Cities Adopting Best Practices and Lessons Learned at the Local Level

London Big Ben

Now that we understand the decarbonization framework, have a sense of how cities understand their energy sources and uses, and break down carbon reduction targets and strategies, let's review best practices and lessons learned for urban carbon emission-reduction strategies.

In the areas of urban planning, transit policy, building codes, zoning, and permitting, cities can implement many significant climate and clean energy policies that will drive emissions downward. Keep in mind, however, that these policies cannot accomplish deep decarbonization alone and cities must work regionally and vertically with their state governments to achieve integrated reductions.

The McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, in collaboration with C40, produced A Strategic Approach to Climate Action in Cities: Focused Acceleration in November 2017.

McKinsey’s thesis is that cities must focus only on the critical actions that will change their current emissions trajectories, which means prioritizing actions around initiatives that catalyze systemic change and concentrating on a small number of high-value opportunities instead of spreading efforts over hundreds of potential actions.

McKinsey’s study examined over 400 strategies that leading carbon-reducing cities were pursuing and broke them down into 12 key strategies, grouped by four action areas—power, buildings, mobility, and waste management. The bulk of the strategies (60%) were for the built environment, while 30% for transport and 10% for waste.

McKinsey Graphic Demonstrating Potential Reduction by Action Area

McKinsey’s prescription follows the deep decarbonization pathways framework articulated in Part One (Use Less. Use Clean. Switch Fuels): set clear decarbonization goals; aggregate demand for renewables; promote energy efficiency; and shift more urban energy consumption to electricity (especially in transportation and heating).

Through focused acceleration, and close collaboration between utilities and regulators, cities could achieve a grid mix of 50 to 70 percent renewables (specifically, solar and wind, balanced with other zero-emission generation sources such as hydroelectric power) by 2030 depending on local resource characteristics and market and regulatory structures. This level of renewables would reduce total emissions by 35 to 45 percent in that time frame at a cost as low as $40 to $80 per megawatt hour.

City leaders must determine the most leveraged strategies that will alter their current emissions trajectory and work with their stakeholders to build and invest in the infrastructure and incentives needed to make significant progress toward those actions.

Cluster Strategy

Another important best practice is a cluster strategy that aggregates demand among several jurisdictions in a county or a utility district, where all have the same carbon emission reduction goals; share the same utilities and state and local policy frameworks; and the same strategies aligned to attain their shared goals.

The King County-Cities Collaboration (K4C) is an example of a cluster strategy. The K4C is a voluntary partnership of 13 cities and the county that represents 1.5 million people (75% of the county’s population) and an area that emits nearly 26% of Washington State’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The K4C began in 2011, when staff from multiple cities asked what greenhouse gas reduction programs they could pursue collectively, and has grown into a powerful coalition of elected leaders and city and county staff all focused on addressing climate change. (See King County-Cities Climate Collaboration; Getting Serious about Reducing Carbon Emissions; This is What Climate Leadership Looks Like).

Over the past seven years, the K4C has:

  • Adopted formal, shared countywide carbon emissions reduction targets of 25 percent by 2020, 50 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050 (compared to a 2007 base year).  
  • Mapped out specific action commitments to reduce emissions that are tailored to King County’s emissions profile, city and county development patterns, and local government areas of influence; are time-based pathways; and add up to a 50 percent reduction of 2012 levels by 2030 goal—including a target of sourcing 90% of its electricity countywide from renewables by 2030.  
  • Explored a building energy benchmarking initiative, teed up a countywide clean energy transition plan, and promoted electrified transportation.  
  • Catalyzed municipal policy and code changes, joint grant funding proposals, and increased influence among other stakeholders at the state level.  
  • Advocated for state policy in the Washington State legislature that enables local governments to achieve their clean energy goals.  
  • Explored the potential to partner with local utilities and businesses to jointly invest in and develop a large-scale renewable energy project for either solar or wind.  
  • Shared technical support and learning across K4C members.

As a result of the partnership, K4C staff and elected officials from cities large and small now have an extensive network of experts and peers on whom they can count for best practice information, lessons learned, tools, and resources to enable focused climate action.

Having shared goals around climate policy; transportation and land use; energy supply; green building and energy efficiency; consumption and materials management; forests and farming; government operation; and collaboration enables the cities and counties to speak with one voice to the state legislature and regulators (such as the Utilities and Transportation Commission) and utilities, as well as businesses that are interested in advancing clean energy.

By clustering together with the same focus, the cities aggregate their demand for climate action and the power they can wield to achieve ambitious climate action strategies, such as advocating for Puget Sound Energy to remove coal from its portfolio (see K4C Shared Comment Letters).

Keys to Success

Climate change is a massive systems problem that requires systems thinking. To address climate change we will see the merging of formerly quite distinct energy supplies, in particular electricity to be used for both heating and transportation. The transition is complicated and requires informed engagement at the city and county level to ensure the future we build is the cleanest and most affordable possible. For the most part, cities and counties have not been in the energy business since the early part of the 20th Century, so it is a heavy lift to get up to speed but it is important to dedicate the resources to do so.

Mayors, city councils, city staff, and citizens also need to think systemically about how to address their community’s carbon reduction challenges. City departments such as public works, transportation, water quality, or sustainability—if one even exists—also have to work systemically and collaboratively when implementing climate action plans because energy is cross-cutting. This is not something these agencies have necessarily had to do in the past.

While it is critically important to set targets and timelines and do energy mapping and analysis, it is equally critical that time is spent breaking strategies down into achievable steps with milestones and measurements to gauge progress along the way to the larger goals. This is not easy work and requires new ways of approaching the built environment, transportation, waste, water, and electricity.

Two other key points: (1) active engagement with citizens and businesses is mission critical and without it, a community will struggle to succeed and, (2) there must be adequate financing models to support the transition to a clean energy economy. In subsequent blogs, we will address these two areas in greater depth.

City, Region, State Coordination

While a city deeply engaged in charting its climate future is a necessity, local strategies are not enough for cities to attain their reduction goals. Cities need expansive approaches that involve:

  • Aligning and coordinating between local and state governments.  
  • Building metro-scale coalitions of cities and counties like the K4C.  
  • Using multiple local governments’ aggregate buying power to influence markets.  
  • Establishing mechanisms for cities and the private sector to coordinate on climate solutions,  such as renewable energy procurement and energy efficiency retrofits.  

There are also broader lessons we have learned along the way about city-led climate action: (1) we can’t let the urgent need for action undermine the need to build durable long-term coalitions, even if the act of doing so sometimes feels painfully slow, and (2) leading with climate messaging and a technical focus on greenhouse gases is not likely the best climate strategy at the local level. Instead, explaining the health, economic, and community benefits that come with a concerted effort to reduce carbon pollution and wasteful spending on fossil fuels is more effective. These messages have the added benefit of being true.


In sum, set ambitious emission reduction goals and do the carbon math to know how those goals translate into opportunities and strategies for reduction.

Focus on what is in the city’s control to manage, while also looking to neighboring communities to aggregate action, so that utilities and regional businesses are presented not just with your community’s carbon reduction goals, but with the same from as many of the cities in the utility’s territory as possible.

Aggregate demand to potentially procure renewable energy or create a large enough market for financing to flow. Absolutely think about how to engage your citizenry and your business community in your mission to reduce your carbon emissions.

Finally, get serious about carbon reduction. The climate crisis is real and grows more urgent with each passing day. We have a national government denying the reality of climate change and  promoting fossil fuels—even when they are more expensive and endanger the climate. Cities and regions throughout the United States must work doubly hard to ensure the country moves forward with carbon emission reduction and demonstrate the huge benefits that come with cleaner air, cleaner water, and clean energy innovation.

Additional Resources

For further information regarding this subject, see the Clean Energy Transition Institute's presentations on City-Led Clean Energy Innovation, Urban Clean Energy Efforts, and City-Led Climate Action. Also see the City Climate Solutions References list.

Part One of a four-part series examining the role local jurisdictions can play in reducing carbon emissions:

Eileen V. Quigley

Founder & Executive Director
Eileen V. Quigley is Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute. Eileen spent seven years at Climate Solutions identifying the transition pathways off oil and coal to a low-carbon future in Washington and Oregon. She built and led the New Energy Cities program, which partnered with 22 Northwest cities and counties to reduce carbon emissions. As Director of Strategic Innovations, she oversaw New Energy Cities, as well as Sustainable Advanced Fuels.
Full Bio & Other Posts

Get the latest updates from the Institute directly to your inbox.

Related Posts