Cities Take Aim at Carbon Reduction

KCM 4602 (Proterra) charging at Eastgate P&R

Working with nearly 30 Northwest communities from 2009-2017 offered the opportunity to learn many lessons about how cities can accelerate adoption of climate-smart, clean energy solutions, none more instructive than the need to set a clear, aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction target with metrics.

Doing so drives decisions about climate action strategies in a coherent fashion, provides the basis for tracking and measuring progress, and encourages critical community buy-in around a defined outcome.

Once a community has set an emissions reduction target with interim goals, the policies, programs, and projects that roll up to achieve the targets are possible. In addition, setting an overarching emissions reduction target paves the way for communities to do the carbon math that will drive sustainable energy strategies.

How to Set Emissions Targets

Emission reduction targets should be: (1) aggressive, but realistic; (2) measurable; (3) community-wide (not only municipal operations). Here’s how your community should go about setting an emissions target:

1. Choose a base year from which your community target will be reduced, ideally one for which you have emissions data. If you do not have baseline emissions data, you can create a target that says you will reduce by a certain percentage below current levels by a certain year; measure your current emission;, and go from there.  

2. Review the current science about the reduction levels that are needed to address dangerous concentrations of atmospheric GHG, as well as air pollutants. (See below for what the climate science indicates you must shoot for today).  

3. Research your state and/or regional emissions targets so your community target either rolls up into those broader targets, or exceeds them.  

4. Review targets that other communities have set to get ideas for setting a target for your community.  

5. Set the time frame with short-term (i.e., short-term (5-year); medium-term (15-year); long-term (30-40 year) goals. An example of this are the reduction targets that California set in June 1, 2005:

  • Short: Reduce emissions to 2000 levels by 2010  
  • Medium: Reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020  
  • Long-term: Reduce emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050    

6. Each community will handle its political process for approving the target and the plan for engaging the community differently: some will have their city or county council set and approve the target; others will take the decision to the community before the council approves the target.  We have worked with both and neither is right nor wrong. What matters is doing what works for your particular community.

The figure below shows how the City of Issaquah applied this process.  Its long-term target is to attain an 80 percent reduction below 2007 GHG emission levels by 2050, which is represented by the yellow star in the lower right quadrant of the graph.

The upward trending light-blue dotted line indicates where Issaquah's emissions will go if left unchecked. The triangle created between the projected emissions and the baseline represents the emissions to avoid and the one created between the baseline and the goal indicate the emissions that must be reduced.

For general information about setting GHG targets, this guide by The Carbon Neutral Company, A Handbook to Internal Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets and Plans, while written for businesses, is worth skimming, particularly the first sections, as is this report by C40, Global Aggregation of City Climate Commitments, Methodological Review. Furthermore, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has created a map of the United States that you can click on to see the targets that different states have set.

Climate Science as Guidance

To date, U.S. cities have largely adopted the GHG emission reduction target of a minimum of 80% below 1990 levels, which scientists generally agreed in 2010 was required to stabilize the Earth’s temperature.

In order to attain an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, it is clear that cities must establish aggressive reduction goals for their electricity sector and achieve as close to a 100% clean electric grid as possible by 2030 or 2035, and certainly no later than 2040.

Then with that clean grid, cities must pass ordinances that will incentivize electrifying as many buildings, transport vehicles, and industrial processes as possible to leave the remaining carbon budget for difficult-to reduce operations, such as aviation, marine, long-haul trucking, and some industry uses.

The longer the world delays in embracing rapid reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, the more stringent the reduction targets for 2030 and beyond will be. Climate analysts maintain that for the globe to attain the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5o Celsius by 2100 means that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak no later than 2020. Hence time is of the essence for local communities to get serious about reducing their carbon emissions.

Carbon Math and Climate Action Planning

Once your community has set your target, you are ready to determine how to achieve it and to write a climate action plan.  For an explanation of how to map your community's sources and uses of energy, please see Mapping a City's Energy Sources and Uses.

For a description of how to determine sectoral sub-targets that roll up to an overall reduction goal, Carving Up Carbon Reduction Strategies.

For a detailed description of how to create a Climate Action Plan (CAP), please see How Cities Create Climate Action Plans, which offers a definition CAPs; describes the components of a CAP; suggests some avenues for technical assistance support; offers examples of CAPs; and gives a range of CAP costs.

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, which worked to accelerate the development of advanced low-carbon fuels for aviation, marine, and fleets and the Northwest Biocarbon Initiative, which aimed to demonstrate the role that...

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