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A New Wave of Local Climate Action Planning

Maureen Hartwell


  • Reviews municipalities that have introduced climate action plans to address the consequences of climate change within their communities.
  • Emphasizes the importance of the land use authority that local governments have to shape urban form and thus mitigate and adapt to climate change.
A New Wave of Local Climate Action Planning
FG Trade Latin via Getty Images

Municipalities across the United States began introducing local climate action plans (CAPs) over the last two decades, catalyzed by the efforts of the Paris Climate Accords and the 2013 Obama administration Climate Action Plan. From Los Angeles to Bayfield, Wisconsin—with a population of 154—municipalities have introduced these plans to address the consequences of climate change within their communities. Scholars have scrutinized the efficacy of local CAPs since their inception, alleging that many of these plans hold nothing more than abstract and visionary statements. While there may be some truth to these critiques, especially for early CAPs, many municipalities have begun effectively integrating land use policies within their local climate plans to tangibly mitigate their climate impact, adapt to local impacts of climate change, and build climate resiliency and equity. 

CAPs: What Has Changed?

Wave 1: Characterized by Visionary Goals, Mitigation, and Municipal Assets

The first wave of CAPs focused primarily on visionary goals, mitigation, and municipal assets. Many early CAPs squarely focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions generated from government operations. This wave of mitigation plans, when they included land use at all, relied heavily on well-known land use and transportation solutions to the climate challenge, such as: enhanced transit, compact community design, and green building codes, to be implemented both by local government and the broader community. For example, Portland, Oregon’s, 1993 Global Warming Reduction Strategy, the first local CAP, focused mainly on transportation strategies, such as reducing vehicle miles traveled in the city and purchasing efficient or alternative-fueled vehicles for the municipal fleet. Local CAPs have evolved over time, and, as part of this evolution, local governments have begun using their land use authority to tangibly mitigate their climate impact, adapt to local impacts of climate change, and build climate resiliency and equity.

Wave 2: Characterized by Climate Resilient Development and Implementation

This past February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) introduced climate resilient development (CRD) as a principal strategy for managing climate change. CRD is “an approach that integrates adaptation measures and their enabling conditions with mitigation to advance sustainable development for all.” This holistic approach includes several embedded strategies: mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

Mitigation is an anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gasses. Adaptation is the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate and its effects to moderate harm or take advantage of beneficial opportunities. Adaptation can be anticipatory or reactive. Resilience is defined as “the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self-organization and the capacity to adapt to stress and change.” This newest generation of CAPs incorporates effective, innovative land use solutions that embody CRD.

A Look at Land Use Solutions from Wave 2

Sustainable Agriculture: Phoenix, Arizona

As the consequences of climate change continue to jeopardize food security, some municipalities are developing an infrastructure of resilient urban agriculture. For example, the Climate Action Plan for Phoenix, Arizona, proposes clarifying existing zoning codes to identify which zoning classifications and requirements are needed for various agricultural and food production uses—commercial and residential—including, hydroponic, aquaponics, growing inside structures, and for burgeoning uses, such as rooftop and building-integrated agriculture. As a complementary policy—to mitigate food waste—Phoenix proposes identifying and updating/amending appropriate sections of the zoning code to clearly identify zoning requirements for composting opportunities.

Carbon Emissions Analysis: Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh, North Carolina’s, Community Climate Action Plan (CCAP) proposes that Raleigh’s Planning and Development Services include carbon emissions analysis in city rezonings, area plans, and other planning studies and decisions to consider the effect of a plan or zoning change on per-capita emissions. This analysis reviews 1. whether a proposed rezoning retains or increases options for housing and transportation choices that reduce carbon emissions and 2. whether a proposed rezoning includes reductions in energy costs or carbon emissions for existing residents.

The plan also proposes piloting performance-based zoning and embedding the CCAP into the Equitable Development Around Transit (EDAT). EDAT is a series of projects that correspond to the city’s Equitable Transit Guidebook, which Raleigh City Council adopted in early 2021. Essentially, by incorporating the CCAP into the EDAT infrastructure, Raleigh is incorporating its CCAP into an integrative planning process.

Integrative Planning: Albany, New York

By incorporating their local climate plans into an integrative planning process, municipalities can give their climate plans teeth. Albany, New York, has incorporated their local climate plan into the appendix of their comprehensive plan. By tethering their climate agenda to their comprehensive plan, Albany has given it legal significance, as zoning must be in conformance with the comprehensive plan. Similarly, other municipalities have made their local climate plans a chapter of their comprehensive plan.


The IPCC, in its Sixth Assessment Report, emphasizes the importance of the land use authority that local governments have to shape urban form and thus mitigate and adapt to climate change. Local CAPs have become an important manifestation of that authority for that purpose. This article is part of the Land Use Law Center at the Haub School of Law at Pace University’s CRD Project. The CRD Project kicked off with an article by five land use scholars detailing the role of land use law and policy in advancing CRD. The article includes an evaluative methodology to help readers understand how CRD can be implemented at the local level and to guide policy makers in developing well-rounded CRD strategies. Thirty-eight land use scholars and 1L researchers continue to work on the CRD Project.