Climate Action Planning 

How to prepare a climate action plan in nine easy steps

by Scott Gruhn

1) Assemble Your Team  

Outreach to Policymakers

There are many ways you might initiate your task, depending on your circumstances and those of your community. If your community has a receptive mayor and assembly, you might start by arranging early meetings to get to know each other and to broach the subjects of climate and energy policy.

Relationships are key in politics.

Honor those you’re talking with; respect them by being punctual, considerate, and clear.

Know what message you want to get across: the size of group you represent, the urgency of climate and your expertise and availability.

Be aware that there are many different reasons various people prioritize climate action. As much as possible, help others see why climate change matters to their already-established values. For example, outdoorsy folks may respond well to discussions of how skiing and fishing is impacted. Hikers, hunters, and public safety officers may respond to wildfire trends. Some progressives may respond to environmental and extinction concerns. Some conservatives may respond well to national security and border security, along with a cost/benefit analysis. People of faith may be persuaded by a call to be stewards, caretakers of creation. As much as possible, know your audience and tailor your message accordingly.

Consider bringing with you a local expert in one of these areas, or become very conversant in the science of these topics beforehand. In Anchorage, when the mayor’s office was ready to begin the process of formulating a Climate Action Plan, the administration began by establishing a steering committee, an advisory committee, business advisers, and several working groups.

Our steering committee was made up of city staff and university faculty. They shaped the framework for the process, determining timetables, setting up the different boards and teams, crafting values for the volunteers to consider during the process, inviting participants to fill those roles, and composing standardized forms to encourage thorough consideration of feasibility and ramifications. They also hosted and guided the various meetings and edited the final plan.

Advisory Committee 

Our advisory committee was a diverse group of people from the community, holding a wide variety of expertise.  Several were from the business community. They reviewed and commented on the draft Climate Action Plan with an eye toward equity and economic prosperity.

We established seven working groups:

  1. Buildings and Energy
  2. Land Use and Transportation
  3. Consumption and Solid Waste
  4. Health and Emergency Preparedness
  5. Food Systems
  6. Urban Forest and Watersheds
  7. Outreach and Education

These are the working groups that came up with our specific action items and broader objectives for each category. By nature or by interest among the members, some of our groups focused more on adaptation (responding wisely to expected changes), while others focused more on mitigation (minimizing anticipated changes by reducing our carbon emissions).

In your efforts, you might choose to combine some of these working groups, remove others, or add new ones. There was some crossover, for example, when one group developed ideas more pertinent to another group.  Generally, such ideas were passed along to the other group for inclusion in the final recommendations. University faculty led these groups, while the bulk of the groups were made up of city staff, state and federal employees, and members of non-profit organizations. It is ideal to have expert and highly-motivated membership of these groups.

2) Review Other Climate Action Plans

Many cities have implemented Climate Action Plans, so you needn’t reinvent the wheel. In fact, it’s most effective if you look at the cities that have most effectively achieved goals similar to yours.  How did they achieve their emissions reductions?

Consider also the political situation (and stability) in your community and in the cities whose Climate Action Plans you are reviewing. Are they similar? If not, what adjustments will you need to make?  


In Anchorage, our climate action plan seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. It was adopted without the force of law behind it, so its success hinges on long-term future efforts.  Because our political leadership oscillates between left and right, it is important that we establish some aspects of the plan that can remain stable while leadership fluctuates.

A few items that could be long-lasting would include: Establishing a Green Bank to provide low interest loans for energy-saving and low-carbon work. Establishing stringent building code standards for energy efficiency. Embedding clear performance based goals and specific timelines into a local ordinance or statute.

Anchorage produced not only a 106-page Climate Action Plan, but also a 12-page Climate Action Strategy.

[Please forgive the mess, we are still editing below…]

Other cities’ Climate Action Plans are included below:

    San Diego  (legally binding)




Also compare the planks of the Climate Action Plans of six leading Democratic presidential candidates from February 2020.

3) Choose Your Goals

Is it your goal to produce a Climate Action Plan that, when approved, will have various planks automatically implemented by that vote of acceptance?  Or is it your goal to produce a Climate Action Plan that is a statement of purpose, listing potential action items to be considered and perhaps brought to the assembly later?  Your answer to that question will determine the format of your Climate Action Plan.
Consider reviewing the Carbon Free City Handbook, which explores this process in great detail.

4) Determine your scope

Will your plan seek to mitigate all energy usage within your community? Just that energy used by your community’s governance? Will it include the airport, industry, or tourism? Will it include electricity, transportation, or building heat?

5) Set goals for mitigation

Perhaps the simplest way to set a goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to define it as “doing our part” to honor the Paris Climate Agreement.  That means reducing our emissions to keep global warming well below 2.0 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial times, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. Consider setting a goal to do your part to limit warming to 1.5, 1.75, or 2.0 degrees C. To help you choose this goal, spend some time scrutinizing the scientific ramifications of various levels of warming. This interactive page brings the conclusions of 70 scientific studies together in one extremely convenient location to compare the implications of various levels of warming:  1.5 degrees C, 2.0 degrees C, and higher.  We strongly encourage you to become familiar with that page.< As you consider which goal to pursue, consider also how quickly your community will be able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve a 1.5-degree goal requires a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (relative to 2010 emissions) by the year 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.  Achieving a 2.0-degree goal requires a 25% reduction by 2030 and net zero by 2070.  This is stated in the UN report “Global Warming of 1.5⁰C,” page 14, “Emission Pathways and System Transitions Consistent with 1.5C Global Warming.”  

6) Gather Your Data 

Determine your current energy usage. Local utilities should have records of how much electricity was generated from which sources.  Try to find similar data for all sectors you’ve included in your scope (see “Choose Your Goals,” earlier). Ideally, obtain a few years of data, since weather and other factors can affect one year’s energy usage. Anchorage had prepared a couple of recent reports.  One, by Deerstone Consulting in May 2017, was entitled, Anchorage Energy Landscape and Opportunities Analysis, and the other, Municipality of Anchorage Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory.

This information was very valuable in giving us a baseline understanding of how much energy was being used by which sources.  Additionally, the US Energy Information Administration provides valuable information about each state’s energy usage.  States also track energy usage, such as Alaska’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory.  If you’re using end-use energy statistics, realize that is less than energy generated.  There are inefficiencies in power plants as well as losses in electrical lines.  Find out the appropriate factors so you’re using the amount of energy generated.

7) Convert energy into tons of carbon dioxide

If your goal is to align your community with the 1.5, 1.75, or 2.0 degree C warming recommendations of the UN, you’ll need to know how much carbon dioxide you’re emitting, so you can evaluate possible reduction pathways.  Once you know how much energy is being consumed by various sources, the US EIA makes it easy to calculate the tonnage of greenhouse gases produced, using these factors.
Note that some sites refer to tons of carbon, while others refer to tons of carbon dioxide.  If you’re planning on reducing emissions based on percentages, it doesn’t matter whether you use tons of carbon or tons of carbon dioxide, as long as you’re consistent.  To convert between the two, there are 44 tons of carbon dioxide per 12 tons of carbon (same US EIA source as above).

In developing Anchorage’s Climate Action Plan, we determined how much each sector contributes to our overall greenhouse gas emissions.

8) Determine a Pathway


To achieve your overall scheduled reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, how quickly will each sector need to respond?  How quickly will electricity need to “go green?”  How quickly will cars need to have improved mileage, and how quickly will electric vehicles need to replace cars?  How soon will building heat need to become electrified?

These kinds of questions help us formulate our pathway for lowering our emissions.
The 2019 Anchorage Climate Action Plan settled on the following two goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions:
  • 40% reduction by 2030, and
  • 80% reduction by 2050.
From there, we reviewed different reductions schedules that would achieve those goals.  Based on estimates of how quickly old cars are removed from the road, how quickly old buildings are torn down, and how quickly Anchorage’s population is increasing, we computed how rapidly each of those sectors must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in order for our overall goals to be achieved.  Now determine specific mechanisms by which you can ensure each of these sectors will stay on track for its goal.    Will you establish a Renewable Portfolio Standard, or a Carbon Tax, perhaps returning a dividend to the public to offset the additional expense?  Will you establish a Building Energy Code?  Will you establish On-Bill Financing, or a Green Bank for low interest loans?
Anchorage’s Climate Action Plan lists over 130 options like these.  We recommend that other communities write their Climate Action Plans in such a way that adoption of the plan establishes key mechanisms into city ordinances.  Anchorage did not do this, so implementation remains an uphill effort.


9) Going Public

When you are well underway or nearly ready, you’ll want to make this public in an orderly way.  Provide people with a sensible way to comment on, and contribute to, the climate action plan.

Make an opportunity for your advisory committee to review and comment on the plan.  Consider each comment thoughtfully and provide a written response. Invite the public to several events where you unveil the draft Climate Action Plan.  Provide opportunities for people to write down their own ideas and visions.  To allow the greatest possible buy-in, consider holding these events at various times and places.
Consider producing a video like Anchorage and UAA each did, to convey both the need and the solution.
When all is ready for the vote, be prepared for debate, which may extend far beyond your own community.  In the case of Anchorage, the Heartland Institute weighed in with a fossil-fuel-funded opinion piece sent to our Assembly three days before the vote.  The Alaska Climate Action Network was prepared and responded immediately, setting the record straight within 24 hours, correcting the disinformation with dozens of scientific papers.

Municipality of Anchorage Climate Action Plan Promo Video

Chancellor Sandeen on UAA’s involvement in the Anchorage Climate Action Plan





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