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Planning for Climate Change By Rebecca Carter

Land use planners have long had a hand in shaping the communities of the western United States—particularly in recent decades, as the region’s population has exploded, the economy has changed, and limited resources, such as water, energy, and open space have had to be shared among more residents. Now a new challenge, global climate change, is adding another dimension to the role of land use planners in determining the future.

The need for rapid implementation of effective land use-related climate action policies is particularly urgent in the western United States, where projected population growth means continued rapid development of housing, commercial, and service buildings; and transportation, water, and energy systems. Land-use planners in this region have a unique opportunity to determine the region’s future in a changing climate.

Land use-related climate change policies have the potential to be among the most cost-effective and efficient ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if the land-use planning-related policies contained in Western state climate action plans were fully implemented, it could reduce current total greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 20 percent and result in cost savings for many communities.

Land Use-Related Climate Change Policies
The phrase “land use-related climate change policies” is a bit cumbersome, but it accurately describes a specific set of policies primarily intended to mitigate further climate change (although many of these measures have adaptation value as well). Implementation of these policies is within the purview of land-use planners and other local decision makers. In fact, although state climate action plans include many such policies, they cannot be effectively implemented without the support and initiative of local city and county governments.

These policies include:

  • Green/energy-efficient buildings—municipal, industrial, commercial, residential.
  • Reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) through smart growth principles, such as walkable communities, and mixed  use, high-density development.
  • Increases in mass transit.
  • Transit-oriented development.
  • Alternative energy—distributed generation and combined heat and power within urban areas.
  • Open space conservation.
  • Urban forestry.
  • Wild land-urban interface fire management.

Analysis of Western State Climate Action Plans
Despite the lack of federal action to curb climate change, western states are leading the way in enacting policies to accomplish this goal. When this research was conducted in Fall 2007, eight of the 11 western states had produced climate action plans. Five of these plans had sufficiently quantified both the potential emissions reduction effectiveness, and the cost-effectiveness of various policies such that they could be analyzed. Each of the state plans we analyzed was created using a similar methodology with the assistance of the Center for Climate Strategies (CCS), a non-profit organization. This implies a degree of consistency between state plans and provides a basis for comparison of the greenhouse gas reduction potential and cost-effectiveness of different policies.

By providing comparisons of various land use-related strategies, this analysis paves the way for communities to select a locally-appropriate mix of policies and create an effective implementation plan. Of course, since this is an analysis of state-level policies, the results will apply to different degrees at the local scale, depending on local circumstances. Perhaps more important than the exact figures, therefore, is the insight they provide for comparison and prioritization among policies.

The five state climate action plans were analyzed to separate out land use-related policies, compare each policy’s carbon reduction potential and cost-effectiveness, and calculate the proportion of total greenhouse gas emissions goals that could be achieved if such policies were fully implemented.

Twenty Percent of Reduction Goals Achievable
Table 1 shows the total number of policies included in each plan, as well as the potential greenhouse gas emissions reduction that could be achieved if all polices were fully implemented. It also shows how many of the policies were considered to be land use planning-related, how much emissions could be reduced if they were fully implemented, and what percentage of each state’s total greenhouse gas reduction goal could be achieved.

The percentage of greenhouse gas reductions that could be achieved is near 20 percent for Arizona, California, and New Mexico, and near 25 percent for Washington. The percentage for Montana is considerably lower, at approximately 10 percent, because a larger proportion of this state’s emission reductions could be achieved through policies related to agriculture and coal consumption than is true for other states. While land use-related policies alone are not the “silver bullet” many are searching for to solve the climate crisis, they are an important component of the “silver buckshot” of solutions that is required to confront the issue.

Some Policies More Effective
Although climate action policies for each state vary somewhat in their specifications, we were able to calculate average effectiveness of the primary types of land use-related policies described in the five plans analyzed, both in terms of the percentage of the state’s total desired greenhouse gas emissions reductions each policy could account for, and for cost effectiveness.

Figure 1 shows that green building and other building energy efficiency policies are expected to be the most effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about six percent of total emissions reductions needed.

Figure 2 illustrates that such policies would also be among the most cost effective, providing savings of nearly $20 for every metric ton of CO2 avoided.

Improved transportation and land-use policies, most related to smart growth, would also be among the most effective land use-related polices to implement and would result in a slight cost savings.

Support for combined heat and power, which involves the development and dissemination of more efficient building power systems, would be an effective policy in terms of emissions reduction potential and cost savings. On the other hand, policies to preserve open space and agricultural land from development would be less effective and more costly, although they would provide other benefits, such as open space protection and species habitat.


The range of policies included in state-level climate action plans highlight the vital role that land- use planners have to play in determining how effectively the West can control its greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changing climate. These policies can therefore be more fully implemented—and sooner—if local land-use planners and other decision makers play an active role.

Despite political, educational, and fiscal challenges, local climate action planners and other local decision makers can use the information in the state climate action plans to better understand which policies make the most sense in their specific context. Based on this knowledge, they can adopt policies that are the most cost-effective, have the greatest potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide additional benefits, and promote adaptation.

Increasing the ability of land-use planners to act on climate change immediately is crucial, especially in the Intermountain West, a rapidly changing region that has not embraced voluntary measures to the same degree as other regions in the United States. The form that the current explosive growth and development in the West takes, be it sprawling or compact, will largely determine the region’s future ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. Land-use planners have a key role to play in determining the future of the West in a changing climate.

Arizona Climate Advisory Group. August 2006. Arizona Climate Action Plan. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
California Climate Action Team. March 2006. California Climate Action Team Report. California Environmental Protection Agency.
California Climate Action Team. 2007. Updated Macroeconomic Analysis of Climate Strategies Presented in the March 2006 Climate Action Team Report. California Environmental Protection Agency.
Governor’s Climate Change Advisory Committee. November 2007. Montana Climate Change Action Plan. Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
New Mexico Climate Change Advisory Group. December 2006. Final Report. New Mexico Environment Department.
Washington Climate Advisory Team Technical Working Group (Agriculture; Energy Supply; Forestry; Residential, Commercial, and Industrial; and Transportation). December 2007. Final Draft Priority Documents. State of Washington Department of Ecology.

Rebecca Carter is the former climate change analyst for the Sonoran Institute-Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Joint Venture for whom she wrote this report. This article is based on a longer version published by

Climate Change: Catalyst or Catastrophe? | Vol. 16, No. 2 | Fall 2009 | Credits

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