Report: Climate Action Plans Don't Reduce Emissions

By Josh Feit March 8, 2012

A recent report in the Journal of Urban Economics concludes that the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement initiative launched by former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels has not worked to combat climate change even in cities that have followed up by creating city-level climate action plans.

In 2005, Nickels pledged that the city of Seattle would meet or exceed the greenhouse-gas reduction goals in the 1997 Kyoto treaty (rejected in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush), and challenged other cities to do the same. Since then, more than 1,000 cities have signed on to his US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and more than 600 cities have crafted their own climate action plans to actually implement the agreement. The Kyoto treaty calls for nations to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

According to the Atlantic, the study concludes that "there doesn’t seem to be any causal connection between greenhouse gas reductions and climate action plans."

Although emissions are, in fact, going down, the study attributes that more to the individual actions of environmentally conscious citizens, most of them in liberal-leaning cities like Seattle, than to city-level climate action policies. "Climate plans may largely be codifying outcomes that would have been achieved in any case," the study concludes. Additionally, variables like higher employment and growth in non-residential land use appear to be factors in those cities greenhouse-gas reductions.

In California cities that adopted climate action plans, for example, the study "found little to no correlation between the plans and such emissions-reducing projects and initiatives as the incidence of solar photovoltaics, LEED projects, investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, reduced expenditures on streetlights and decreased revenues from gas sales taxes."

The study's conclusions bring to mind presidential candidate Rick Santorum's bizarre claim that environmental improvements should all be made at the local level---because smog, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions stop at city and state borders, obviously.

In an email, Nickels told PubliCola:

My intent in creating the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement was to show that it was possible to take action at the local level and to make it safe for the politicians in state capitals and in Washington, DC to act as well. There is no way around the need for a binding international agreement beyond Kyoto and for national Climate Protection and Energy legislation in the US. In fact the second and often overlooked part of the Mayors Climate Agreement was advocating for federal legislation (including a cap-and-trade system). Cities can take us part of the way, but a national commitment is needed to get where we need to be.

Many cities have followed through and remain the brightest hope in the pretty grim politics of climate protection. We were pretty disciplined in measuring the impact of our actions, in part because there were so many others watching whether we were walking our talk.

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