Just one of the myriad ways the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has disrupted our world is its impacts on local climate action planning. The pandemic is changing emission patterns and shutting down in-person gatherings, making long-term sustainability planning and effective community engagement much more difficult. As Rincon continues to develop climate solutions with jurisdictions, special districts, and private clients across the state, addressing these challenges is now squarely within the purview of our work.
A bit of background: in California, jurisdictions have one major mechanism for addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – Climate Action Plans (CAP). The California Air Resources Board (CARB), through California’s 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan, encourages local governments to adopt GHG reduction targets for their communities that are in line with long-term state goals: 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Executive Order B-55-18 also calls for carbon neutrality by 2045. Developing a defensible CAP therefore involves conducting a full emissions inventory, based on historical data, and a detailed emissions projection to 2045, which assumes that communities will continue to use energy, water, landfills, and their cars the same ways they have in the past and that the state will continue to reduce emissions in a predictable way.
That assumption is on shaky ground, making it difficult to project emissions for the future and develop defensible strategies for reduction. The onset of the pandemic saw a decrease in overall vehicle miles travelled (VMT) – VMT fell by nearly 80% in April from January 2020 in Southern California. In particular, the pandemic has caused commuter travel to decrease, potentially for many years to come, as most businesses that are able have shifted to work-from-home policies. At the same time, public transit and ridesharing trips have plummeted and been replaced by single-passenger vehicle trips as people avoid public spaces. Given the uncertainties around re-opening and how these changes will affect long-term transportation patterns in California, current models used for projecting transportation emissions, including CARB’s EMission FACtor (EMFAC) model, may not be as reliable. Without good predictions about how community members will be using the roadways and public transit in the future, cities and counties are challenged to develop long-term policies that aid in reducing emissions from these sources.
Local climate action planning faces similar challenges in the waste sector, as single-use plastics increase in the waste stream due to COVID-19; in the energy sector, as energy demands for at-home climate control change with more people working from home; and in the land use sector, with questions around empty office and retail spaces and whether the land they occupy may need to be rezoned. Yet another question exists regarding the financial fallout from the pandemic in California – what kind of funding mechanisms for green energy, rebate programs, and waste reduction programs be available five years from now?
This is only one part of the puzzle. Yet another challenge local governments currently face with climate action planning is how to conduct effective and equitable outreach and engagement. At Rincon, we believe public and private stakeholder buy-in is essential for an effective and implementable CAP, or any planning document. This entails engaging with community groups, multiple city or county departments, and private organizations prior to and during the CAP development process. Before the pandemic, it was essential to conduct at least some of this work in-person, in spaces where people could safely voice their opinions and concerns, for effective trust-building and buy-in. Now that in-person gatherings are not possible, local governments are faced with the task of conducting these oftentimes delicate discussions online. Virtual outreach and engagement entails a host of challenges, including equity concerns around internet access, technical issues with online platforms, preserving sensitivity around individuals’ opinions, producing interesting and interactive content, and building trust through the computer.
In light of these challenges and with our strong focus on defensible and implementable CAPs, the Rincon Team is working with our clients to develop detailed emission tracking programs, diversified funding strategies, and regularly updated emission inventories. These tactics allow local governments to develop climate action reduction strategies now that will be adaptive and responsive to changing emission patterns in the future, ensuring resilient and defensible emission reduction goals. In support of this, Rincon has developed a custom tool called CAPDash, which helps our clients monitor their progress annually or sub-annually as they implement their CAPs within the context of the pandemic.
We have also developed successful techniques for revamping virtual outreach to address the concerns around community engagement. Rincon’s outreach and engagement strategy now involves developing interactive surveys and videos, identifying appealing and easy-to-use platforms for public comments, hosting virtual town halls, and conducting comprehensive inventories of key community stakeholders and partners for proactive engagement. Perhaps most notably, Rincon is creating toolkits for local governments to engage with frontline communities or oppositional groups on potentially divisive emission reduction strategies such as building electrification. Rincon has seen great success with these strategies. We’ve even found that virtual opportunities to engage, when done right, result in greater and more diverse attendance.
Challenges aside, the societal changes catapulted by COVID-19 also presents opportunities for the next generation of local climate action. If nothing else, the state’s response to the pandemic has been a demonstration of how much transformation cities and counties are capable of in response to crisis. While COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the severe disparities within our country and exacerbated the existing pressures of systemic racism and climate change on our communities, this is also a moment of opportunity for local governments to rethink how to integrate systems that reduce emissions and empower communities. A good CAP has many co-benefits, including increased community resilience and equity, health benefits, and job opportunities. The Rincon Team understands that addressing the pandemic’s challenges can make climate action plans better.