Across the nation, cities are responding to climate change by implementing local policies and initiatives. In particular, municipalities have created climate action plans as a way to assess and plan for the issues that they face, and will face. These plans contain mitigation strategies to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and adaptation strategies to address the negative impacts from climate change (such as increased flooding). Municipalities across the nation have developed their own comprehensive climate action plans, demonstrating their commitment to reducing GHG emissions and to protect their communities from the results of climate change. Municipalities in the Lehigh Valley have made some progress in addressing the issue of climate change. For instance, Bethlehem and Easton have both signed on to the Global Covenant of Mayors imitative. The City of Easton has adopted GHG-reduction targets and created a Climate Vulnerability Assessment, and in 2017 the City of Bethlehem committed to creating a climate action plan. This is a good start, but municipalities need to prioritize and push climate action even further.
We prepared this document to make the process of developing a comprehensive climate action plan easier to understand: we explain potential problems, outline examples of possible actions, and recommend additional resources. All of the presented actions are merely suggestions, but many of them have been developed and successfully implemented by others. To be successful, a comprehensive climate action plan requires extensive research, community input, funding, and a structured timeline; this document, and the research laid out in it, should prove helpful for municipalities. It is a tool to raise awareness, move the conversation forward, and motivate action.
What is Climate Change?
The term “climate change” has been making global headlines recently as both a controversial debate topic and as the culprit for increasingly frequent and devastating natural disasters. It has become a prevailing issue in the global mindset, but what exactly is it? Put simply, climate change is one result of global warming. Greenhouse gases (GHG) trap heat, preventing it from being radiated into space, thereby warming the atmosphere. While this greenhouse effect is essential for life to exist on Earth, GHG levels have been increasing at an unprecedented rate, causing excessive warming. A wide variety of human activities contribute to this exponential increase, including driving, generating electricity, heating, cooling, agriculture, flying, and industry. Some of the most prevalent greenhouse gases are:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2). Primary sources: combustion and rotting organic matter.
- Methane (CH4), with a global warming potential (GWP) about 90 times greater than CO2. Primary sources: leakage from natural gas lines and compressor stations, and fossil fuel combustion.
- Refrigerants, with GWP ranging from about 50–15,000 times that of CO2. Primary sources: leakage and maintenance of refrigeration equipment and cooling systems.
- Nitrous oxides (primarily N2O), with GWP about 300 times greater than CO2. Primary sources; synthetic fertilizers that are widely used in agriculture and landscaping.
The graphs below show atmospheric CO2 concentrations collected from Antarctic ice cores and direct measurements from Mauna Loa Observatory (1958–present). The graphs clearly show that CO2 levels are far higher than they have been in the past 800,000 years, with a steep increase in the last century as fossil fuel use for industry, vehicles, and electricity generation skyrocketed. The increased CO2 levels have caused global surface temperatures to increase, initiating a whole host of other climate threats including more frequent and more extreme weather events, changes in temperatures and precipitation patterns, ocean acidification, sea level rise, and much more. The negative effects of climate change will continue to disrupt the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide, creating more climate change refugees, or people forced to relocate due to changes in the local climate that threatens their livelihoods. Now more than ever, it is essential to make serious efforts to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate Change in the Lehigh Valley
Pennsylvania is subject to major changes in temperature and climate, and to weather patterns such as increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms. Current projections from the Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment Update say that PA will experience an average warming of 3°C (5.4°F) by the middle of the century2, and precipitation is projected to increase by more than 5% 3. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which tracks precipitation and temperature rates across the nation from July 2018 to June 2019, PA has experienced its “record wettest year” and temperatures “much above average” during this time period (See Figures 1 & 2).
It is clear that Pennsylvania is already starting to experience the effects of climate change and will continue to do so. The negative impacts will not occur evenly throughout the state, and the Lehigh Valley is the fastest warming region in Pennsylvania. Lehigh and Northampton counties have seen a 1.1°C (2°F) increase in average temperature from 1989–20175. According to a study published in Nature Communications, in 60 years Allentown’s climate will be similar to that of present day Arkansas: wetter, warmer winters with less snow and more rain, and significantly drier summers, except for extreme weather events. These changes will affect infrastructure, agriculture, public health, and the economy. If the Lehigh Valley carries on with a “business as usual” attitude, we’ll continue to feel ever-more-serious consequences. The local climate, storm patterns, and ultimately the livelihoods of the three-quarters of a million people who call the Lehigh Valley their home will be negatively affected.
Overview of Climate Action Planning
Comprehensive climate action plans outline specific strategies and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the negative effects of climate change. Creating a comprehensive climate action plan is a crucial step a municipality can take to reduce their carbon footprint, maintain accountability, keep them on target, and raise awareness throughout communities.
The Global Covenant of Mayors developed a framework for climate action planning; it first requires a municipality to make a commitment to take action. The municipality then conducts a greenhouse gas inventory based on current practices at the time, to provide a baseline against which to compare future years’ measurements. Building on this, the municipality completes a risk and vulnerability assessment to determine both immediate and future threats due to climate change. After determining their current carbon footprint and the risks, the municipality spells out specific reduction goals or targets. With this work completed, the next step is to draft and formally adopt a climate action plan that includes the baseline measurements, risks and vulnerabilities, and the municipality’s goals — but the bulk of a CAP is dedicated to how they plan to achieve those goals. Municipalities need to outline broad strategies and specific actions that focus both on mitigative and adaptive measures, such as those shown in attachments A and B.
Greenhouse Gas Inventories
To best understand and analyze their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, municipalities need to do regular GHG inventories and to use consistent data so they can compare progress over time. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol classifies sources of GHG emissions into three scopes:
Scope 1 includes direct emissions released within the reporting municipality, including mobile sources owned by or operated within the municipality. This includes combustion of fuel to heat buildings or power a municipality’s fleet, but it also includes things that may be overlooked, such as releases of refrigerants, and use of synthetic fertilizers.
Scope 2 includes indirect emissions from electricity, heat, cooling, and steam purchased and used in the municipality, such as electricity purchased from a utility company. Scopes 1 & 2 are directly related to the actions of the municipality and make up the core reporting.
Scope 3 deals with indirect GHG emissions that are not purchased or emitted by the entity, but have a significant relation to its actions, such as ‘upstream emissions’ from the production or transportation of food and other products that come from outside the municipality.
Although these protocols simplify GHG reporting, some emissions are more difficult to categorize and track. Measuring emissions from vehicles, including planes and trains, is complex as they often travel through several municipalities and can originate from outside the city. As a result, their emissions often go uncalculated. Methane leaks from gas mains and compressor stations are a major factor, and refrigerant leaks from homes and businesses also can be difficult to measure and track.
GHG inventories provide benchmarks that allow municipalities to track emission trends and monitor progress over time. Benchmarking allows comparison to accepted standards and to comparable companies or cities. It can help identify the sectors (such as industry, residential, or transportation) where they have been successful in reducing GHG emissions and those where they need the most improvement. Local governments can encourage benchmarking among businesses or municipalities to promote GHG reduction competition which will lead to public awareness, lower emissions, and greater accountability. In order for these comparisons to be meaningful, however, measurements and calculations must use the same methods each time.
To evaluate changes, consider not only direct emissions but carbon intensity, the amount of GHG generated for a given population, area, or production output. For example, if an energy-efficient company draws business away from less-efficient companies, the growing company’s emissions increase, but total emissions are lower. Suburban areas generally have a much higher carbon intensity than cities, where people generally live closer to shops, jobs, food, and other services. Again, if more people move to a city, the city’s emissions increase but the result is lower total GHG emissions.
Lehigh Valley Climate Action Plan
In addition to the efforts underway in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, collaborating on a Valley-wide plan and pooling resources would benefit the entire region. There are 62 municipalities in the Lehigh Valley, each with varying access to funding, resources, and time needed to create effective climate action plans. Valley-wide planning could streamline the planning process and simplify collection of GHG emissions data. When completing a greenhouse gas inventory, for example, it would be more efficient to ask for Valley-wide data broken down by county and municipality than for each municipality to request their data separately. Additionally, some of the largest emitters, like vehicles on highways, industries, and warehouses, exist in between and across municipalities.
Climate Change Mitigation Strategies
So what actions can municipalities take to actually reduce GHG emissions and get individuals and businesses to reduce their emissions? Climate change is a global problem that may seem nearly impossible to solve through local and individual action. However, when dealing with climate change it is important to have a “Think globally, act locally” mindset. Big global problems can be daunting, but making changes in the local community can have a multitude of effects on the global stage. The good news is that there is a lot that communities can do at the local level to mitigate climate change, and reduce emissions.
We identified five broad sectors for action: Energy, Transportation, Land Use, Community Engagement & Education, and Resource & Waste Management. Within these categories, there are many specific actions that a municipality can take to reduce emissions. It is important to note, however, that these sectors are highly interdependent.
Following are brief descriptions of the five sectors:
Energy – Energy for electricity and heating account for about 25% of global GHG emissions. Municipalities can switch to renewable energy sources, and encourage residents to do the same.
Transportation – This sector accounts for about 14% of global emissions10. Implementing innovative ideas would allow more people to have access to alternative methods of transportation.
Land Use – Land development practices have a substantial impact on GHG emissions. For example, compact, mixed-use development allows residents to travel shorter distances between where they live, work, shop, and carry out other activities. In addition, conventional agriculture emits far more GHG than organic agriculture, which actually sequesters carbon into the soil. (24% of total global GHG emissions are due to agriculture and forestry.) For some municipalities in the Lehigh Valley, agriculture is a vital part of the economy which makes it very important to educate farmers on sustainable solutions and provide incentives to encourage them to convert to organic growing.
Community Engagement & Education – A variety of approaches can help raise public awareness, such as events, integration of sustainability in education, and public involvement in town hall meetings, or surveys.
Resource & Waste Management – It is projected that climate shifts will reduce the availability of resources such as water and food. Preservation and conservation are important for protecting resources for the future. In addition, waste management can help keep waterways, ecosystems, and greenspaces clean and safe.
Co-benefits are the positive benefits associated with or related to the reduction of GHG emissions. The co-benefits associated with mitigation actions affect many different aspects of society. For example, by installing green roofs not only are buildings helping reduce their GHG emissions but also improve air quality, and reduce heat island effect. Below we have created a key that defines and identifies the different co-benefits that relate to specific actions. Although they tend to be additional benefits to actions, they are also important in their own right.
Actions where the municipality, businesses, or individuals can save money immediately or in the future. Some savings can include, but are not limited to, energy savings, labor, and transportation costs.
Actions with the potential to create more jobs. It presents the opportunity for a new market to be developed or for another market to grow in size. It has the potential to create sustainable economic growth. Through job creation, more opportunities are made available to members of the community which can help improve their livelihoods
Actions that mitigate hazards, such as improving relationships and interactions between motorists and pedestrians and bicyclists; this reduces risks of injury and enhances individuals’ feelings of safety as they go about their daily activities—top concerns for many municipalities. Additionally, they help reduce the frequency and severity of future life-threatening disasters associated with climate change.
Actions that increase community engagement and awareness and encourage sustainable action at the community and individual levels. They build a sense of community and create a more trusting and unified place to live and work. These actions may also enhance community culture and character by maintaining and restoring buildings and land of historical significance.
Equity & Accessibility
Actions that can help create a more equitable community where people have fair access to similar opportunities. Implementing these actions can lead to increased awareness and participation among the community as a whole. This can be achieved through education on climate issues and solutions along with increased availability of alternative transportation.
Actions that also produce health benefits. Reducing use of carbon-emitting vehicles encourages individuals to find active modes of transportation such as bicycling, walking, or running. Eating less meat and more organic and plant-based foods has been shown to improve health, while also reducing carbon and methane emissions. Ensuring a healthy, clean environment can have overall health benefits to members of the community. For instance, better air quality and access to cleaner water can decrease health risks, such as asthma.
Actions that reduce pollution and/or work to remediate the effects from pollution. Increased GHG emissions pollute our atmosphere, and excess stormwater runoff pollutes our waterways. Therefore, implementing these actions can have positive side-effects ranging from improved air and water quality to better public health.
Land and Wildlife
Actions that help preserve land and wildlife in addition to mitigating climate change. Some actions can include preservation of ecosystems, restoration efforts, and/or prevention of habitat destruction. Natural vegetation and wildlife play an important role in providing ecosystem services, which are benefits that humans receive from the ecosystems.
Climate Change Adaptation Strategies
In order to address and cope with upcoming changes, municipalities should conduct a vulnerability assessment to identify the events most likely to occur and the areas most likely to be affected in their community. Once vulnerabilities are known, the municipality can design adaptation solutions. Strategies to adapt to the changing are just as important as those designed to mitigate further damage. These are key elements of municipalities’ responsibility to protect and maintain the health, financial stability, and safety of the community.
Specific adaptation strategies will be different for each municipality based on what particular threats that community faces. However, all plans should consider some key overlapping factors when developing their climate action plans. The areas within the municipality that are most vulnerable should have priority in terms of resource allocation and adaptation strategies. For example, low-income residents who are less likely to have adequate cooling systems will be highly vulnerable to extreme heat events, and should be prioritized as the frequency of these events increases. For example, municipalities can take action to prevent flooding of low-lying roads. Adaptation planning should focus both on immediate threats as well as preventative measures for future events. Being proactive, whether that be by raising roads or building sea walls, will enable a municipality to become more resilient and better able to face future disasters or climate changes. See attachment B for a list of some climate change adaptation strategies that municipalities can implement to reduce the effects of climate change.
Climate change is, arguably, the most complex, threatening problem that we face today, and we are running out of time to act. Most everyday actions contribute, at least in part, to greenhouse gas emissions — actions such as driving your car, heating or lighting your home, throwing out your garbage, choosing your food, shopping for clothes, and using technology. Despite the challenges, immediate action is necessary, and collaborations between governments, institutions, industry, individuals, and businesses are making a difference. Cities throughout the country have led by example and their efforts and successes serve as models that other regions such as the Lehigh Valley can follow. While progress has slowed recently in the Valley in terms of climate action, now is the time for that to change.
Municipalities have an opportunity to create climate action plans that will benefit not only local residents, but also play an important role in the larger context. It might be hard to see how one individual or municipality’s efforts to curb the effects of climate change can really make a difference, but smaller actions lead to bigger ones. Individual action can influence peers and beyond, just as one municipality’s actions can influence and drive other towns to take action.
The Lehigh Valley is the third most populous metropolitan area in Pennsylvania. It is in a position to create a plan that not only has a significant impact on GHG reduction, but also inspires other, smaller municipalities to make change as well. A climate action plan is a necessary step that allows each municipality to assess vulnerabilities and develop strategies tailored to their community. At the same time Valley-wide planning will streamline and simplify collection of energy emissions data, laying the groundwork for a Valley-wide climate action plan.
Local leaders need to come together and seriously make climate change a priority. Future generations depend on immediate action.
Global Covenant of Mayors – The Global Covenant of Mayors provides resources for reporting emissions data, setting reduction targets, and creating climate mitigation and adaptation plans. Those who commit to the Global Covenant of Mayors receive a timeline for completing GHG inventory, vulnerability assessment, and climate action plan. www.globalcovenantofmayors.org
Greenhouse Gas Protocol – The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, written by the World Resources Institute, provides tools and standards for measuring and tracking greenhouse gas emissions. ghgprotocol.org
Local Governments for Sustainability – ICLEI, originally founded as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, has a number of resources for local governments working on climate action planning. icleiusa.org
Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] – Among the many resources offered by the EPA, the following may be helpful to climate action planners looking at the co-benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy:
- Quantifying the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: A Guide for State and Local Governments
- Estimating the Health Benefits per Kilowatt-Hour of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments