PAS Memo — January/February 2009

Integrating Energy and Climate into Planning

How planners can help local communities meet energy needs, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to a changing climate

By Jan Mueller and Suzanne Rynne, AICP

Climate change may be the defining issue of our time. This monumental challenge is daunting and global in scale, but the responses are ultimately local and regional. Planners are uniquely positioned to lead individual communities in finding new ways to meet energy needs, cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and face the impacts that climate change may bring.

But where should planners begin? Which actions are most important, and how do climate change and energy relate to other planning issues? This PAS Memo explores the essential issues that planners need to understand and outlines a basic strategy for addressing energy and climate issues at the local and regional level.

Our Climate Is Changing

The Earth's climate is changing. The historical record shows the average temperature of the Earth has risen by approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past 150 years, with the rate of warming accelerating sharply since the 1970s. Climate models project warming to continue, increasing by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, depending on future concentrations of so-called "greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere. While past variations in the Earth's climate have been attributed largely to well-studied natural cycles, there is a greater than 90 percent probability that this warming trend is human-caused, according to the 2007 assessment of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a collaboration of hundreds of scientists from around the world sponsored by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization.

A few degrees of warming may sound small, but it represents a massive addition of energy to the Earth's atmosphere capable of disrupting large-scale climate patterns. Global warming may manifest itself as changes in seasonal averages for temperature and precipitation — summers could be warmer and drier in one region, cooler and wetter in another — but also as more extreme weather events including more frequent and powerful storms, more prolonged droughts, and more intense heat waves.

Because water increases in volume as it warms, global warming is also raising sea levels — which have increased approximately eight inches over the last century. Melting glaciers around the world add to the problem. According to the IPCC report, average sea level could rise an additional four feet by the end of the century, depending on the speed and extent of glacial melting, which has been difficult for scientists to model and predict.

Climate change could come with a long list of severe and potentially catastrophic consequences for ecological systems, agriculture, public health, infrastructure, commerce, and human enterprise as a whole. Planners need to think about how these changes may affect the future economic, environmental, energy, and physical security of their communities. How will global and local climate changes affect availability and costs for water, food, energy, and other basic needs? How might businesses and employment be altered? What new challenges and risks will climate change present to your community?

Assessing Your Community

Scientists believe present GHG levels already commit us to some future warming (1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit), but say additional warming could be slowed or stopped if worldwide emissions were drastically reduced. The IPCC report suggests that reductions of 50 to 80 percent from 2000 levels are needed by 2050, with emissions falling to near zero by the end of the century. Other studies, such as a recent report led by James Hansen of NASA, suggest reductions may need to exceed 90 percent by 2050 and that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere must be reduced to 350 parts per million (current CO2 levels now exceed 380 ppm after rising from pre-industrial levels of approximately 270 ppm). Under any scenario, the urgency of the problem cannot be overstated. Communities must get "ahead of the curve" and prepare for a new energy and climate future.

Beginning with an assessment of present GHG emissions, local energy resources, and potential new impacts and risks associated with climate change is a good first step to take. Information with which to make such assessments may vary in quality and availability, but data precision is generally less important, at first, than establishing relative priorities. Going through the process will help identify information gaps and data collection needs.

Greenhouse Gas Footprint

As of December 2008, over 900 mayors across the country have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a pledge to work toward GHG reductions of 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, as established by the Kyoto Protocol. But how should progress on that pledge be measured? What do local GHG emissions include?

The term GHG "footprint" refers to total GHG emissions that a given entity generates, directly or indirectly. In a global economy, accounting for all the GHG-generating activities of a single local community can be difficult. Generally, a local GHG footprint includes direct and indirect energy use from sources such as buildings and transportation, land use change, agriculture, and industrial processes.

An inventory of current GHG emissions will help establish a baseline for your community. Future "business-as-usual" emission levels can be projected based on development trends and other information. The impacts of mitigation measures may be calculated and compared to the business-as-usual projections.

The GHG footprint of different communities will vary, but a look at overall U.S. sources and end-uses provides a useful reference. Greenhouse emissions inventories have been completed for states down to local levels of government, and a May 2008 Brookings Institution report examined the partial carbon footprint (transportation and residential energy use) of the 100 largest metropolitan regions.

Local Energy Resources

A key part of a GHG reduction strategy is assessing local and regional energy resources. Efficiency and conservation are often the most cost-effective option for reducing energy use and GHG emissions. Energy efficiency gains can be achieved through technology, more efficient behavior, or more efficient system design. For example, driving a more fuel efficient car, increasing carpooling, or building housing near workplaces could all help meet the same need of getting to work by using less energy.

Combining heat and power systems so that waste heat from electricity generation is also used to heat buildings or to supply heat for industrial processes is an important example of how a little ingenuity can save a lot of energy and GHG emissions. District energy, where a cluster of buildings — a city block, college campus, etc. — share facilities for water heating, space heating and cooling, or electricity is another important efficiency strategy.

Beyond efficiency, communities can explore options to transition to alternative energy sources with fewer GHG emissions.

Natural Gas. Natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel, but electricity produced from natural gas emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide on average than electricity from coal and approximately 30 percent less than oil-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the short term, substituting natural gas for other fossil fuel sources can help reduce a community's overall GHG footprint.

Bioenergy and Waste-to-Energy. Bioenergy includes the use of organic matter (also known as biomass) to produce electricity, heat, or transportation fuels (biofuels). Sources or "feedstocks" for bioenergy include a wide variety of materials such as agricultural residues, low-grade timber, woody debris, waste wood, food waste, and energy crops. Burlington, Vermont, generates a significant amount of its electricity from a wood-fired power plant. The cost of electricity from biomass can vary with location and type of feedstock. In some cases it may reduce waste disposal costs. In the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Department of Energy reports biomass generation costs of approximately five to seven cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to about three cents per kilowatt-hour for a new advanced gas-fired power plant.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) is composed of a mixture of organic materials, as well as metals, plastics, and other petroleum-derived products. Waste-to-energy applications can lower GHG emissions (relative to fossil fuels) and reduce landfill loading (along with associated methane emissions). For example, Warrenton, Virginia, is planning to build a gasification plant that will use the town's municipal waste to meet almost all of its electric needs.

Actual GHG reduction benefits of different bioenergy and biofuels technologies can vary significantly depending on which feedstocks are used and the methods used to grow, collect, and process the fuel. The indirect land use effects of diverting food crops for energy production — whereby new acres are cultivated as a result — may also offset the GHG benefits of some biofuels. Some studies have suggested these land use effects may entirely negate GHG benefits, instead increasing overall GHG emissions. The issue is the subject of an ongoing debate that has yet to be resolved; however, it is important to recognize that the land use issue applies to biofuels produced from dedicated acreage of energy crops. Many biofuels and bioenergy feedstocks can be harvested from waste streams and byproducts of agricultural and forestry operations.

Wind. Large-scale wind power installations or "wind farms" have been built or are being explored in many states, using large wind turbines that can each generate more than five megawatts of electricity. Small wind installations, however, can also be part of a local energy strategy using fewer and smaller turbines that generate less than 100 kilowatts of energy. Total costs and energy savings of installing wind turbines can vary depending on the location and scale of the project, but wind energy is getting cost competitive with coal and gas-fired power plants in many places, with costs in the range of five to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. The American Wind Energy Association conservatively estimates that wind could meet 20 percent of U.S. electricity demand by 2030.

The Twin Groves Wind Farm in McLean County, Illinois

The Twin Groves Wind Farm in McLean County, Illinois. Photo Suzanne Rynne.

Solar Panels on a roof in San Jose, California

Solar Panels on a roof in San Jose, California. Photo Suzanne Rynne.

Solar. Solar energy includes solar water and space heating as well as different technologies to generate electricity such as photovoltaic panels and concentrated solar power. Cost-effectiveness is more favorable at lower latitudes where solar radiation is more intense, but almost any community can install solar power in a wide variety of places, from roofs to parking lots. Panels can typically produce 120-200 watts per square meter at an installed cost of $11 to $22 per watt, according to the American Solar Energy Society.

Geothermal. Electricity can be produced using hot water found in deep geologic formations. This is generally an industrial scale operation in select areas. A more common and small-scale option, however, is geothermal heat exchange systems, also known as ground-source heat pumps, which use the relatively stable temperature of the Earth to reduce energy use for heating and cooling. The California Energy Commission estimates the costs of a geothermal system can earn net savings immediately when financed as part of a 30-year mortgage.

Hydrokinetic. Hydrokinetic energy includes power from hydroelectric dams, but also harnessing the power of tides and waves to generate electricity. While this technology is still in the development stage, small hydroelectric systems that may use small dams or the energy of free-flowing rivers to generate electricity may be a feasible local option in many places.

Impacts of Climate Change

In addition to pursuing mitigation strategies aimed at reducing GHG emissions, local communities must also prepare for the impacts and community risks that may come with climate change. Actions and policies to avoid or minimize exposure to such impacts and risks are the primary goal of an adaptation strategy.

The impacts of climate changes on communities are dependent on local context — not only because local climates vary, but because the built environment can greatly amplify or reduce specific risks, which highlights the importance of planning in managing these risks. In an interconnected world, communities might also consider how the impacts of climate change in more distant places might be felt locally. The major impacts of climate include:

Water Availability. The most common and potentially significant impact of climate change will be on regional water availability. According to the IPCC report, some eastern regions of the United States will experience significant increases in annual precipitation, while many western regions are projected to see less rain and snowfall. At the same time higher average temperatures may increase evaporation and transpiration of water from soil and water bodies. This, in addition to more frequent droughts, could permanently affect drinking water supplies, water levels in rivers and lakes, and soil moisture conditions.

Natural Disasters. Climate change may manifest itself as gradual changes in seasonal temperature and precipitation patterns, but is also projected to result in more severe and frequent extreme weather events. Direct threats to public safety and potential damage to public and private property from wind, flooding, or extreme temperature events are important risks for communities to assess. Recent data and observations suggest that the frequency and severity of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and droughts may already be increasing in areas prone to these weather events, and may also be expanding to areas unaccustomed to such phenomena.

Agriculture and Food Security. The combination of changes in water availability and changes in average temperatures are projected to have substantial consequences for large-scale agricultural output. Communities may want to evaluate their food sources and assess the vulnerability of food supplies and food prices to climate shifts. Many U.S. communities are heavily reliant on food imported from distant states and countries; price shocks or declines in far-away agricultural production may have significant adverse impacts on the food supply for these communities. Local agriculture may also be at risk, but strengthening and diversifying local food systems may be an important response to food security risks associated with climate change.

Public Health. The impact of climate change on public health is a large and complex subject. One major concern is that disease vectors may be altered by climate change. The incidence and severity of numerous diseases and health issues such as asthma and other lung ailments are also known to be sensitive to temperature and humidity. Climate change could exacerbate the effects of water and air pollution in many areas. Many bacteria, algae, and micro-organisms associated with water pollution are more productive at warmer temperatures. Public safety may be affected and the risk of direct physical harm from extreme weather events such as floods, storms, and heat waves may increase, though research on these and other public health risks is still emerging.

Infrastructure. Infrastructure may be strongly affected by changing temperature and precipitation. Decreasing groundwater and streamflow levels could alter public and private water supplies, while more frequent and more extreme storm events may overwhelm the current design parameters of stormwater conveyance and storage systems. This may in turn affect the structural integrity and maintenance costs for roads, bridges, sewer systems, and pipelines. Extreme heating is known to stress and shorten the service life of paving surfaces and metals, which may also drive up overall infrastructure costs.

Natural Resources and Ecological Systems. Plant and animal species and the natural processes of ecological systems have evolved to fit specific climate regimes. Processes such as flowering, pollination, and hibernation are seasonally timed, and ecological systems are expected to be very sensitive to shifts in climate and seasonal patterns. Species may adapt by migration and other mechanisms (many U.S. tree species may extend their ranges north, for example). The abruptness of future climate change, however, may make migration and adaptation by many species more difficult. Human barriers on the landscape — from cities and towns to farms and highways — may further impede natural adaptation processes. Ecologists warn that climate change threatens to cause the loss of local species populations, species extinction, and potential collapse of certain ecosystems.

Economy. Each of these changes has a significant potential economic impact. Businesses and commercial activities have their own particular vulnerabilities to climate change. Tourism and recreation-oriented businesses, such as the winter sports industry, are likely to be affected positively or negatively (winters may be snowier but shorter in many places). Coastal real estate values and coastal economies in general will be increasingly vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels and increased storm surges. Companies not directly hit by the impacts of climate change may be indirectly affected by changes in their customer base or in the costs of materials that may be affected by climate change or climate policies.

Implications for Planning

The challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, meeting energy needs, and adapting to climate change has many implications for planning. These are outlined below in six major issue areas: forms and patterns of development, infrastructure and utilities, transportation, economic development, building and site design, and natural resources.

Forms and Patterns of Development

Location, density, proximity, connectivity, diversity of land uses, and other development concepts familiar to planners are integral to addressing energy and climate issues, but they require heightened scrutiny regarding their effect on energy use, GHG emissions, and climate change adaptation strategies.

First, development patterns are critical to energy-efficient transportation. As Growing Cooler indicates, compact development is important for reducing vehicle miles traveled and associated GHG emissions. In addition to reducing automobile miles driven, compact development also allows people the option to walk or bike — further reducing vehicle miles traveled. Transit-oriented development and transit-served neighborhoods are also important for reducing GHG emissions, as is looking at infill sites for development and redevelopment opportunities rather than siting new development at the outskirts of communities.

Accounting for GHG emissions in transportation planning models and analysis is a new challenge. Analysis of transportation-related emissions is most usefully done at the regional system level rather than the individual project level. Several metropolitan areas, including Sacramento and Seattle, have pioneered new tools for comparing the GHG impacts of different regional development scenarios.

Compact development also reduces the costs of other infrastructure, such as for energy, sewer, and water. The savings in energy use, maintenance, operations, and embedded energy in the materials is measurable and significant. There is also a loss of efficiency when electricity is transmitted and distributed over long distances. This "line-loss" averages 7 to 9 percent overall from generation sources to electrical outlet, but the amount of loss is less sensitive to actual distance than it is to such factors as the amount of electricity being carried relative to capacity and "bottleneck" issues where large amounts of electricity have only one or very few sets of wires to travel through. Thus, overall adequacy and management of the grid is the most important efficiency factor, though line loss due to distance can still make a difference.

Perhaps more importantly, development patterns can help create or constrain opportunities for small-scale power generation and community infrastructure solutions. The pipes and excavation involved in district energy, for example, make it suitable for compact development situations. Development patterns also influence the mix of housing and building types and the overall composition of single-family, multi-unit, and multi-story buildings, which can substantially affect the efficiency of water heating and space heating and cooling systems.

For adaptation, development location decisions will need to incorporate new boundaries for floodplains, coastal management zones, and other natural hazard areas.

Sometimes the issue of development patterns is oversimplified, focusing on providing housing near employment centers. In reality, however, there are many factors that go into decisions on where people live, with proximity to work only being one of them. Schools are an important factor for many families, and parents are often willing to commute long distances to provide quality educational opportunities for their children. Efforts to improve school systems, therefore, may help alleviate this issue. Additionally, for dual-income families, it may be difficult to find jobs that are close to each other. Planners should consider corridors between employment centers that are transit-served and allow adequate housing opportunities to help reduce vehicle miles traveled. Providing a range of housing types is also important, as our changing demographics indicate more multifamily and smaller units — in walkable communities — will be in demand. This is good news for communities in terms of opportunities for reducing energy use and GHG emissions.

Infrastructure & Utilities

Infrastructure and utilities for energy, transportation, water, and wastewater all have important roles in addressing climate and energy issues. First, different energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies have different location constraints. Biomass, wind, and solar energy, along with combined heat and power, each have different technical and scale considerations. For example, areas not suitable for an industrial wind farm might still be viable for a smaller community-level project. An inventory of potential locations for local and regional renewable energy options is an important foundation for planning energy infrastructure.

Second, new generation capacity for renewable electricity may require new transmission and distribution infrastructure apart from that serving existing power plants. Similarly, proposed transmission lines intended to serve coal-fired power plants and other conventional energy sources may not be suitable for future renewable energy projects. Infrastructure decisions, therefore, can be critical moments for moving away from a fossil fuel energy past and toward a renewable energy future.

As discussed earlier, transmission presents significant issues regarding the efficiency, stability, and capacity of the electric grid. One of the principal advantages of distributed generation — generating energy close to where it will be used through community-scale and small-scale industrial energy projects — is the avoidance and mitigation of these issues. Moving toward greater local and regional energy independence is ultimately a subjective and strategic community decision, but one that should include an assessment of local and regional electric grid issues in order to weigh the costs and benefits of different energy paths.

In terms of adaptation, all infrastructure types face potential new climate stresses and hazards. Coastal communities may need to plan to relocate roads and pipelines from expanded flood and storm surge areas. The capacity of water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure may need to respond to potential increases and decreases in precipitation. Concrete structures may be more susceptible to erosion and land subsidence, while the service life of paving materials and structural metals can be significantly shortened by increased heat stress.


The challenge for reducing transportation-related emissions comes down to minimizing GHG emissions per passenger-mile or freight-ton miles while also taking steps to reduce the total number of miles traveled by passengers or freight. GHG emissions associated with transportation can be reduced in three main ways:

'Plug-In' Hybrid Electric Vehicle

'Plug-In' Hybrid Electric Vehicle. Photo Meghan Condon.

Use more efficient vehicles and low-GHG fuels. While production of vehicles and fuels is not really a planning issue, communities can prepare the way for emerging technologies by providing accommodating infrastructure and site amenities, such as charging stations and special parking spaces for electric vehicles.

Shift passenger and freight trips to more GHG-efficient modes of travel. Expanded infrastructure and site amenities that support and expand rail or wheeled transit use, carsharing, walking, biking, and other transportation choices are also important. The goal is an integrated multimodal network that allows users to access jobs, stores, services, and other everyday needs without necessarily using a car. Planners are well acquainted with the need for more sidewalks, bikeways, transit enhancements, and complete streets that accommodate all transportation modes. Energy and climate brings a new focus and added benefits to these old challenges.

Red Line, Washington, D.C., Area Metro System

Red Line, Washington, D.C., Area Metro System. Photo Laura Parsons.

Strategies for making more efficient use of the transportation network or reducing the need to travel altogether will be increasingly important to reducing GHG emissions. Intelligent traffic management systems that use advanced technology to provide information on traffic and road conditions is another important frontier in maximizing system level efficiency.

Freight presents a challenge for reducing GHG emissions. Reducing overall need for passenger travel is arguably consistent with what the traveling public wants, according to some surveys and other data. Freight traffic volume is more directly tied to economic activity, so reducing GHG emissions associated with freight movement is likely to be more challenging. Shifting freight to more efficient modes — from long-haul trucks to rail shipping, for example — will be important, as will efficiency gains through technology and system management.

Curb the growth of overall travel demand. As mentioned previously, development patterns play an important role in being able to reduce transportation-related GHG emissions. New broadband communications technologies, expanded options for telecommuting, and other alternative work arrangements are also likely to be important factors in reducing travel demand. The "trip not taken" is the most GHG efficient trip of all.

Economic Development

Economic development strategies to support GHG reduction goals focus on three major areas:

Encourage businesses to reduce energy use and GHG emissions. With the industrial and commercial sector accounting for roughly two-thirds of the overall GHG emissions, it is important to engage businesses in GHG reduction efforts. Energy is among the largest operating cost for many businesses, and providing options for energy efficiency and affordable, stable-priced renewable energy can be an important asset for attracting new businesses. Access to renewable energy has been used as a selling point by numerous office buildings, business districts, industrial parks, and other designated commercial centers.

Promote renewable energy industries.Attracting companies in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sector is an important part of building local capacity to reduce GHGs and keep dollars spent on energy cycling within the regional economy. A wide range of equipment manufacturers, installers, retailers, and consultants will be needed to make the transition to this new energy economy. Recruiting and establishing such companies, including retooling existing companies, is central to an effective local strategy.

These companies need an active market for their products and services. Local infrastructure and development plans can be important signals of sustained commitment to grow that market. Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, for example has a clean energy plan that focuses on developing clean and renewable energy projects and green jobs in the region and evaluates the potential for different renewable energy options in the region.

Sustained growth in the renewable energy industry also requires the development and recruitment of an appropriately skilled workforce. Local technical education — from tech academies to university programs — is also an important element to develop.

Promote low-GHG products.Beyond direct energy use, reducing GHG emissions depends on the availability of goods, materials, and services that have inherently low embedded energy and emissions, or have been produced by companies that have made strides to reduce indirect energy use and emissions. The development and expansion of companies that produce or supply such products, therefore, should be included in future economic development considerations.

Some businesses, however, may be vulnerable to future changes in local or global climate change. Examples include farms and food-related businesses or tourism and recreation-based industries such as ski areas and other winter sports activities. Communities may need to help these businesses to adapt where possible, or may need to plan for their decline.

Building and Site Design

Building and site development projects can contribute to GHG reductions in four important ways:

Maximizing reuse of existing buildings. Reuse of existing buildings has significant energy benefits. Recent calculations indicate it can take between 25 to 60 years to recover the energy used in demolition and new building construction, as reported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Overall energy use for construction and embodied energy in building materials is an important but often overlooked source of GHG emissions.

Using energy-efficient practices in construction and renovation of buildings. Adopting updated building codes can be an important step toward promoting energy-efficient buildings, but implementing and enforcing codes and better building practices can be the real challenge. Builders and contractors may lack the training and experience to properly install many best practice solutions. Inspectors may not have sufficient knowledge to monitor projects and installations, and permit processes may not require demonstration of actual performance that meets the standards. While many planners are not directly involved in enforcement of building codes, improvements in project reviews and technical assistance can be equally important, as can incentive programs that encourage more energy-efficient buildings. Planners, for example, can examine site plans to determine if the siting of buildings will maximize passive solar use, and provide information on energy efficiency incentive programs.

Encouraging the use of more energy-efficient lighting and appliances. Appliance purchases are often consumer decisions, but incentives for incorporating energy efficient appliances in residential, commercial, and industrial projects can be an important strategy. Focusing on energy use from lighting, water heating, and refrigeration, for example, can yield substantial GHG benefits.

Promoting "renewable ready" building and site features.Making buildings and sites "renewable ready" involves identifying, creating, and preserving opportunities to install site-level renewable energy and efficiency technologies — appropriate locations for small wind turbines, solar panels, biomass-fired district heating, and geothermal heating and cooling, for instance. As individual parcels are likely to present different opportunities and constraints, neighborhood and district level energy solutions that allow benefits to be shared among users may be the most effective. Site features that support energy efficient transportation choices, such as bicycle and pedestrian paths, bike racks, and well-designed transit stops are also important.

In terms of adaptation, site design should consider trees that could provide shade and relief from increasingly warmer temperatures. Providing more green spaces and green roofs can also be a useful strategy for reducing the urban heat island effect.

Natural Resources

Natural resource management can play a role in the conservation and enhancement of undeveloped land and its capacity to remove and store greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Forests, farmland, and natural areas are all involved in the overall GHG footprint. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. emissions would be approximately 15 percent higher if it were not for sequestration by forests and grasslands. Additionally, soil management and alternative approaches to livestock feed can greatly reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

Adaptation strategies for natural resource management should focus on two key areas: conservation of ecological areas and corridors to facilitate the ability of wildlife to migrate and ecosystems to adapt to changing climate regimes; and conservation, restoration, and potential expansion of floodplains and other natural features that will help buffer impacts of climate change.

Strategic Points of Intervention

Climate action plans are en vogue these days, but planners should be cautious of viewing them as silver bullets. While climate action plans — which may include baseline information on GHG emissions, targets for reducing these emissions, and strategies for achieving GHG reduction goals — can be useful tools for communities, these plans alone may not be enough to fully address energy and climate issues. As Stephen Wheeler points out in "State and Municipal Climate Change Plans: The First Generation" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Autumn 2008), many of these early plans lack adequate strategies and measures, few address adaptation, and implementation is problematic. These plans also vary greatly in content, with many focusing on municipal strategies such as greening vehicle fleets and public buildings, without addressing important areas in land use and transportation where planners can help make a difference. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that some of these plans are being prepared outside of the planning department, sometimes with little input from planners. When possible, planners should take a leading role in the preparation of these documents to ensure a more comprehensive approach.

Even in communities with good climate action plans, planners should consider the range of planning tools and techniques — as well as points in the planning process — to address energy and climate concerns. Additionally, comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances may need to be updated to ensure consistency with the goals of the climate action plan. Examples may include updating the land use map to allow for compact development to help in reducing vehicle miles traveled, or updating the zoning ordinance to allow small wind turbines. The following planning activities or strategic points of intervention will help planners focus their efforts to address energy and climate issues at the local level.

Long-range community visioning and goal setting. Planners often conduct visioning exercises that produce long-term goals and objectives that guide the future of communities. This is often a first chance to identify new opportunities and priorities. Planners may include exercises to gauge the level of awareness and importance of energy and climate change to community members, consider how energy and climate issues can be addressed in the community, and determine how connected it is to other community goals and values.

Plan making. Planning departments prepare plans of all kinds that recommend actions involving infrastructure and facilities, land-use patterns, open space, transportation options, housing choice and affordability, and much more. Examining comprehensive plans and other planning documents to see if energy and climate change issues are addressed and integrated is an important step. Planners should consider including an energy and climate change element in the comprehensive plan, or integrating these issues within other elements. Marin County, California, for example has incorporated measures to address climate change in their recently updated countywide plan, which focuses on sustainability. Climate action plans also fall into this category of plan making. For these, planners should consider whether the GHG reduction targets established in the plan can be achieved with the strategies proposed.

Standards, policies, and incentives. Planners write and amend standards, policy, and incentives that have an important influence on what, where, and how things get built, and what, where, and how land and buildings get preserved. When updating regulations, planners should consider how zoning codes, building codes, and other ordinances address energy issues and how these could work to encourage compact development, transit-oriented development, and green building. Planners should also examine codes to make sure they do not prohibit clean energy generation, such as through solar panels or wind turbines. These structures are sometimes restricted or prohibited because of height or aesthetic reasons. Additionally, providing incentives such as expedited plan review, rebates, and other financial incentives can help encourage developers to make new development more energy efficient.

Project development work. Planners may serve as leading team members on public-private partnerships, and in such capacity, have an important role to play in creating developments that are energy-efficient and reduce GHG emissions. In reviewing private development projects, planners also have an opportunity to look at project plans and consider ways they may be designed to be more energy-efficient. Planners may consider creating a checklist of energy and climate change goals for new projects and offering an expedited site plan review and permit processing track for projects that exceed those goals.

Public investment. Towns, cities, and counties undertake major investments in infrastructure and community facilities. It is important for planners to be involved in the decisions for these public investments, as they can substantially affect the design and location of transit, streets, sidewalks, bikeways, schools, sewer and water facilities, and other public infrastructure and facilities. Planners can take an active role in their city's capital improvement program to make sure that public investments made in the community — including infrastructure, public buildings, and facilities—promote energy efficiency and reduce GHG emissions. Additionally, it is often important for cities to lead by example, showing that energy and GHG reduction goals can be met in public projects such as through energy efficient retrofits in public buildings, in order for private development to incorporate these goals in their own projects.

Public outreach and education. Planners often lead community outreach and educational programs, often as part of community visioning or plan making processes. Whether a part of these processes or separate, planners should consider ways to engage the public in discussing energy and climate change and provide educational forums for citizens to learn how to make changes in their own lives to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

State-Level Climate Plans and Policies

by Meghan Condon

Forty-two of the 50 U.S. states have taken some action to address climate change through legislation, climate action plans, or regional initiatives. More than 30 U.S. states have developed or are in the process of developing state climate action plans. More than 500 local governments have joined the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, which requires members to develop a plan. States without plans have taken climate change-related action by adopting renewable portfolio standards, green building policies, and various incentives for energy efficiency.

Many state plans have followed a similar model of reducing emissions by using a sector-based approach that addresses energy supply infrastructure; agriculture, forestry, and waste management; residential, commercial, and industrial energy use; and transportation. Reductions are typically achieved through sector-related regulations, incentives, and policies. The relative aggressiveness of these actions has varied from state to state. California is on the forefront of policy action on climate change, with targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. California is particularly notable for its efforts to address the role of development patterns in energy use and climate change impacts. In 2008, the California legislature passed and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law S.B. 375, the first state legislation to address the important connection between energy savings and smarter land use decisions.

Despite progress on the state level, many early climate action plans and policies have overlooked key areas of potential energy savings and emission reductions. Most state plans also omit any discussion of adaptation measures or the unavoidable damages that climate change may bring to ecosystem vulnerability, strained access to resources, impacts on human health, natural disasters, and air quality impacts. In light of the urgency of the issue, a climate action plan should address the full range of energy issues, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate adaptation strategies.

State and local government have been and will continue to be the test labs for policies and best practices that will shape the national climate change agenda in the coming year. States and regions are important players in the transition to a new energy economy and the potential benefits that addressing climate change can bring. According to a recent analysis conducted by the Center for Climate Strategies, implementing a national climate plan involving all states could result in a cumulative savings of over $535 billion from 2009 to 2020.  If the incoming presidential administration and Congress move toward creating a national climate action plan, it will be important to look back at the lessons learned on the state level.

Meghan Condon is a fellow with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

Federal Outlook for Energy and Climate Policy

By Jason Jordan

Federal energy and environmental policies appear set for significant changes in 2009. Leaders in the new administration and on Capitol Hill are poised to act on an array of energy and environmental issues. President-Elect Obama has given strong indications that climate change will be a major part of his early agenda and work on an economic stimulus bill that leaders hope will also promote a "green recovery" will be among the first actions of the 111th Congress. In addition, the chairmen of several key congressional committees have signaled their intention to work on major energy and climate bills.

Early senior appointments point to climate change as central to the Obama administration's plans. Obama has established a new White House office to coordinate action on energy and climate change. The presence of a senior advisor on climate in the West Wing gives a major boost to the prominence of the issue and desire of the White House to be heavily engaged in shaping legislation. It marks the first time a White House position will be dedicated to climate and energy policy. Former Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Browner will fill the White House position.

The choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency is Lisa Jackson, who formerly ran the New Jersey environment agency and served as chief of staff to Gov. Jon Corzine. Jackson is credited with pushing Corzine to adopt an aggressive state goal on climate change. The state is committed to reducing emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

For the Energy Department, Obama has selected a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who has been an outspoken champion of advancing new technologies to help combat global warming, reduce energy consumption, and promote energy efficiency. Steven Chu is likely to make the Energy Department a more prominent player in discussions of energy and climate policy.

A key change in congressional leadership has also given a boost to the prospects of major climate change legislation. The House Democratic caucus voted to give the chairmanship of the powerful House Commerce Committee to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), stripping long-time chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) of the gavel. Waxman is widely considered more aggressive on energy and climate issues than Dingell. The Commerce Committee has primary jurisdiction in the House on climate change and many energy-related issues. Waxman has promised to move quickly on cap and trade legislation and to take up a new energy bill focused on renewables.

The call for a new major energy bill has also been sounded by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who unsuccessfully championed energy policies to set a national standard for the use of renewable sources of energy by utilities and changes in the tax code to support renewable energy in the last Congress. Those ideas are likely to resurface in legislation in the new Congress.

Most observers expect Congress to move forward with a comprehensive cap and trade bill. The idea was endorsed by Obama during the campaign. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has stated that she will move a revised measure through her committee early in the new Congress. It is not yet clear how many changes will be made to the version that failed to pass during the last Congress. Many in the Obama transition team and on Capitol Hill have suggested setting more aggressive emission reduction targets and looking anew at the allocation of auction revenues. APA has supported cap and trade legislation that provides support for local climate and energy mitigation and adaption initiatives.

Among the other energy actions likely in the new Congress will be the reintroduction of the Green Act by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.). This legislation would require new energy and location efficiency standards for government housing and development programs and create new energy and location mortgage programs. Green building issues received some attention in the last Congress and are likely to see even more momentum this year. Proposals for new green building tax provisions and requirements for federal facilities are likely.

The federal surface transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, will expire on September 30, 2009, and the debate on authorization of a new bill is already under way. Many anticipate that the legislation will contain new provisions related to climate change and energy efficiency. Some in Congress are already suggesting linkages on climate and transportation, including providing funding for reducing vehicle miles traveled and requirements for new planning related to carbon emissions.

One of the early tests of how energy issues will fare next year will come in the debate over the shape of an economic stimulus package. President-Elect Obama has called for the recovery package to focus heavily on making "green" investments a component of investment in the public works, infrastructure, schools, and federal building projects funded in the bill. The recovery package may ultimately feature a series of bills that include project funding, tax code changes, and new policy requirements.

APA monitors developments on Capitol Hill regarding planning issues, including energy and climate change bills. Questions on federal legislation and APA's policies can be sent to

Jason Jordan is APA's director of Policy and Government Affairs.


Planners have an important role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change and adapting to its unavoidable consequences. Taking action in these areas will not only help mitigate the climate change problem, but through various strategies could also help reduce our reliance on non-renewable energy sources, help communities better meet their energy needs, and improve environmental quality. There are many opportunities for planners to start integrating energy and climate issues in planning across issue areas and in different points in the planning process. This Memo provides the framework for planners to begin rethinking how they can address energy and climate.

More information on this will be available in a forthcoming PAS Report due to be published in Fall 2009. Both this Memo and the report are part of a larger multi-year research project being conducted by APA and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) on integrating energy and climate change issues into planning.

About the Authors

Jan Mueller is a Senior Policy Associate with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and is leading EESI's portion of this joint research project. Suzanne Rynne, AICP, is the Manager of the Green Communities Research Center at the American Planning Association (APA) and is leading APA's work on this project.

References and Resources

American Solar Energy Society:

American Wind Energy Association:

APA/EESI Project Webpage:

APA's Policy Guide on Energy:

APA's Policy Guide on Planning and Climate Change:

American Public Transportation Association:

Brookings Institution — Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America:

Burlington, Vermont Electric Department:

California Energy Commission:

Center for Climate Strategies:

Energy Information Administration:

Environmental and Energy Study Institute:

Ewing, R., et al. 2008. Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. Urban Land Institute.

Fargione, J., et al. 2008. "Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt" Science, February.

Hansen, J., et al. 2008. "Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?" The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, Volume 2.

ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Marin County, California Countywide Plan:

National Center for Atmospheric Research:

National Trust for Historic Preservation — Building Reuse: Finding a Place on American Climate Policy Agendas:

Oregon Department of Energy:

PAS QuickNotes — Climate Change and Energy:

Pew Center on Global Climate Change:

Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts Clean Energy Plan:

Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change:

Town of Warrenton, Virginia:

U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — Clean Energy:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — Greenhouse Gas Emissions:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — State Greenhouse Gas Inventories:

Wheeler, S. 2008. "State and Municipal Climate Change Plans: The First Generation." Journal of the American Planning Association, Autumn.