Counting Money: Cities Love Climate Policies if They Generate Local Benefits

Susan M. Opp and Samantha L. Mosier





“Think globally but act locally” has always been a catchy slogan calling for individual and community-level action to protect the environment.  However, in the wake of recent changes in the United States federal environmental policy this slogan has taken on a more important meaning.  If local policy efforts are the front line of climate policy, we must critically examine their effectiveness. Drawing on a recent survey, this commentary briefly outlines what is known about local sustainability policy adoption in the United States. We find that cities adopt policies that generate visible and immediate co-benefits. Climate mitigation policies, on their own merits, simply do not sell. Second, we find that most cities are not doing enough to evaluate the effectiveness of their climate policies.

What do we know about local policy efforts?

Some scholars studying local policy efforts related to climate change and sustainability in the United States find that local governments tend to adopt policies that are the least expensive and have visible co-benefits.   Co-benefits, sometimes called ‘multiple-benefits’ or synergistic benefits, reflect the fact that they provide indirect and non-climate specific benefits. Furthermore, these scholars report that few cities adopt policies focused on climate change and/or GHG reduction goals only.   The 2010 nationwide survey, conducted by the International City County Management Association (ICMA), found that only 11.5% of cities report having a GHG reduction target for government operations while over 60% of the cities report having conducted energy audits of government buildings, an action with obvious co-benefits of lowering energy expenses.

Our own 2016 survey reaffirmed that cities adopt policies that generate immediate economic co-benefits, as opposed to GHG reduction policies without such benefits.  See Table 1 for a full list of adoption rates. For example, of the 110 policies catalogued in the survey, 15 policies have clear economic co-benefits through either cost reduction or through increased tax collections, and another 13 policies have co-benefits related to broad-scale service or amenity provision to the community.  Four policies are singularly focused on climate change without any added co-benefits.  The average adoption rate across all 110 policies is 19%. In contrast, the average adoption rate for the policies with clear economic co-benefits is 49% and service provision is 34%. However, only 10% adopt climate specific policies.

How can we explain the above findings? In part, the political tension surrounding climate change may lead to cities focusing on other non-controversial aspects of climate mitigation, typically the ones with clear local benefits (as opposed to solving a global commons problem).  Additionally, given the budgetary squeeze many cities face and the fear that climate policies may crowd out pressing local needs such as roads, schools and parks, cities feel obligated to provide a compelling economic rationale for adopting climate mitigation policies.

Effectiveness in Local Climate Change Policy

Organizations typically do not get every policy right on the first try. They sometimes put in systems to evaluate the effectiveness of their policies. This can help in modifying these policies, or even discontinuing them if they do not work. This leads to better policies and perhaps increases political support for such policy efforts. But do cities evaluate the effectiveness of their climate policies? Our 2016 survey provides a bleak picture: only 38.5% of the cities indicate that they routinely evaluate or measure the performance of any of their sustainability policies. The findings appear even bleaker when narrowing the focus to climate change and GHG reduction policies only.  Only 9.7% of the cities with GHG reduction policies routinely collect GHG emissions levels, 2.9% collect nitrogen dioxide concentration levels, 3.8% collect sulfur dioxide concentration levels, and 4.2% collect ozone concentration data.  This means that even among the small number of cities with climate change policies, the vast majority do not assess their effectiveness.

This is a cause for concern. Local governments must be held accountable for their policies and they must have the information to decide whether or not to continue with specific policies. This is especially important in the context of climate change policies because cities are now expected to do the heavy lifting.  A policy without accountability could even undermine political support for such climate change actions.  While citizens might want their cities to work towards climate mitigation, they probably also want cities to do this effectively and not waste scarce resources on policies that do not work or achieve benefits.  Broader sustainability efforts have gained widespread acceptance in part due to the co-benefits associated with them; however, in absence of these benefits, accountability and demonstrable effectiveness may help move the needle a bit on these important local efforts.

Susan M. Opp is an Associate Professor at Colorado State University specializing in local government and administration.

Samantha Mosier is an Assistant Professor at Missouri State University specializing in public policy and administration.