Sustainable Washington

3. Actions Planners Can Take - Introduction

“Uncertainty is a component of planning, not a reason to avoid planning” — Marketa McGuire, research scientist, UW Climate Impacts Group

How do we begin?

Where should planning for climate change begin? You can begin by acting on what you can control. Local governments can affect their own operations, regulate activities within their jurisdictions, and help in the education and mobilization of their citizens. Moving beyond these efforts, local jurisdictions can also be active participants in and advocates for larger regional, state or even national movements for change. The U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement (see Chapter 1) is but one example of this longer term approach.

Reasons for local, regional and state governments to be proactive
•    Planning for the future can benefit the present.
•    Preparing for climate change is “good government.”
•    Localities, regions and states are on the front lines of climate change impacts, and have a responsibility to respond.
•    Proactive planning is more effective and less costly than responding reactively to climate change impacts as they happen.
•    Thinking strategically can reduce future risks.
•    Thinking strategically can increase future benefits.
•    Anticipating future changes can add value to today’s investments at low additional cost.
Excerpted from Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments, UW Climate Impacts Group, September 2007.

Within a traditional planning framework, one of the key places to start is to understand the problem. Begin by surveying the current research on climate change, particularly research specific to your region and area of interest. Good sources to start with are websites such as the UW-Climate Impacts Group and the State’s Climate Advisory Team. An excellent adaptation planning tool — the UW-Climate Impacts Group Climate Change Adaptation Guidebook. — is also available online.

Another source of important information can be a local or community-wide greenhouse gas inventory. If your jurisdiction has completed an inventory, it can indicate where your efforts may have the most impact, or how your community differs from others. If you haven’t already done one, consider investing the time needed to complete one.

Working beyond the information stage, you will need to develop a policy framework that is integrated with your local planning system. This can be done by:  1) adding goals and policies that address climate change issues into your existing plans, or 2) developing a new “Sustainability” or “Climate Change” element within your comprehensive plan.   The important thing is to make sure that the policy direction you add is not a stand-alone statement — it needs to be integrated with your entire plan, as well as with municipal operations. 
Beyond the policy framework, you will also need to develop strategies, actions, and performance measures or feedback loops to assess progress as you move forward. Strategies and action plans are becoming more prevalent, and can provide ideas for your local situation. Examples include:

Examples of such plans and other resources can also be found on the Municipal Services Research Center website.
Frameworks for Mitigation Planning

It is important that a local government establish a framework to shape its efforts in planning for climate change.  Several organizations have developed approaches to the problem, and planners should evaluate which one works best for their community.  The ICLEI Cities for Climate Protection Campaign[1] has been used by a number of cities in Washington.

The methodology is based on the achievement of five milestones:

  1. Conduct a baseline emissions inventory and forecast
  2. Adopt an emissions reduction target
  3. Develop a local climate action plan
  4. Implement policies and measures
  5. Monitor and verify results

While many other issues can, and should, be addressed, a good starting point for a climate action plan is to focus on a single metric — the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The ICLEI methodology is further explained below.

  1. Conduct a baseline emissions inventory and forecast. Creating the baseline inventory of emissions sources requires determining energy consumption and emissions from each sector of your local economy — residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, waste, and transportation.    The inventory should establish separate baseline emissions for both government operations and the entire community.    The baseline inventory serves as the starting point for forecasting future emissions through the target year.  A variety of toolkits are available for the baseline inventory, including ICLEI’s Clean Air and Climate Protection software, proprietary tools used by private consultants, and public domain tools[2]. The Washington State Department of Commerce is preparing an of inventory of tools (under SB 6580) and their results are expected to be completed by December 1, 2009.
  2. Adopt an emissions reduction target.  A target provides a specific, objective goal for the climate action plan, putting into context the potential effectiveness of actions to reduce GHG emissions.  The target should be long term, on the order of 15-20 years, but should also include multiple intermediate targets to make sure that the plan is on track.  While specific target levels can be determined by the individual community, there are target levels established at the state, national, and international levels.  Both the Kyoto Protocol and the USCM Climate Protection Agreement set a target of reducing emissions by 7% below 1990 levels by 2012.  Washington’s legislature adopted E2SHB 2815 (now codified as RCW 70.235.020), establishing these statewide goals.

    • By 2020, reduce emissions to 1990 levels.
    • By 2035, reduce emissions to 25% below 1990 levels
    • By 2050, reduce emissions to 50% below 1990 levels
  • These state targets are considerably lower than Kyoto/USCM.  Less ambitious targets are more achievable, but they may postpone changes that must eventually be made, potentially forcing even more drastic measures to be taken.  As the science of climate change evolves, we may find that even more aggressive targets are needed.  From the ICLEI Cities for Climate Protection Milestone Guide[3]

    “Today, the human community is producing about twice as much CO2 as the earth’s various natural carbon sinks (oceans, forests, etc.) can absorb. That means that even if we were to stabilize emissions at current levels, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere would continue to increase markedly. IPCC research implies that we need to achieve closer to a 60% reduction below 1990 levels to significantly slow global warming.”
  1. Develop a local climate action plan.  The plan will consist of a series of actions or measures that the community can take to reduce emissions.  No single measure, or even a small group of measures, will reach the target.   Many communities have already developed climate action plans, and reviewing these plans can be an excellent starting point for your community’s plan.  The US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement is one of many statements of climate protection principles that also can serve to suggest the kinds of actions and priorities needed for your community.
  2. Implement policies and measures. Implementation requires mobilizing resources, within both local government and the community, to take responsibility for each of the measures in the plan.  Implementation measures can include establishing city government and community task forces, or Green Teams, to develop support for the measures.  An important function of these groups will be financing — determining sources of revenue for measures, and demonstrating how current budgets can be redirected to accomplish the same objectives with lower GHG emissions.  Local utilities will be valuable partners in these efforts, and should be brought into the process at the earliest date possible.  Another critical element is public outreach, both to educate the community about the climate change challenge and to build support for measures.
  3. Monitor and verify results. It is in this final, and continuing, phase of the plan that the measures are judged on their achievement of the goals..  Changes in technology and government policies will likely require modifying goals or measures.  Many measures will require significant public and private investment; thus, it is vital that taxpayers and investors know that the measures are working.  Monitoring should include a continuing inventory process, with annual updates for government operations and a 3-5 year interval for a community review. 

Introduction to Action Topics

The following sections of Chapter 3.0 contain suggested actions for each of eleven different subject areas.  These actions encompass both mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change.

Actions for each topic are divided into three groups: Getting Started, Making a Commitment, and Expanding the Commitment into more challenging policies and programs.  APA recognizes that different jurisdictions are in different stages of climate change response, and will want to find actions appropriate to their circumstances and available resources.  Naturally, this segregation is also based on current thinking and will evolve over time, but the intent is to give some sense of the degree of challenge or difficulty implied by the different actions.

Each action item ends with suggestions as to which level of government is appropriate to the task:  Local Action, Regional Action, or State Action.  In some cases, action items apply to two or three levels of government, and therefore several are listed.  Appendix A provides a complete listing of action items, their levels of commitment, and the appropriate spheres of governmental action.

Hazard Response

Climate change impacts are expected to increase the risks and hazards to our communities. Changes in weather and water resource patterns, sea level rise, increases in the range and incidence of forest fires and drought, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of weather events are some of the more obvious impacts that can be anticipated. It is important to understand that unavoidable climate change impacts will result from the effects of existing concentrations of GHG and emissions rates.  As planners, it is important that we identify and plan for these risks.

Ecosystems and Water

Climate change will exacerbate existing problems with the quantity and quality of both groundwater and surface water. Surface water streams and wetlands are already in jeopardy from increases in pervious surfaces and non-point source pollution.  While individual elements of the ecosystem have their own unique value, the ecosystem elements also function together to provide ecosystem services which provide important benefits to society.  Increasing temperatures and altered precipitation patterns resulting from climate change will add additional stress to these systems.


Nearly all of our greenhouse gas emissions are the result of our use of energy, either through primary combustion of fuels or use of secondary sources such as electricity.  Our relationship with energy is central to our economy and quality of life Washington’s unique hydroelectric resource and opportunities for renewable generation create both problems and opportunities for climate change mitigation.

Waste Management

The waste products of modern society are related to the problems of energy conservation and climate change through a number of pathways.  The greatest public attention has been paid to industrial and mixed solid wastes; we have a long history of increasingly sophisticated landfill management and recycling programs.  Less attention has been given to biosolids produced by treatment of municipal waste water.  These waste streams constitute both a source of greenhouse gas emissions and a potential resource stream.  Achieving a more sustainable economy will require a much closer examination of embodied energy and material cycling to increase the energy efficiency of our technological society.

Land Use

While our cities represent the greatest consumers of energy, they also provide the greatest opportunity to lessen emissions.  The creation of dense mixed use centers are now understood to be the centerpiece for achieving long term climate action goals.  Both large and small cities and towns will benefit from the creation of compact activity centers where live, work, shop and play activities can occur without the use of car trips for each activity. Land use changes of the type needed to address climate change will be accomplished in large part by local governments..   Planners play a central role in creating land use plans that define the patterns of growth in our cities and towns


For Washington State, the transportation sector is the largest source of global warming emissions, contributing 47% of the total annual emissions. Local governments and community-based initiatives are critical for reducing Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions through their transportation and land use planning, development permitting processes, local ordinances, public education, and municipal operations.

Food Security and Agriculture

Agriculture is the largest sector of the Washington economy —generating $8.2 billion per year in agricultural output in 2007. Washington’s agriculture is also an important source of food supplies for the nation, which will be increasingly stressed under the demands of population growth and the impacts of climate change.  Our current, food systems also contribute to greenhouse gas production, requiring new solutions to food systems to reduce carbon emission impacts.

Construction and Green Buildings

The built environment (fuel use, electricity consumption, and waste management together) contributes 43% of the green house gas emissions in Washington state   The full lifecycle of the built environment contributes to climate change - from the production of construction materials, through construction itself, the on-going use and maintenance of our structures and infrastructure, and finally, demolition/deconstruction.  Yet bringing energy efficiency and conservation technologies to our existing building stock is one of the lowest-cost, highest-return investments we can make toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Widespread adoption of high performance green building technologies has significant potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our growing cities.

Social Equity

The impacts of climate change will not fall evenly on all segments of the population.  At a global level and in our own country, these impacts will fall disproportionately on those segments of our society that are both less responsible for GHG  emissions and less capable of  adapting to climate change impacts.  As planners, we have a responsibility to identify these equity issues and include consideration for these groups in our mitigation and adaptation plans.

Public Health

Recently scientists have begun assessing how climate change could affect human health.  Increased morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases and increased frequency of extreme heat events are now recognized as significant likely impacts of global climate change.  Also, the increased frequency of severe storms and extreme rainfall events bring the threat of increased flooding and waterborne diseases. Adaptation to these impacts will be costly in both dollars and lives; mitigation is necessary to minimize the risk of these events.


Economists and the business industry recognize the tremendous risks posed by climate change - the disruption to supply or distribution chains; impact on the availability of raw material; the damage to physical infrastructure; unforeseen human losses; and the cost of withstanding or rebuilding from more devastating natural catastrophes are a few examples of how climate change disasters could temporarily or permanently damage businesses.  At the same time, transformation of the global economy to a more efficient, post-fossil fuel model presents tremendous opportunities.


1 ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability is a membership organization of local governments committed to sustainable development.
2 For a sampling of public domain tools, see
3 Cities for Climate Protection Milestone Guide, ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, p. 34


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