Do Local Climate Strategies Work?

A paper by Adam Millard-Ball entitled Do City Climate Plans Reduce Emissions? has started a debate between two noted environmental thinkers in Seattle:  Climate Solution’s K.C. Golden and Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center.

Dr. Millard-Ball has a doctorate from Stanford and is an Assistant Professor at the McGill School of the Environment at McGill University.  In his 2011 paper, he notes that “more than 600 local governments in the U.S. are developing climate action plans that lay out specific measures to reduce emissions from municipal operations and the wider community.  To date, however, it is unclear whether these plans are being implemented or have any causal effects on emissions.”

Millard-Ball finds, based on research of climate action plans in California, that cities with climate plans have had success in implementing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  He finds “little evidence, however, that climate plans play any causal role in this success.  Rather, citizens’ environmental preferences appear to be a more important driver of both the adoption of climate plans and the pursuit of specific emission reduction measures.  Thus, climate plans are largely codifying outcomes that would have been achieved in any case.”

In other words, jurisdictions that have governmental climate plans have had success in reducing greenhouse gases.  Dr. Millard-Ball’s research, however, cannot confirm that the plans have been the cause of that success.  It is possible that other factors may be at work, such as independent market forces.  (For example, office tenants may be willing to pay higher rents in a green building–leading developers to build more LEED-certified buildings–regardless of the existence of a local climate action plan.)

K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions is not impressed by such findings.  He wrote in Local Emission Reduction Targets Are Successful. So Why Trash Local Climate Action Plans? on March 12, 2012:  “Is there something newsworthy in the fact that the plans themselves do not cause the emission reductions?  Of course it’s the actual activities, not the plans, that reduce the emissions.”  It is difficult to imagine, he says, “that they would have adopted climate action plans if that were not true.”  He concludes that “There’s no shortage of real villains in the climate story.  Local officials who developed climate plans in communities that are successfully implementing solutions are not among them.”

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center thinks that Golden has missed the point.  In his March 27, 2012 commentary entitled Climate Plans Haven’t Paid Off. So Why Are Greens Claiming “Success”?, Myers argues that the record in the Northwest is “particularly bad.”  Washington ranks 44th, he says, in cutting carbon emissions.  “Seattle’s record is similarly dismal.”  Myers writes that “most of Seattle’s emission reductions occurred in the 1990s when people… switched from expensive oil heat to inexpensive natural gas.  The trend had nothing to do with climate plans.”

The truth is that Millard-Ball’s findings are hardly earth shattering.  The paper finds no causal link between climate plans and results.  His paper suggests that “climate plans may largely be codifying outcomes that would have been achieved in any case.”

The paper does not argue that climate action plans are either effective or ineffective.  It doesn’t argue that climate plans don’t affect greenhouse gas emissions.  It doesn’t suggest that climate plans are counter-productive, it doesn’t say they are bad, and it doesn’t say the people that have devised them or are implementing them are ‘villains.’  It does confirm that jurisdictions that have climate action plans have been effective in reducing greenhouse gases.  It says that it is not clear that the plans are instrumental in these results.

That, of course, is quite interesting and suggests the need for additional research, particularly on specific climate action policies.  We should want to understand the effectiveness of environmental policies.

Both Golden and Myers agree that carbon reduction is good public policy.  Reasonable people that care about the environment and effective public policy should raise questions about how effective government policies are in achieving their goals.  It is reasonable to evaluate the effectiveness of climate programs.  And it is most reasonable to abandon or alter policies that fail to achieve their objectives.

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