To reduce greenhouse gas emissions more effectively, cities should collaborate with surrounding suburban and exurban areas on climate plans, researchers at the Brookings Institution argued in an April blog post.
In September, a Brookings Metro report found that “individual cities do not have the fiscal, technical, or programmatic capacity to single-handedly drive decarbonization across their metropolitan regions, and often, they do not coordinate with other jurisdictions.” For instance, a factory beyond a city’s limits could still pollute the area, even if the municipality reduces emissions.
Joseph Kane, a Brookings fellow who focuses on infrastructure, said in an interview that while cities may have robust climate plans, they “are not operating in a vacuum,” as surrounding suburbs and exurbs often aren’t included in them, even though they contribute significantly to climate change thanks to their sprawling development patterns and car dependency.
A 2014 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that while metropolitan areas’ central cities have lower average carbon footprints per household, such gains are effectively canceled out by higher average household carbon footprints in the suburbs. The researchers concluded suburbs are responsible for about half of the U.S.’s total household carbon footprint.
Yet the Brookings report emphasizes that local governments — including suburbs and exurbs — cannot simply publish a climate plan and call it a day. “The goal shouldn’t be just planning for planning’s sake,” Kane said, as localities need to turn their plans into action that can actually tackle an area’s climate challenges.
One solution, according to Kane, is regional climate planning coordinated by urban, suburban and exurban municipal leaders. He said regional leaders could come together to identify the scale of the climate challenge across a region. Existing regional entities, such as metropolitan planning organizations or councils of governments, can often be starting points for coordinated climate conversations, Kane said. For instance, the San Diego Association of Governments monitors greenhouse gas emissions throughout San Diego County for a clearer picture of emissions across the wider region — not just within one city.
A regional approach may also allow local governments and agencies to share resources, as funding climate solutions can be difficult, Kane said. For example, in March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made millions of federal dollars available for city leaders interested in regional climate planning. The agency said it would award the 67 most populous metropolitan areas $1 million each to develop regional planning grants with key stakeholders in their area.
“If places can demonstrate an ability to not just make plans but to take action, there’s potentially huge federal resources to help them do that,” Kane said. “Now is the time to do that.”