Connecting state and local government leaders
Robust climate action plans are also helping governments mitigate the financial and human costs of natural disasters.
So far in 2023, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has confirmed 12 climate-related disasters, including tornados, hailstorms, flooding and severe weather. Each event is estimated to cost the U.S. more than $1 billion in infrastructure damages, and the total is likely to grow as climate-related events are expected to increase in frequency and severity.
To mitigate the financial and human costs of natural disasters, state and local governments are developing strategies and programs that encourage sustainable practices such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate action plans, one official says, can also set agencies up as ideal candidates for federal funding opportunities that support eco-friendly initiatives.
Like most states, Washington is pushing for a sustainable future as it faces the consequences of climate change. The Evergreen State is exploring how to financially motivate some of the state’s biggest greenhouse gas producers to shrink their carbon emissions, said Claire Boyte-White, a policy relations lead at the state’s Department of Ecology, during the “Funding Climate Action Planning” webinar hosted July 18 by GovExec and KPMG.
Encouraging clean energy efforts “is not only economically beneficial in the long term, but it’s critical if we want to keep living on this planet,” she said. “The cost of inaction is too high.”
Climate Action Plans in Motion
Washington intends to reduce emissions by 95% and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Emissions reduction commitments like that “are not targets or goals,” Boyte-White said. “They are set in state law, which means we’re going to do it.”
The state jumpstarted buy-in for climate-conscious targets with incentives for the private sector. In January, for example, the Department of Ecology debuted a cap-and-invest program meant to curb statewide greenhouse gas emissions.
Established by the state’s Climate Commitment Act in 2021, the cap-and-invest program sets a limit on the amount of allowable greenhouse gas emissions. That cap will get lower each year to ensure the state can meet its reduction commitments. Allowances for emissions are auctioned off, with the prices increasing annually. Businesses and organizations that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon annually must buy one allowance for every ton of emissions they produce.
A facility can reduce its financial obligation by lowering its greenhouse gas emissions and earning credits it can sell or trade to other organizations that have excessive emissions.
The Department of Ecology uses an online platform to conduct virtual carbon auctions where participants submit bids for emissions allowances. The platform also serves as a trading market where participants can buy and sell allowances.
The auction system incentivizes organizations “to invest in cleaner technology, cleaner fuels [and] cleaner processes in order to keep their costs down,” Boyte-White said. Noncompliant organizations could be fined $50,000 per violation, per day.
Auction funds go toward carbon reduction strategies and projects that build Washington’s climate resilience, said webinar panelist Luke Martland, the department’s Climate Commitment Act implementation manager.
So far this year, the department administered two auctions, raising more than $857 million, Boyte-White said. The auctions are projected to rake in nearly $1.7 billion in revenue over the next two years.
Washington’s robust emissions requirements, including the goal to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030, is “why our cap-and-invest program is so critical right now,” she added.
One western city is taking a different approach. Salt Lake City is “operating in an environment where the state itself does not have an emissions reduction goal,” said Christopher Thomas, senior energy and climate program manager of the city’s Office of Sustainability.
Indeed, data collected by the environmental policy think tank Center for Climate and Energy Solutions indicates that as of August 2022, Utah lacked a statewide framework for emissions reduction goals. Utah’s inaction spurred seven individuals to sue the state in March 2022 for allegedly violating residents’ right to life by politically and economically supporting the fossil fuel industry.
Thus, climate action plans have been forged at the local level. “Cities and towns and counties in Utah have had to figure out how to step forward and productively work toward resolving the climate crisis,” Thomas said during the webinar.
In 2016, for instance, Salt Lake City’s then-Mayor Jacqueline Biskupski and the former city council signed a joint resolution, which was updated in 2019, to establish the city’s commitment to achieve net-100% renewable electricity by 2030.
One way to do that is with a solar farm, Thomas said. In 2020, Salt Lake City and five other entities, including Park City and Summit County, partnered with utility company Rocky Mountain Power to establish an 80-megawatt solar energy farm in Tooele County.
The Elektron Solar Project will allocate half the energy it produces to powering Salt Lake City’s government operations, Thomas said, such as the local airport and water treatment facilities. Currently, 14% of the electricity consumed by municipal operations comes from renewable sources. With the solar farm, up to 95% of electricity could be powered by renewable resources.
“In the absence of an overarching state framework, we’ve done what we can to try to band together with like-minded electricity customers or communities to try to create new pathways to decarbonize our electricity system,” Thomas said. Project developers broke ground on the solar farm in 2021, and officials anticipate it will go online next year.
Investing in Sustainable Futures
Building climate action plans not only helps governments reach their emissions targets but also primes state and local agencies for federal funding opportunities to supplement those efforts, Thomas said. Earlier this year, for instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants program. The agency will award $250 million to support state and local governments’ climate action planning efforts and another $4.6 billion for plan implementation.
Salt Lake City has already submitted an application. If awarded, the federal funds could help the city get its Community Renewable Energy Program off the ground, Thomas said. The program stems from a 2019 initiative that supports the partnership of Utah communities with Rocky Mountain Power to explore renewable energy solutions.
It seems Utah has started making inroads toward a greener future, too. The state applied for the pollution reduction grant program, Thomas said, and could receive $3 million.
But obtaining funds is easier said than done. State and local officials must first assess their current emissions levels and determine where they’ll be in the future, Gareth Lifton, managing director at KPMG and lead of decarbonization and resilience efforts for state and local governments, said in the online event.
Cities and states often struggle to accurately predict future greenhouse gas emissions, stymying the planning process. Within a single government, “different departments have a different view on what growth looks like,” Lifton said. Policymakers must consider, for example, how incoming changes to the landscape such as building or demolishing buildings can impact emissions.
State and local leaders should build governmentwide consensus on current conditions and future targets by establishing baseline data on emissions assets. “There is no right or wrong answer,” Lifton said, but defining the emissions landscape is one step toward drafting reasonable funding goals and outcomes.
One way to gain stakeholder buy-in and enhance funding efforts is to present a cost-benefit analysis that shows the economic value of investing in climate resilience programs. Salt Lake City’s solar farm project, for example, may increase electricity costs by 2% but is estimated to serve between 80% to 90% of the city’s annual electricity needs, according to Thomas.
State and local governments “need to get out there and talk about how serious this [climate crisis] is, and how the various programs that we’re all working on will make a difference,” Martland said.