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Cities, not Congress, are leading the charge on climate change. Accelerate the movement to double the # cities onboard to 2020 by 2020.



Although climate change is a global problem, cities are rightfully becoming the new fighting ground for advocates and policymakers. The state and local governments have long been powerful focal points for political and policy change in America, especially in contrast to Congress in recent years. Partly also due to the Obama Administration's reliance on state implementation of federal regulations (notably the Clean Power Plan), as well as the particular features of local living and governance, climate activists are increasingly turning to the states and cities. After all, urban spaces are where most Americans live, where many of our hardest challenges with greenhouse gas polluters reside, and where much of the worst harms of climate change would be inflicted. Mayors also hold considerable legal authorities to shape the key sectors that comprehensive mitigation and adaptation policies must cover: energy supply, transportation, industry, buildings, land use and waste management, and adaptation.

City-level efforts are already underway, in the US and around the world. Just to cite a few illustrative examples, 228 cities at a UN summit last year pledged under a global Compact of Mayors to cut their GHG emissions, and 1,060 cities in America thus far have formally signed onto the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The White House has, among other things, convened a State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force On Climate Preparedness And Resilience. In addition, various nonprofit groups in the US continue to step up their local climate change advocacy campaigns.

What is still absent is a pointed, national, aggressive collaborative effort across the key sectors of the modern political landscape: elected lawmakers and regulators as well as their staffs, grassroots mobilization and membership organizations, multi-issue and single-issue nonprofit advocacy groups, the scientific community, think tanks, trade associations, Beltway and local commentariats, the press and media watchdogs, legal scholars, labor unions, private sector leaders and validators, and the institutional and individual donor community. What it demands is a message and agenda — and coordinated organizing akin to a new Apollo project.

This proposal answers that call to action with a concrete goal: 2020 cities across America by 2020 joining together to aggressively fight climate change — double the number of cities currently onboard with the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, all saying more, doing more, and pushing for more. The plan's primary focus is the political and the organizing, not the technological or scientific.

(Note: This proposal is a first discussion draft, researched and written today, offered as a brainstorming exercise and meant primarily to elicit feedback while spurring further conversation. Please note the copyright policy of Climate CoLab and cite appropriately.)

Which proposals are included in your plan and how do they fit together?

This proposal's overarching goal is 2020 cities across America by 2020 that have publicly committed to the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement — a doubling of the 1,060 current signatories to the agreement over the next five years — with all of them driven by their constituents and elite influencers to enact an expanded menu of climate change mitigation policies.

To achieve the 2020 by 2020 vision, a new coalition will mobilize and coordinate key sectors of the modern political landscape: mayors, city councils, and their staffs; elected lawmakers and regulators at the federal and state levels as well (e.g., Congressional lawmakers and state legislators with strong records on climate change, urban policy, environmental protection, etc.); groups that engage, support, or organize non-federal elected leaders (e.g., LocalProgress and State Innovation Exchange); grassroots mobilization and membership organizations, including the online petition-based organizing groups; multi-issue and single-issue nonprofit advocacy groups; the scientific community; think tanks and academia (e.g., the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University); trade associations and business leaders & validators (e.g., progressive small business advocacy groups); Beltway and local commentariats; media watchdogs; legal scholars; labor unions; institutional investors and related groups (e.g., pension funds, Ceres); and the institutional and individual donor community (e.g., Democracy Alliance).

Specific actions that can be taken include the following:

  • To help spur more city participation, the Administration should go beyond White House task forces and public award/recognition efforts to explore and implement executive changes that will actively push cities to pass climate change mitigation policies. For instance, during the federal grantmaking process in programs across the executive branch, the Administration should take into account and positively score municipal efforts on climate change mitigation to advantage the participating cities.
  • The coalition should convene high-level discussions with institutional and major individual donors to elevate the local climate change advocacy strategy. Announcements of shifting or intensifying interest by entities such as the Democracy Alliance, Ford Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation can have major ripple effects.
  • Collaborating with the grassroots mobilization and membership groups (e.g., the online petition groups), the coalition should organize ordinary citizens into pressing their city leaders and train & develop them into organizers themselves, who can then mobilize their peers and neighbors as well as catalyze further campaign tactics. This model is a challenge to implement, especially in moving novice activists up the "ladder of engagement," but it's already widely in use and it can work.
  • Collaborating with the think tank, academic, and nonprofit advocacy world, the coalition should work to produce and mainstream more validator resources on the necessity and benefits of local climate change advocacy. For example, urban density is partly determined by the way that buildings are defined in state and municipal statutes and how property taxes (which operate primarily at the state and local levels) are applied to them. When apartment complexes are deemed "commercial" buildings taxed at higher rates relative to single-family residential dwellings, cities are encouraging suburban sprawl — and thus emissions intensity. But even the existence of such problems is not well known, let alone addressed in depth by expert organizations or journalists followed by the activist and policymaker world.
  • Funding and special attention should be carved out for training mayors and key supporters to serve as effective spokespeople in the media and other public platforms.
  • Working with groups that engage, counsel, or otherwise support local elected leaders, the 2020 cities by 2020 movement should establish an easy-to-use clearinghouse of model policies and best practices, as well as talking points, substantiating expert materials, sample letters-to-the editor and op-eds, polling, and other resources. This project should rely on existing databases, such as the Sabin Center's.


The policy changes that may be enacted by cities are arguably the most fruitful and encouraging part of the 2020 by 2020 vision. Below are a few examples to illustrate the diversity and creativity of the ideas. There is tremendous potential to aid their spread to cities across the country and spur the innovation of more new policy solutions.

  • Energy supply. An overlooked area is carbon pricing for cities—carbon taxes and emissions trading systems—such as America's first carbon tax passed and extended with strong public support in Boulder, Colorado. Localities in other countries are also experimenting with standalone cap-and-trade programs, such as Tokyo and a handful of provinces in China. The revenue-raising components can be structured to be progressive while fostering the adoption of renewable energy, depending on how the revenues are used. One point that's especially notable here is that cities are uniquely situated to promote distributed generation (renewable power produced at or near the place of consumption) via incentive rates, because they do not face the same preemption challenge that states do under the Federal Power Act; mayors should heed and take advantage.
  • Transportation. Emissions from transportation account more than a quarter of the country's total GHG emissions, making it the second largest contributor of U.S. GHG emissions after the electricity sector. America's costly car culture in particular is a huge source of carbon pollution. More funding into making mass transit options more affordable, quicker, accessible, and appealing would help take more single-car commuters off the road. As the city of Houston recently demonstrated, reconfiguring bus lines may not even cost anything. Compelling city planners to use the transit-oriented development strategy would also lower the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per person metric, by making walking and biking more attractive options and clustering housing, workplaces, and commercial sites more closely together.
  • Buildings. Commercial and residential buildings gobble up nearly 75% of the electricity usage in the country and account for nearly 40% of U.S. carbon emissions. According to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, imposing smarter building codes could lower cities' building energy usage by 30%. Such new standards could include requiring Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for buildings, more efficient insulation for building walls and between entryways, design standards that allow in more natural light, and "cool" roofs that better deflect away heat during the summer. These ideas often constitute "low-hanging fruit" that can reap significant energy savings.
  • Land use and waste management. Cities have considerable authority over landfills, recycling facilities, and waste dumps, as well as policies to curb waste from ending up in the trash stream in the first place. New York City's climate change plan, for example, aims for zero food waste going into landfills by 2030; implementation involves expanded municipal composting options, more food recycling, and penalties for noncompliance. (It should also be noted that the Administration is planning more EPA regulations to limit emissions from municipal solid waste landfills, which produce other GHGs such as methane.) In addition, local governments play a vital role in conserving park areas, planting trees, protecting vegetation, and promoting local food production to minimize the distance traveled from farm to fork.
  • Public finance. As a benefit to participation in the 2020 by 2020 movement, revolving loan pools, pooled purchasing, and other public financing mechanisms should be explored and established for cities as a way to fund renewable energy installations, energy efficiency upgrades, building retrofits, other capital investments, and even innovative structures like green roofs; to even out the financial ups-and-downs of long term purchases; and to negotiate lower purchasing prices. (As a case in point, there is an initiative called CO2toEE that creates a way for California cities and building owners to participate in the state's cap-and-trade market. It thereby allows them to receive the value of the carbon pollution reductions obtained through their energy efficiency investments.) Within individual cities, innovative financing mechanisms like Property Assessed Clean Energy loans can enable ordinary consumers to upgrade to clean energy. (PACE allows residents to gradually pay for the cost of their energy-efficiency or renewable energy projects through their property tax assessments.)


Explanation of the emissions scenario calculated in the Impact tab

The emissions scenario is not calculated for this plan.

In general terms, cities use 60-80% of the energy produced worldwide and account for a similar share of global carbon pollution. Half of the world's population already live in cities—a proportion expected to rise to 70% by 2050. According to research cited by the C40 group of cities worldwide, "city actions to reduce pollution from buildings, cars and garbage could cut greenhouse gases by nearly four gigatonnes in the next two decades—and eight gigatonnes by 2050—in addition to any national policies." [See Scientific American article.] Two specific examples demonstrate the possible: New York City Mayor de Blasio has pledged an 80% reduction in municipal emissions by 2050 (below 2005 levels), and Copenhagen is seeking to be the first capital city in the world to become carbon neutral by 2025. In simpler terms, success of global efforts to mitigate climate change will hinge on progress in the cities—and it's achievable.

What are the plan’s key benefits?

The 2020 by 2020 goal is more likely to succeed than a national plan under current circumstances, partly because dense cities are more likely to be politically receptive to policies most strongly supported by one political party.

First, cities should be policy targets because >80% of Americans live there. Mayors also have greater direct legal authority over relevant domains, such as public finance and building efficiency standards. Passing municipal policies, whether by legislation, rulemaking, or ballot measure, is also easier than at the national level.

Customizing policies also bolsters their popularity with voters while encouraging policy experimentation, tech innovation, and building of empirical support for or against different ideas. Communities are where social-behavioral norms evolve, politicians are groomed for higher office, and federal lawmakers operate. Finally, a patchwork of heterogeneous local (and state) policies could spur industry demand for national laws.

What are the plan’s costs?

Arguably the greatest technical concern is leakage, i.e., a patchwork of participating jurisdictions creating incentives for GHG emitters to relocate and pollute more in non-participating areas, resulting in more emissions on net than otherwise. It may be blunted by careful crafting of policy and rapid coverage to more and more jurisdictions. The patchwork effect is also remedied by the Administration's new carbon pollution rules—particularly the Clean Power Plan, which essentially creates a national cap-and-trade program covering all states (with caveats for AK, HI, and VT) based on the interstate energy grids.

Ultimately, climate change is an international problem requiring national action. That said, mayors are already implementing mitigation (and adaptation) policies independent of federal action, especially as Congress struggles to enact new legislation. The trend is already underway; the question moving forward is how to shape it, take advantage of it, and build on it.

What are the key challenges to enacting this plan?

The political obstacles are many and significant, including national opponents and corporate polluters with deep pockets that have a head start in the states and cities. (See, e.g., ACCE, ALEC, and SPN.) The variability of city powers across different states also complicates the work and constrains the possible mitigation policies that mayors may enact. Indeed, a key strategy of the opposing side is to enact new state laws that preempt city authorities. (Cities' legal powers are granted by their state governments. Ten states operate under permissive "home rule" while the rest operate under some form of a restrictive Dillon's Rule system.) Furthermore, it can be a major challenge to get national groups and members of those groups interested in local action relative to "sexier" fights playing out on the national stage. Thus this proposal would be a state-by-state, city-by-city fight demanding unusual persistence and concerted investment & effort by participating entities and funders.


From 2015 through 2016: Planning stage, with outreach and talks initiated with key donors, grassroots groups, think tanks, other major institutional players, and elected leaders and their staff. Major donors begin to publicly signal their focus and interest in city-level campaigning. The Administration studies and formulates policy changes (not requiring new federal legislation) that would enhance the city-level mitigation efforts, particularly scoring changes in grantmaking to directly and indirectly advantage participating cities.

By end of 2016: The Administration makes relevant executive & regulatory changes. Grassroots mobilization, municipal lobbying, and coordinated validator campaigns are well underway by this point.

From 2017 through 2020: Assess and adjust strategy per 2016 election results. Assessments of emissions impacts underway.

2020 onward: Pass the 2020 cities by 2020 finish line, set new goals—particularly those operating on the national & international plane.

Related plans

The most relevant proposal is "Plan to build low-carbon cities from the ground up" at proposal is based on a legal research paper I wrote this spring on local climate change law.)

The focus on cities is, of course, intriguing and powerful. The difference between the two plans is that mine focuses on a new political movement for changing existing cities and mobilizing existing constituencies while the other plan presents a futuristic vision of how new cities should be built based on the latest technological know-how. The latter strategy has disadvantages. For one, climate change is a problem we're experiencing now, one that cannot wait for potential payoffs to begin many years into the future. The emissions reduction payoffs may also be marginal given that most people will continue to live in the cities that currently exist, especially due to various economic, racial, and political inequities lurking in the other plan.


U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement

President’s State, Local, And Tribal Leaders Task Force On Climate Preparedness And Resilience Recommendations To The President

Cities Will Solve Climate Change, Not Nations, Scientific American

7 actions for cities to seriously address climate change, GreenBiz

5 Ways Cities Can Prepare For the Carbon Pollution Standards, Center for American Progress

Cities and Climate Change: An Urgent Agenda, World Bank

Cities and Climate Change, OECD

Local Climate Change Law: Environmental Regulation in Cities and Other Localities