Not according to plan: Exploring gaps in city climate planning and the need for regional action

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Editor's note:

ICYMI, watch the event discussion examining how city leaders can accelerate climate planning and action in the current era of historic federal investment.

The growing threats from climate change leave the global population no choice: We must decarbonize human activity as soon as possible. That includes changing how we build, travel, generate power, and more to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Achieving such transformative change will require a mix of policy reforms, new technologies, and significant capital investments. Under ideal circumstances, cities, national governments, global organizations, and private business owners would seamlessly work together to orchestrate actions that deliver results at the scale and speed the planet needs. 

The past year has demonstrated that the U.S. federal government can do its part. While political discord has led to paralysis on climate action for well over a decade, within the previous 12 months, Congress has passed three landmark bills—the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—that together invest hundreds of billions of dollars across a range of advanced research programs, utility-focused incentives, modern manufacturing facilities, consumer-facing rebate programs, and more. 

The question now is whether cities are well-positioned to do their part—and the current landscape is discouraging. While many cities have drafted “climate action plans” that pledge specific GHG emissions reductions, they are struggling to hit their targets. One gap in city climate planning and action is internal, with cities often failing to specify detailed strategies that will advance their goals. The other gap is regional: Individual cities do not have the fiscal, technical, or programmatic capacity to single-handedly drive decarbonization across their metropolitan regions, and often, they do not coordinate with other jurisdictions.  

Planning for decarbonization implementationThis report attempts to better understand why cities are failing to meet their targets and what can be learned from the planning practices that are working well. By evaluating the most comprehensive decarbonization plans across 50 of the country’s largest cities, the report judges how well the strategies and actions in these plans prepare cities for meaningful, accountable decarbonization. Using 25 standardized criteria and interviews with local practitioners to judge city decarbonization plans, we find: 

Most plans have long-term decarbonization goals, but less than one-third (32%) have detailed benchmarks and reporting. Despite identifying goals for GHG emissions reductions over the coming decades, cities do not always regularly measure their progress. Plans also tend to lack updated projections or fail to specify interim reduction goals, leading to inconsistent timelines and targets. For example, only 54% of plans aim to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, putting them out of step with national and international climate goals. 

Timelines and benchmarks vary across different decarbonization plansOnly about one-quarter (28%) of plans include detailed, sector-specific strategies for electricity, buildings, and transportation decarbonization. The same timeline and measurement issues become more egregious within these three sectors. For example, only 60% of cities specify how they will phase specific actions (or implementation schedules) within each sector. Instead, strategies often are not quantifiable, do not set specific deadlines, or do not evaluate progress over time. 

Nearly two-thirds of plans provide some detail on who will lead decarbonization efforts, but few offer extensive detail. All but one city designates a clear entity or collection of departments to own decarbonization planning. However, those same cities tend to overlook more intricate coordination and execution needs, failing to identify key implementors and partners for specific strategies and actions. Plans can play many roles, but the lack of clear accountability gets in the way.

City decarbonization plans play various rolesMany cities struggle to pay for decarbonization efforts; only 16% of plans identify detailed funding sources or financing approaches. Cities appear woefully underprepared to invest in short-term infrastructure repairs, let alone advance innovative, long-term decarbonization upgrades. Plans often do not integrate funding considerations across different strategies, identify specific cost estimates, or describe new and existing funding sources to pay for needed improvements. For instance, cities have limited budgets to staff and operate their environmental departments and do not identify or secure additional funding beyond traditional revenue sources such as property taxes.   

While almost all decarbonization plans identify equity as a goal, nearly three-quarters lack details on how to achieve it. Threats to the physical, social, and economic well-being of many populations—particularly lower-income communities of color—are coming into clearer focus for cities. Yet their plans usually only pay lip service to it; they lack details when building equity into different strategies, embedding equity into metrics and evaluation, and engaging community members. 

Combined, these results show yawning gaps between city ambitions and their preparedness to act. Yet across each of the 25 criteria, we found promising strategies and actions that could be adopted in peer cities. Policymakers, planners, and other public and private leaders need to better understand where they can add more teeth to their plans. Planning for the sake of planning is not good enough; practitioners need to draft clear sets of actionable and accountable steps to drive decarbonization.  

Decarbonization planning evolves as cities move from inaction to actionThe report lays out several recommendations aimed to do just that, stressing the need for city leaders to look both inward at a local level and outward at a regional level: 

  1. Conduct an honest assessment of the current capacity to decarbonize. Too often, leaders can set seemingly arbitrary (and unattainable) decarbonization goals with few programs, staff, or resources in place. An assessment of where their current plans fall short can reveal outstanding gaps and equip leaders with the knowledge they need to execute their goals. 
  2. Establish a regional leadership network to coordinate local and regional strategies. Metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and councils of government (COGs) already manage regional conversations and lead many built environment practices across the transportation, building, and energy sectors. They could further their role in local and regional climate planning and serve as natural meeting points.  
  3. Develop a skilled workforce to manage decarbonization efforts. Local governments need internal staff to complete plans and design actions, while a range of other employers, including utilities, need to have talent to execute different improvements. Workforce development efforts at a regional level—including sector strategies and earn-and-learn opportunities—hold promise in creating flexible and accessible career pathways in the infrastructure space. A dual focus on climate action and equity is a must. 
  4. Use regional entities to standardize climate data and measurement practices. Pooling resources at the regional scale can help localities take advantage of the decarbonization field’s rapidly evolving best practices and minimize the limitations associated with many smaller municipal budgets around data collection and analysis.  
  5. Use regional conveners to negotiate with private infrastructure and economic development stakeholders. Regional bodies such as chambers of commerce and other coalitions have inherently larger geographic footprints than local governments. This is an asset when engaging with private entities such as energy utilities, whose service areas and investments likely cross jurisdictional lines. 
  6. Establish clear funding sources and financing rules. Since cities have limited and stretched budgets (amid a growing number of existing infrastructure costs), leaders must think beyond traditional revenue streams. That means not only testing new financial instruments (e.g., green bonds), but also experimenting with new ways to measure costs and benefits, identify and procure projects, and bundle funding with other public and private peers. 

Together, these practitioner-focused recommendations aim to enhance the capacity of local and regional leaders, helping them develop and execute more detailed plans in support of more lasting climate action in the current federal moment and beyond. 


Interactive dashboard

Scoring the level of detail in the decarbonization plans of 50 cities

Click on column headers to sort the table

Level of plan detail: Most Less Least

Source: Brookings Metro analysis of city climate plans across 25 criteria. For more information on the scoring, see the report’s methodological appendix.