How to Create a Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan


At a meeting of ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability USA, sustainability officers from cities and communities across the U.S. heard from two communities that created combined climate climate adaptation and mitigation plans, Chula Vista, California and New York City, but had very different experiences with the process. While New York City has an abundance of staff and access to some of the best universities and institutions through its office of long-term planning and sustainability, Chula Vista had to create a detailed plan with “no money or experience.”

Chula Vista’s Nimble Plan

Brendan Reed, Environmental Resource Manager with Chula Vista, said the city, which has a population of 230,000, didn’t have the funds to hire a consultant, but partnered with ICLEI. The city has a diverse population on a varied landscape, and a history of progressive thinking on climate change. Beginning in the 1990’s, the city formed a climate change working group and created a baseline inventory of its CO2 emissions and a CO2 mitigation strategy. Mitigation strategies cover transportation (they have a 100 percent clean fuel bus fleet), energy efficiency / solar retrofits (an appliance rebate program), and green buildings / smart growth (a city-wide green building standard).

To generate a climate change adaptation plan that would leverage the mitigation strategies and also focus on improving the resiliency of the community to climate change, the city formed a working group, researched and used the “best available data,” decided that consensus among the players was critical, and engaged the public in the process. The city held 12 public meetings covering three different planning phases.

The city employed a three step-process. Step one was information gathering. This also included information collected via public forums. Step two was risk analysis / measure evaluation. The group came up with 183 adaptation options. Each vulnerability was assigned a risk level. Criteria for measuring risk included: Does the city have control? Is this fiscally feasible? Does the measure complement migitation measures or duplicate? The final step involved selecting measures. These have been presented to the city’s commission and are now being reviewed.

The working group found that measures that met all criteria and had adaptation and mitigation benefits included cool (or white) roofs and pavings, shade trees, and water reuse approaches that limit greywater waste. The first two will help reduce local air temperatures as well as provide other benefits. “Dealing with the urban heat island effect wasn’t in our original mitigation strategy,” said Reed.

Reed listed a set of “lessons learned,” including engage stakeholders, stress preparedness instead of resiliency, “which is a bit hard to understand” and lowering risks, avoid analysis paralysis, focus on areas where the city can actually have influence, and integrate action plans and programs. “We actually own the development codes so can implement greywater maximization schemes.”

NYC’s Comprehensive Approach

John Dickinson, Senior Policy Advisor with NYC’s government, said the climate change impacts for the largest city in the U.S. run the gamut, and include housing, open space, brownfields, water quality and networks, transportation, energy, and air quality. The city aims for a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions through a variety of strategies, including new green building codes (see earlier post). But the city has also figured out that some their adaptation measures (like creating subway water pumps) actually have a negative impact on mitigation (they increase CO2 emissions).

To come up with a combined climate change adaptation / mitigation plan, New York City’s office of long-term planning and sustainability undertook its own comprehensive IPCC-like process involved more than 30 city, federal and state organizations, foundations, universities, and corporations, all funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. NYC’s Climate Change Adaptation Taskforce calls for a “risk-based” strategy, a review of development standards and codes, an incremental approach to roll-out, and monitoring program.

The city is aiming at a few key threats: heat, precipitation, and sea level rise, and has a set of initiatives that can provide multiple benefits. For instance, the city is planting a million new trees across all five boroughs. Dickinson said 600,000 were already planted, and were largely financed with private funds. The extra trees, which will lower the urban heat island effect, will also reduce asthma rates. In fact, the city is rolling out the trees areas in areas with high asthma rates first. So climate adaptation action has the double benefit of improving public health.

On a practical level, the city financed the development of new FEMA flood maps, which are used to set the insurance rates for flood risks. The FEMA maps were outdated by a few decades so NYC had to finance the new LiDAR maps themselves. This should also help bring private sector funds into climate change adaptation measures.

An Adaptation Measure Worth Financing

Cool (or white roofs) are seen as an increasingly viable and cost-effective adaptation measure, and common feature of comprehensive climate change plans. Amy Dickie with the White Roofs Alliance described how her organization is partnering with the top 100 largest cities to implement its cool roof program (see earlier post on the benefits of low-albedo roofs). Dickie said Lawrence Berkeley National Lab researchers have found that painting roofs white, very light grey, or with an infrared reflective paint can yield a 20 percent energy savings. If all commercial buildings in the U.S. had cool roofs, that would “equal a $1 billion annual savings.” Cities can also improve air quality by around 10 percent. At the global level, a world with cool roofs would take 44 gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, a “major gain.”

New York City will soon have one million square feet of cool roofs. Philadelphia and California have mandated their use in new buildings. The U.S. Department of Energy has also recently released cool roof guidelines. To get cool roofs in more cities, Dickie said her group would target the the top 100 cities, the creation of a national action plan, the revision of local building and paving codes (some 40 percent of urban landscapes are street), and financing.

Image credit: New York City Street Tree Planting / New York Restoration Project

One thought on “How to Create a Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan

  1. R. Gus Drum 09/29/2010 / 9:42 am

    There is a web site: “Center for Climate Strategies” that shows on a national map those states with climate change action plans and those currently working on plans. Clicking on the map takes the viewer to that state’s plan link.

    The USEPA site also lists those states with action plans and has links to each plan…..both good resources if someone is actively working on such a plan.

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