down, but that the plans aimed at bringing them down aren't necessarily what's driving the change. Author Adam Millard-Ball, an assistant professor in the geography department at McGill University in Montreal, says it's not so much that the climate plans are driving emissions reductions, but rather that environmentally conscious tendencies of the people in these cities are reducing emissions – and creating an atmosphere in which the creation of a climate plan is politically viable.

"These are the types of cities that have been doing similar environmental policies for many years, and in some cases decades. The plan is often simply cataloguing what a city was already doing," Millard-Ball says. "And that's not a criticism of these cities by any means."

In his analysis of California cities' climate plans, he found little to no correlation between the plans and such emissions-reducing projects and initiatives as the incidence of solar photovoltaics, LEED projects, investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, reduced expenditures on streetlights and decreased revenues from gas sales taxes. The plans were found to have a slight impact on the incidence of car sharing in some of these cities, and also on citywide waste diversion projects.

For the most part, Millard-Ball finds, climate action plans are more plan than action.

Still, in many cases, the goals of the plans are being achieved. Millard-Ball's study shows that cities with climate plans have shown greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – just not directly as a result of their climate plans.

His results suggest that tackling greenhouse gas emissions at the city level is more dependent on individual initiatives and policies than overarching plans. He says it seems to be best for cities to focus on smaller efforts that achieve both city goals and greenhouse reductions, such as encouraging greener building techniques or implementing bicycle facilities.

"Climate change is a good argument to do more of that, but you don't need a climate plan tell you that," Millard-Ball says. "If a climate plan really helps identify those [strategies] then that's great, but I think that in most cases, cities already have a good idea of what is in line with the local political agenda and that also has a greenhouse gas emissions benefit."

He says that cities should think carefully before setting out on some vast planning effort to create a citywide strategy to reduce emissions. If there doesn't already seem to be some momentum toward a more climate friendly existence, cities may be better off starting small.

"It may be more effective to spend the money for planning on actually implementing some of the measures that are an easy sell politically for reasons like co-benefits or cost savings," says Millard-Ball.

Top image: Olegusk/ Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Nate Berg

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.

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