How Cities Create Climate Action Plans

The Road to Utopia: entrance to the Sabinal River Valley in Texas.

Over the past decade, cities and counties have become increasingly knowledgeable about developing meaningful CAPs and best practices from first-generation CAPs that the nation’s largest and best-funded cities created.

As a result, there is general consensus about a CAP’s major components, and a methodology for creating such plans. CAPs should be customized to reflect the city’s unique characteristics and are best shaped both by examples of climate action plans, as well as the particulars of the city or county to be transformed by decarbonization.

Increasingly, we are seeing that second- and third-generation CAPs are more focused on human beings and quality of life, and less quantitative than the first-generation plans, and they also are focusing more on community equity issues.

Some cities now call their CAPs Community Action Plans instead of Climate Action Plans. Adaptation and resilience planning are now also in play, so a community may find itself conducting parallel climate and adaptation planning processes.

This blog offers a definition of 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.

Definition of a Climate Action Plan

Climate Action Plans (CAPs) are comprehensive roadmaps that outline the specific activities that a government, business, organization, or community could undertake to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In this memo, we will restrict our observations to local government CAPs.

CAPs usually rely on GHG inventories to determine which emissions need to be reduced from which sector, and suggest strategies that will deliver the greatest emissions reductions cost-effectively. A strong CAP will articulate the policies, as well as specific carbon-reduction measures that a local government needs to enact and develop, customized to the community’s unique characteristics. A less-than-helpful CAP would be generic and not grounded in the particulars of the community whose carbon emissions-reduction strategy it is intended to guide.

CAPs identify goals for GHG reduction in various sectors (commonly, buildings, industrial/commercial sector, power supply, and transportation); as well as specific actions tied to the sectors; metrics to be used to measure progress with strategies; funding for programs; lines of responsibility; and general timeframes by which milestones are to be achieved.

Components of a Climate Action Plan

Oversight Team: Many governments start by convening a task force or commission of stakeholders to guide the planning process. Each government needs to determine for itself what the optimal membership should be of the group that will guide the planning process, but usually some combination of elected and appointed officials, municipal or county staff, and community organizations and engaged citizens will comprise the task force.

Goals and Targets: A GHG emissions reduction goal is expressed as a percentage of reduction below a base-year level to be achieved by a certain year, or a series of milestone years, in the future, which accounts for projected emissions growth between the base and target years.

While many communities have adopted the 80% reduction of 1990 emissions by 2050 target, the Clean Energy Transition team uses 50% reduction of 2014 or 2015 level emissions by 2025 or 2030 on the way toward a 90%-100% reduction of base-year emissions by 2050 for these reasons:

  1. 2025 is the year that many cities who work with ICLEI (discussed below) have adopted.  
  2. 2025 or 2030 are within the city or county’s planning horizon and likely within the tenure of the staff that will be expected to carry out the plan.  
  3. Emissions data for 2014 or 2015 are attainable, whereas those from 1990 are often not.  
  4. The climate has changed significantly since the 80 by 50 goals were first suggested over a decade ago, it is now clear that cities must get as close as possible to zero emissions in 2050.

Rationale for the CAP:  Local CAPs usually are founded on two fundamental concepts: 1-that human-caused GHG emissions are causing the planet to warm and, if left unchecked, global warming will cause the climate to change in such a way as to place at risk the community’s environment, economic livelihoods, public health, and safety; and 2-that since cities produce 70% of the world’s GHG emissions, it is leveraged and important that local governments and their citizens reduce or mitigate their emissions to help bring the planet back down to safer global temperatures.

A community’s CAP should state why it is creating a CAP. What is the underlying interest? Is it because the community is demanding that its elected leaders address climate change? Is it that the political leaders want to address climate change? Being clear about the intention behind the planning is an important aspect of kicking off and grounding a CAP process.

Implementation Priorities: Communities create their strategies and prioritize their implementation plans based on an analysis of their GHG inventory. Mapping the community’s energy with an energy flow diagram, such as the Energy Map that Clean Energy Transition and Stockholm Environment produced for the City of Olympia, is an exceptionally helpful first step. While this provides only a snapshot of the city’s sources and uses of energy and is not a full inventory, the Energy Map offers a high-level guide to where the city’s emissions are concentrated.

Similarly, the Carbon Wedge Analysis helps the City to see how federal and statewide policies, such as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy targets, or the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, contribute to reducing GHG emissions, and what remains for the city to focus its climate action planning on.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The availability of baseline GHG inventory data and information about carbon emissions will dictate the goals that the community will be able to set, as well as the pacing of the planning process. If you are starting from scratch with no GHG inventory information, then the first stage of your plan will involve obtaining that data to enable setting an attainable goal.

Metrics for Assessing Progress toward Goals: It is particularly important to identify how the community will measure its progress toward achieving its emissions reduction goals. Metrics will derive directly from the CAP’s goals and implementation steps and will likely include a mixture of different types of indicators, such as measured reductions in emissions or energy consumption; projects completed; assessment of public engagement strategies; numbers of streetlights retrofitted with low-energy lighting; public transit and pedestrian/bicycling improvements; renewable energy installations; improved water-management; land use policies that reduce vehicle miles traveled; etc.

Community Engagement Plan: A strong CAP is going to significantly impact the community, especially when it comes to land use and transportation. CAPs have a greater chance of succeeding if the community is supportive, which is often the case at the visionary level but not necessarily the case when it comes to specific actions, and CAPs likely will likely not succeed if the citizens that they will impact do not support climate action broadly or the plans themselves specifically.

Much of what needs to happen to address climate change will require individual as well as societal behavior change and change is challenging. Governments that ignore the public engagement aspects of CAP planning do so at their peril. Furthermore, community engagement in CAP planning and implementation is not a one-off, check-the-box situation. Early and ongoing engagement is crucial as this builds trust and shared experience with the successes and setbacks along the way.

A good first step is to map out both the internal and external infrastructure that exists to support the CAP process.  In addition to the city/county’s budget and city/county staff, who are the partners outside of government you will be planning with and for? Does your CAP planning tie to vision that community has for itself? Who in the community can be an ally to the local government as the CAP proceeds?

Budget: Estimating costs to implement a CAP, as well as determining the cost savings and environmental benefits of the proposed strategies, is extremely important, and often quite daunting, but is critically important to any city or county council that will need to sign off on the CAP. If the local government chooses to hire a consultant to help develop their CAP, be sure to ask whether the consultant has experience with estimating costs.

Capacity: A careful assessment of existing city/county staff to support the task force process, the CAP development, and the community engagement process is required. How many city/county departments have staff they can contribute to the CAP process? How many hours? Often times, staff capacity limitations can be as much of a limiting factor as the cost of developing the plan.

Funding Plan: A city that has a CAP is in a better position to receive funding and technical assistance from state or federal governments, as well as from private and nonprofit funding sources. Furthermore, cities and counties regularly falter with CAP implementation due to city or county budgetary constraints, or limits on how much debt the government may be permitted to assume. Technical expertise can also be a stumbling block for governments attempting to reduce their GHG emissions. Therefore, it is important to give thought to how the CAP will be funded and to how you will obtain the technical assistance required to accurately assess strategies.

Project Schedule/Timeline: The CAP’s implementation strategy should set forth the timeline and project schedule for how the CAP will be accomplished, as well as the parties who will be responsible for different facets of the plan. When these factors are married to the other aspects of the CAP described here, you will have created a detailed implementation strategy for your CAP.

Planning Horizon: You will want to determine whether the CAP will be a living document with regular updates, and if so, what those milestones might be. A five-year horizon is common.

Examples of Climate Action Plans

The following CAPs are worth reviewing to get a sense of the breadth and depth, as well as the different approaches cities and counties take to climate action planning. The first set represent the gold standard of CAPs for major cities in the United States. The second set may be more applicable as they are either in Washington or Oregon or are CAPs for smaller cities that have excelled at climate action, with fewer resources than the major metropolises.

Noteworthy Large City CAPs:

Noteworthy Smaller City CAPs

This page on the EPA site is still available and offers a very useful chart comparing features of various CAPs. We recommend you visit this soon and copy information that you find

Technical Assistance Resources

Below are a handful of technical resources that may be of assistance:

ICLEI Local Governments For Sustainability (ICLEI) is a membership organization with annual membership dues based on the size of the city. ICLEI's Cities for Climate Protection program is structured around five milestones, one of which is climate action planning. Under ICLEI's process for GHG mitigation, following a commitment statement of the local government, municipalities will:

  • Measure their emissions of GHG, generated through the actions of their local government administration (government emissions) and through the actions of the community they serve (community emissions)  
  • Commit to an emissions (government or community) reduction target with respect to a base year and a target year  
  • Plan their actions in buildings and transport, introduction of renewable energy, sustainable waste management at the government and community level to reach this committed reduction target  
  • Implement their Local Climate Action Plan  
  • Monitor emissions reductions achieved by their mitigation actions.

ICLEI Software: Software provided to members of ICLEI allows governments to quantify emissions reductions (GHGs and criteria air pollutants) and cost savings associated with energy efficiency and other sustainability measures. ICLEI also offers a process for planning and implementing a local climate adaptation program. After the implementation year, sector and type, and energy data associated with each measure have been entered, the software calculates emission reductions and estimated cost savings associated with each measure. This tool can be used to evaluate individual measures or to develop a comprehensive local action plan.

STAR Communities: STAR Communities is a nonprofit organization that works to evaluate, improve, and certify sustainable communities, and administers the STAR Community Rating System.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), has developed an online tool that can help localities select appropriate energy efficiency policies. The Local Energy Efficiency Policy Calculator (LEEP-C) is a downloadable analysis tool that calculates estimates for energy savings, cost savings, pollution, jobs and other outcomes resulting from selected policies over a time period designated by the user. The policies included cover two sectors public buildings and residential buildings.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers several tools for estimating the rate of financial return and GHG emissions reductions on an energy project:

  • AVoided Emissions and geneRation Tool (AVERT). A tool that estimates the emissions benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy policies and programs.  
  • Target Finder. Target Finder lets a user establish an energy performance target for a design project or major building renovation based on similar building types and desired energy performance. By entering the project's estimated energy consumption, users can then compare the estimated energy use with the target to see if the project will achieve its goal.  
  • Cash Flow Opportunity Calculator. This tool can be used to determine how much new energy-efficient equipment can be purchased based on estimated cost savings; determine whether equipment should be purchased now using financing or if it is better to wait and use cash from a future year's budget; and determine whether money is being lost by waiting for lower interest rates.  
  • Financial Value Calculator. This tool presents energy efficiency investment opportunities in terms of key financial metrics. It can be used to determine how energy efficiency improvements can affect organizational profit margins and returns on investments.  
  • Building Upgrade Value Calculator. This calculator can be used to estimate the financial benefits of improving energy efficiency in office buildings.

Most of the technical resources that the federal government had offered cities and counties have been removed from the Department of Energy and EPA websites since the Trump Administration took office. As of this writing the above tools were still available, but may not remain so.


The price of a CAP can vary widely depending upon how much GHG emission reduction data a community has access to at the outset of the planning process, as well as how much internal capacity the local government has to dedicate to the process. If no data exist, then there would be the expense of obtaining the data.

If the local government invests in a consultant to help develop the plan, it will want to determine how much facilitation the consultant would do with community engagement versus how much the government had the capacity to do itself, as that engagement would also impact the cost.

Other cost factors include branding and design. CAPs therefore can range anywhere from $50,000-200,000. We recommend issuing a competitive request for proposals (RFP) process to ensure that you receive a variety of responses, and we suggest you not leave the question of budget open-ended, but decide how much you think your government can afford and make that figure known in the RFP process.


Creating a strong climate action plan to guide a community’s GHG reduction over the coming decades is a significant and rewarding undertaking. At this juncture in 2017, when the climate is warmer faster than scientists had predicted and the United States has a President who does not believe that climate change is real or caused by human behavior and a Congress controlled by Republicans who aim to prolong the health of the fossil fuel industry, the onus is on local leaders and communities to step forward and act decisively to reduce carbon pollution.

Fortunately, there has been a great deal of learning over the past decade or more about the best ways to develop a CAP and drive GHG emission reduction, so local governments have a wealth of examples to choose among in designing their own customized plan.

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.
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