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Putting the “A” in climate action planning

by Katie Abrams, University of Colorado, Boulder

Have you ever wondered whether Climate Action Plans achieve their mission of reducing greenhouse gas emissions? I researched this question, and climate action planning more broadly, for my graduate capstone as an intern with the Center for Climate Protection.

Climate Action Plans (CAPs) lay out a vision, strategies, and policies for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. They are an increasingly common climate adaptation and mitigation tool for governments and corporations alike.

After conducting expert interviews, extensive literature review, and a meta-analysis of academic studies, I found inconclusive results on the causal connection between CAPs and GHG reductions.

I developed a 50-page report that outlines challenges, best practices, and recommendations for community-level climate action plans. Central to my research was a meta-analysis of over a dozen academic papers on GHG impacts of CAPs, as well as extensive expert interviews.

Katie Abrams

Katie Abrams

My interest in the topic was sparked by the most recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It proclaimed that limiting global warming to 1.5°C “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” If we cross the 2°C threshold, coral reefs are projected to be virtually lost, the Arctic Ocean is projected to be without sea ice at least once per decade, and global sea level is projected to rise about half a meter, endangering the livelihoods and safety of millions of people living in coastal areas.

The IPCC report states that the next few years will set the course for decades to come. We cannot afford to simply plan. We must act, and act swiftly. Climate Action Planning must put equal emphasis on action and planning.

After conducting expert interviews, extensive literature review, and a meta-analysis of academic studies, I found inconclusive results on the causal connection between CAPs and GHG reductions. However, these same data points also revealed important best practices that can be leveraged to help local governments achieve emissions reductions at the speed and scale required to avert catastrophic climate change impacts.

My findings can be summarized into a series of common challenges and best practices.

Common challenges include:

  • Lack of a standardized CAP template
  • Lack of political, financial, and governance support
  • Greater focus on “plan” than “action”
  • Challenge striking a balance between realistic yet ambitious targets
  • Inconsistent use of tools to align action with potential

From my interviews with experts and literature review emerged best practices and my leading recommendations for optimizing CAPs to ensure they lead to GHG reductions:

  • The CAP process must be iterative.
  • CAPs need to include certain well-defined content to ensure success.
  • Certain tools must be used to overcome challenges in scoping, options analysis, and evaluation.
  • Governance strategy is a key determinant of success.

In conclusion, although results on the causal connection between CAPs and GHG are mixed, we cannot afford to wait to act. Local governments, along with corporate, state, federal, and international bodies must take action today to chart the course to a more sustainable tomorrow.


Find Katie’s graduate capstone report here.

We hope that local government and sustainability staff can glean insights from her report to support their GHG reduction efforts.

Thank you to all who shared their insights with Katie.

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