Local government decision-makers are grappling with extreme budgetary impacts and difficult spending decisions in the wake of a year of unprecedented crises. This online brief, produced by the Local Government Commission through the Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative (SEEC) – the predecessor to the California Climate & Energy Collaborative (CCEC), offers insights into how local governments that maintain sustainability staff can more effectively improve financial conditions and build long-term economic, social, and environmental resilience.
With special thanks to Angie Hacker and Sarina Soor for researching and writing this piece for CURRENTS.
This has been a tough year for communities across the nation. As 2020 comes to a close, the U.S. recorded over 19 million cases of COVID-19, and 344,000 deaths. California is in the middle of another stay-at-home order and thousands of businesses are shuttered. In response to the pandemic, election tensions, and outrage over social inequity and racial injustice, civil and political unrest has intensified. Meanwhile, California residents have also endured another year of catastrophic wildfires and power shutoffs, among the other worsening impacts of climate change.
Local governments find themselves at the forefront of managing programs and services to address these concurrent crises and planning for recovery. While needs and costs have grown, critical sources of local government revenue are evaporating such as transient occupancy taxes and sales taxes. As local governments navigate financial distress, they are pushed to address immediate budgetary shortfalls and spending decisions. Some jurisdictions are targeting sustainability spending to reduce costs, viewing work outside of traditional health and safety services as discretionary – from suspending entire departments to downsizing, furloughing, or reallocating staff. However, at its core, sustainability is a health and safety service. Cutting sustainability staff can be shortsighted, hindering recovery and making local governments and the communities they serve less prepared for future crises.
The concurrent crises of 2020 have resulted in lower revenues for local governments and greater needs for spending on critical local public health and safety services. The Local Government Commission presents the following information to fully acknowledge that local decision-makers face extremely challenging budgetary decisions and that sustainability is one of many priorities.
COVID-19 has effectively caused a prolonged pause in many economic sectors and led to great financial uncertainty, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Most cities in the U.S. have reported average expectations of 13% declines in the coming fiscal year’s revenues. Taxes and fees on hotels, tolls, airports, motor fuel and other consumer goods are plummeting as a result of COVID-19 and state and local government revenues across the country are projected to decline by $155 billion in 2020, $167 billion in 2021, and $145 billion in 2022—about 5.5 percent, 5.7 percent, and 4.7 percent, respectively—excluding the declines in fees to hospitals and higher education.
In California, cities are anticipating a $7 billion revenue shortfall over the next two fiscal years due to the impact of the pandemic, including $2.26 billion and $1.37 billion in lost sales tax and hotel tax revenue, respectively. As a result, 90% of California cities are considering layoffs, employee furloughs, or cutting public services.
Wildfires also take a heavy and long-term toll on local fiscal health, especially if abundant reserves and community safety nets are not in place. Local governments may experience greater budgetary shortfalls in the form of lost revenue from property, sales or transient occupancy taxes due to property damage, displacement, and reduced tourism.
The pandemic has led to unanticipated expenses including disinfection of public facilities, purchase of personal protective equipment, new technology for remote operations, greater emergency operation center and training costs, and increased public safety costs. As of May 2020, 12% of California cities report spending over $500k to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the mounting costs of COVID-19 response and recovery, another record-breaking year of catastrophic wildfires will further strain local government budgets. A study by the Wharton School’s Risk Management and Decision Process Center indicates that total expenditures increase by 17.3% in the five years following a fire, including greater spending in three categories: public safety (up 18.5%), community development (up 40%), and transportation (up 17.8%).
Difficult Budgetary Decisions
With a significant lag in local aid, local governments are considering budget cuts, including cuts in staffing. In a recent ICMA survey of local governments, many are seeking to avoid layoffs by first freezing or eliminating vacant positions or by postponing capital improvements and fleet replacements, temporarily closing non-essential public facilities, or restructuring or reducing services like libraries. If cuts appear to be unavoidable, decision-makers should be aware that local government employment represents approximately 13% of total employment in the U.S., and losses could contribute to further economic destabilization and substantially inhibit recovery.
Sustainability tends to be a newer and less institutionalized service area provided by local governments – but one that has and must become a core function of public agencies. As decision-makers consider cuts in the coming budget cycles, it is important to consider the critical roles that sustainability staff play in order to enable local governments to better serve their communities and meet State mandates.
Local Governments on the Front Lines of Fostering Sustainability
Sustainability is a health and safety service vital to long-term community wellbeing. Even in a difficult year, local governments across the country have a key role to play in the sustainable management of their community’s natural, social, and economic systems and resources, often referred to as the “triple bottom line.” As 2020’s crises demonstrate, a strong economy is dependent upon healthy social and environmental factors. In tackling wildfires, the pandemic, and other issues that require place-based solutions like climate and energy resilience, smart growth, and environmental justice, cities, counties, and special districts are often on the front lines and, in some cases, are the only line of defense in the absence of federal leadership and robust social infrastructure. While some hoped the pandemic would have a silver lining in making the economy operate more sustainably, rebounding emission reductions signal that a great deal of work still lies ahead. Managing these complex issues requires qualified and dedicated staff.
Sustainability Efforts Require Qualified Staffing
For the purposes of this paper, sustainability staff are defined as individuals employed by local governments to perform duties related to the planning, development, implementation, and/or monitoring of work related to more sustainably using resources within governmental facilities and the broader community. These professionals may work on topics ranging from clean energy to community planning, alternative transportation strategies, or climate resilience, where multiple disciplines and a longer-term perspective are needed to solve complex problems. Some local governments have established a specific unit of government to manage these efforts, such as a sustainability office or division, while others have embedded sustainability staff within an existing department such as Planning, Building, Community Development, General Services, or Public Works.
Even before the pandemic, many local governments were addressing these problems with very limited resources. In a small, informal survey recently conducted by the Local Government Commission, only 18% of local government respondents indicated that they had “robust” in-house capacity to pursue clean energy and climate change goals. Nearly 50% of respondents indicated that lack of staff time was a significant barrier. Further reductions in staffing could substantially prohibit local sustainability efforts.
Sustainability Staff Enable Local Government to Play Unique Roles
Local governments have unique abilities and authorities that can foster sustainability within their own facilities and across the broader community. Local governments that develop and retain sustainability staff can more effectively assume several critical roles to advance community sustainability.
- Consumer/Owner: As major consumers of water, energy, fuel, and other goods and services, local governments can advance sustainability by making internal changes to the assets they own. Examples include energy efficiency measures on public buildings or using alternative fuel vehicles for their fleet. Section 5.1.1 further details ways in which local governments can reduce consumption and save operating costs. By leading by example, local governments can inspire action in other sectors and also become important partners in cross-sectoral collaborations.
Local Example: Local governments can partner with various stakeholders to achieve a common goal, such as the Humboldt County Airport Solar Microgrid project that was a collaboration between Redwood Coast Energy Authority, Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC) at Humboldt State University, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the County of Humboldt to build an airport solar microgrid.
- Policymaking and Enforcement: Local governments can influence policy at the state and federal level. As federal action lags, local governments have become critical leaders in using their powers to achieve sustainability goals. They have the power to adopt and enforce local plans and regulations such as on land use and buildings. For example, some local governments have adopted ordinances to encourage low-impact development, such as energy reach codes, storm water or floodplain ordinances, or zoning changes.
Community development plans, general plans, and climate action plans also embed important social equity and environmental health priorities by identifying multi-benefit solutions, such as energy efficiency projects that prioritize small-to-medium businesses and low-income households in underserved communities.
In California, there are a multitude of State policies that mandate local compliance. For example, SB-375 requires metropolitan planning organizations to create Sustainable Communities Strategies to demonstrate how the region will reach their defined regional targets for reducing GHG emissions. As the urgency to address climate change continues to mount, the long list of mandates related to climate mitigation and adaptation will also grow.
- Service Provider: By administering voluntary programs, local governments can make sustainability more accessible to residents, business, and other consumers. For example, local governments can provide incentives for development projects that meet triple bottom line goals, such as reduced fees, tax credits, grants, incentives, or loans. Locally or regionally operated energy programs offer a wide range of services to help property owners and building professionals overcome barriers to conducting energy efficiency upgrades. The California Green Business Network is another great example of local governments providing support to local businesses to advance sustainability priorities.
Defunding sustainability staff can limit the ability of local governments to play these roles and to take advantage of a multitude of other benefits and opportunities.
In tough times, most decision-makers prefer to lower operating costs in ways that do not require laying off personnel. Not only do sustainability staff perform critical functions to support community and environmental wellbeing, they can also help tackle immediate fiscal concerns by identifying and pursuing operating savings, new revenue streams and in-kind support.
Lowering Municipal Operating Costs
Energy, Water and Fuel Savings
By reducing the consumption of resources like energy, water, and fuel within municipally-owned facilities and assets, sustainability staff can often lower operating costs at a rate that greatly exceeds the cost of their employment. Qualified staff can be directed to focus on generating the most immediate and substantial savings, thereby offsetting the cost of their employment and potentially creating significant breathing room when it comes time to adopt a budget. By avoiding layoffs, local governments can also avoid other operating costs associated with turnover in human resources.
Local governments consume substantial energy and water in their public facilities. In fact, energy can account for as much as 10 percent of a local government’s annual operating budget. There are ways to lower consumption by educating employees on conservation behaviors to reduce the use of energy and water. More substantial and long-term savings can be realized through the installation of energy and water efficiency measures, which often significantly outweigh upfront installation costs and ongoing maintenance costs (for more guidance on ways to help pay for these types of improvements, see Section 5.1.2).
Local Example: LA’s LED Street Lighting Retrofit Project converted over 140,000 public lights to LEDs. Even after accounting for the cost of repaying the project loan, the project had saved LA more than $7 million annually while also reducing energy usage by 63%. The project also created 11 new positions at the LA Bureau of Street Lighting and about 300 jobs for manufacturers.
Energy efficiency efforts can also help lower the size and cost of backup power systems such as microgrids, storage, smart meters, distributed energy resources (DER), and other clean energy resilience systems, which can also lead to better load management and savings. Keeping critical facilities operational becomes more urgent and necessary with the accelerating dual impacts of COVID-19 and climate change.
Local Example: The Pecan Street Project (PSP) in Austin utilized smart metering for energy and water systems in 1,000 residences and 75 businesses.[iii] A 2015 review confirmed that PSP provided significant energy and water savings, and increased grid resiliency.
Similarly, local governments can lower fuel consumption in their publicly-owned fleets by purchasing electric vehicles and charging infrastructure or reducing vehicle miles traveled.
Human Resource Turnover Savings
While slashing personnel budgets may seem like an easy strategy to generate short-term savings, the eventual recruitment process when funds are re-appropriated can be time- and cost-intensive. The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that it costs about $4,129 to hire a new employee and about 42 days to fill a position. When the economy begins to stabilize and grow, local governments will likely face increased pressure to rapidly build capacity and accelerate implementation efforts to make up for their period of inaction. Local governments may find themselves with a backlog of sustainability initiatives and insufficient time or capital to reorient staff, relaunch programs, and revive partnerships at the pace needed to meet community needs.
Delivering New Revenues
In addition to cutting costs, another way sustainability staff can balance budgets in difficult times is by creating new revenue streams. Not only can they identify creative ways to fund the types of municipal projects described above, they can also offset costs across the organization and even establish new programs and services to meet emerging needs. With the incoming Biden administration, the high likelihood of pandemic recovery and stimulus dollars, and California’s growing commitment to address climate change, the landscape of funding opportunities for sustainability priorities is deep and rapidly evolving. Sustainability staff are uniquely capable of successfully shepherding the complex process of developing the types of revenues described in this section. While it requires internal capacity and resources to pursue these opportunities, they can pay for themselves many times over.
Re-invest Municipal Savings
The previous section described ways that local governments can lower resource consumption and costs. One way sustainability staff can pay for themselves and other sustainability priorities is to track and account for the monetary value of energy, water, and fuel savings and reinvest them to continuously replenish dedicated accounts, which some local governments call a “revolving fund.” Alternatively, rather than calculating actual savings, local governments can make assumptions about the value generated and instead bill departments an additional surcharge on utility expenses. The idea is the same – these savings have value that can be captured and recirculated to help sustainability staff continue lowering operating costs.
Local Example: The Los Angeles County Internal Services Department made a one-time decision to add a small percentage surcharge on departments’ energy bills to pay for staff and consultants tasked with lowering the County’s energy costs. As Howard Choy explains in a recent interview, this financial mechanism helped his sustainability team weather previous economic downturns and does not require annual budget appropriation.
Access Ratepayer Dollars, Grants and Other External Funding
Obtaining dollars from external sources often requires significant time commitment and deep subject-matter expertise. These efforts can pay off immensely, particularly in the sustainability field, where opportunities are growing rapidly. Experienced sustainability professionals can be directed to pursue a wide range of available external funding.
One significant source of funding for local sustainability initiatives in California includes dollars paid by electricity and gas utility consumers (“ratepayers”) through surcharges that were established to fund sustainable energy programs regulated under California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Local governments can access these dollars in many ways, including the following:
- Take advantage of rebates, incentives, or grants offered by an Investor-Owned Utility (IOU), a Regional Energy Network (REN), or a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) to offset the costs of municipal energy improvements.
- Enter a partnership agreement with an IOU, CCA, or REN to help implement local energy efficiency programs (multiple sectors).
- Respond to a solicitation issued by an IOU, CCA, or REN to develop distributed energy resources or implement a program.
- File a proposal directly to the CPUC to become a program administrator. For example, local agencies may file a business plan to establish a REN to administer regional-scale energy efficiency programs across multiple sectors.
A more complex but particularly fruitful way to access electricity-related revenues is to complete all CPUC requirements to establish a CCA program. Local agencies can establish CCAs to procure preferred sources of power on behalf of the electricity accounts within the jurisdiction. CCAs receive revenues from electricity customers which can be used to purchase greener power and/or develop local renewable energy. CCAs also request to administer regional-scale energy efficiency programs.
Similarly, water utility providers often offer rebates or incentives to offset the cost of water efficiency improvements.
Outside of ratepayer dollars, local governments are eligible for various climate and energy related grant opportunities, which may come from surprising sources ranging from public health or emergency agencies to foundations. Under the new Biden administration, future federal economic stimulus appropriations could seek to spur economy recovery while also tackling sustainability and climate change priorities, much like the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under President Obama.
In California, Governor Newsom has made aggressive commitments to accelerate climate action and transportation electrification, which may prompt new funding opportunities on top of high dollar State granting programs like the Climate Change Investment program, funded by billions in cap-and-trade auction revenues. Now is the time to keep experienced sustainability staff on board and focused on tracking and pursuing these opportunities and readying eligible and competitive sustainability projects and programs. These efforts can elicit millions in new revenue to support projects like adding green space, drafting a new plan, or developing a microgrid for critical facilities.
Local Example: In 2014, Los Angeles received a $50,000 Partners for Places grant (along with match funding from the California Community Foundation and The California Endowment) to support equitable transit-oriented projects. The funds went toward the city’s Great Street’s Initiative, which focuses on coordinating city resources, building relationships with communities, and leveraging additional resources to revitalize local communities.
To find various funding opportunities for projects, check out:
- Funding Resource (LGC): https://www.fundingresource.org/
- Empower Innovation (CEC): https://www.empowerinnovation.net/
- CA Grants Portal (CA State Library): https://www.grants.ca.gov/
- Funding Wizard (CARB): https://fundingwizard.arb.ca.gov/web/
Tap into Financing
With budgets stretched thin, the upfront costs of desired capital improvement and other municipal projects may exceed available resources. Sustainability professionals can also investigate and pursue numerous options to projects like those showcased below.
Local example: California City used 0% on-bill financing, from Southern California Edison, to pay for a well pump retrofit. [xii] The improvement resulted in new infrastructure and $16,000 in annual energy savings, paying for itself in just three and a half years.
Local example: The Inland Empire Utilities Agency received $30 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) to support improvement projects related to recycled water, groundwater recharge, energy efficiency, and green infrastructure. [xiv] I-Bank issues bonds for the CWSRF and operates the California Lending for Energy and Environmental Needs (CLEEN) Center and the Infrastructure State Revolving Fund (ISRF) Program.
Local example: In 2014, DC Water issued the first certified green bond to finance the administrative and implementation costs of the city’s Clean River’s project.[xv] Projects funded by municipal green bonds provide numerous environmental and social benefits including improved water quality, climate resiliency through flood mitigation, and increased biodiversity.[xvi]
Local example: Atlanta Georgia leveraged tax-increment financing (or in their case, a tax allocation district) to finance the Atlanta Beltline.[xvii] This mechanism operates on the assumption that the property values of an area will rise as a consequence of development. [xviii] The increase in value from developed properties is considered city revenue and, after the city fulfills obligations investors and bond-holders, can be used to support sustainability staff and projects. This $4.8 billion urban development project provides transportation access in addition to resilient revenue streams for the area and is expected to create 30,000 permanent jobs and 5,600 units of affordable workforce housing, among a number of other community and environmental benefits.
Levy New Taxes
Cities can create or increase taxes to generate new sources of revenue, such as utilizing a parcel tax to fund land conservation initiatives. A parcel tax, unlike a property tax, levies a flat tax on the parcel and does not take into account the size or value of the property. Parcel taxes can provide much-needed revenue for sustainable projects when municipal budgets are restricted; however, special consideration is needed in how parcel taxes are structured as they can be highly regressive.
Local Example: In June 2016, Bay Area voters agreed to a new $12-a-year parcel tax that would bring in $500 million over the next twenty years. This funding will support wetland restoration projects intended to reduce pollution of local waters, expand wildlife habitat, and shield communities from flooding.
Leveraging Partnerships and In-kind Support
In addition to generating new revenue, knowledgeable sustainability staff can leverage non-monetary support provided by public, private, and nonprofit partners to build capacity and reduce the time commitment and investments needed to advance local sustainability goals.
Public-private partnerships provide opportunities for local municipalities to partner with private entities in order to successfully finance infrastructure or community development projects in the sustainability space. These partnerships enable sustainability staff to overcome initial budget hurdles by leveraging private capital to fulfill public commitments and ensure that local resources are resilient to unpredictable financial and physical climates.
Local example: A 2015 multi-sector partnership between the City of Sunnyvale, Apple, Cal-Water, California Department of Water Resources, and Santa Clara Valley Water District culminated in a $17.5 million capital project that financed improvements at the water treatment station for recycled and reclaimed water. This 10-year project ensures that the water supply for Cupertino and surrounding areas will continue to meet the freshwater needs of the community.
Group purchasing supports city and community sustainability projects by leveraging collective purchasing power to reduce upfront administrative and installation costs for new projects. This reduces the burden on sustainability staff to fund and manage projects with limited resources while still contributing to the city’s sustainability goals.
Local Example: A New York start-up LO3 Energy leveraged group purchasing to fund the Brooklyn Microgrid network, which allows individuals to buy and sell renewable energy in a peer-to-peer network. This both increased community resilience to frequent power outages and supports local economic development while reducing the community’s carbon footprint.
In-kind support like subsidized staffing can enhances local capacity by addressing community resilience needs and providing a low-cost way to keep sustainability initiatives moving forward. Programs like CivicSpark, a Governor’s Initiative AmeriCorps Program, have provided over 518,000 hours of services in crucial areas such as climate change, water management, affordable housing, and mobility.
Obtaining free or low-cost technical assistance, trainings, or informational resources from external subject-matter experts is another way to build capacity on a range of sustainability topics while easing the burden on internal staff that may have had time reallocated to other needs. The Statewide Energy Efficiency Best Practices Coordinator provides Technical Assistance as well as a directory of other technical assistance providers, such as SoCalREN’s Energy Efficiency Project Delivery Program, the National League of Cities’ Leadership in Community Resilience Program, the State’s California Climate Investments Technical Assistance Program, and the Tri-County Regional Energy Network (3C-REN)’s Energy Code Connect program.
Finally, there are organizations that can help overburdened local governments participate in policy and regulatory proceedings and track other key updates in the sustainability field. For example, the Local Government Sustainable Energy Coalition (LGSEC) is a statewide membership network representing local government energy and climate interests to state agencies such as CPUC, CEC, and CARB and encourages knowledge sharing and partnerships within its network. The Statewide Energy Efficiency Best Practices Coordinator also curates a wEEkly Update on energy and climate news for subscribers like California local energy professionals.
For additional information, the Institute for Local Government’s Sustainability Best Practices During the Covid-19 Crisis outlines ways in which local governments can address and balance economic development, climate action and equity with the health and safety concerns of their communities.
Avoiding Costs Through Early Action
Multiple crises this year have demonstrated how the lack of preparation for emergencies, disasters, and major disruptions exacerbate impacts to communities while hampering response efforts due to reduced revenues and greater spending needs. Unmitigated climate change, pollution, and environmental threats are already affecting and will continue to affect communities, particularly those most vulnerable or disadvantaged. Although sustainability measures may appear expensive in the short-term, the costs of inaction, while difficult to quantify, can devastate local budgets in the future. Local governments should consider sustainability measures like climate adaptation and mitigation efforts as necessary and valuable investments. Sustainability staff are already working to brace for and build community resilience against these threats, as detailed in the next section.
Sustainability Staff Can Build Community-wide Social, Economic, and Environmental Resilience
While the first order of business for many local governments is managing the crises of 2020 and stabilizing internal fiscal conditions, local governments must also look ahead. Sustainability staff can help bolster economic recovery efforts while building lasting community resilience within social, economic, natural and built systems.
“Resilience is the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and to withstand and recover rapidly from deliberate attacks, accidents, or naturally occurring threats or incidents.”
– White House Presidential Policy Directive on Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience
Strengthening Social & Economic Systems
Short-term Economic Recovery
As seen in the aftermath of the 2009 recession, attention to economic recovery is critical to stimulating damaged sectors of the economy, creating jobs, and helping the unemployed rejoin the workforce. In an effort to achieve multiple benefits, advocates of a “sustainable recovery” like the Rocky Mountain Institute, suggest that sustainability professionals can put people back to work and generate economic activity while meeting sustainability goals. For example, promoting building retrofit, renewable energy, or clean transportation infrastructure projects in public, residential, and commercial sectors can generate jobs for underemployed contractors and local permitting revenues for local governments. Retrofitting buildings that are sitting vacant (or experiencing occupancy changes) during shelter-in-place orders may present a unique and immediate opportunity to invest in energy and construction jobs, which have experienced massive losses.
In addition, individuals seeking new career or career advancement opportunities can receive subsidized professional development trainings to support the emerging market for sustainability projects.
Local Example: The SoCalREN Green Path Career (GPC) program is a free-to-participate program that is designed to help individuals who are former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 24 or part of an independent living program by preparing them for a career in the energy efficiency field. The program provides guidance and support, personal enrichment training, technical training and education, and paid work experience.
Coincidentally, “retrofit for recovery” programs and projects may make good candidates for stimulus or other sources of external funding (as described in Section 5.1.2).
Long-term Economic Resilience
Without continued progress on sustainability – even through times of severe budget constraints, climate-induced events and other resource management failures can exacerbate economic hardships. California’s 4th Climate Change Assessment report notes that costs associated with climate impacts – attributable to deaths, damages, and the potential for droughts and mega-floods – will be in the order of tens of billions of dollars.
Absent early action and investment to adapt and build resilience, the economic costs of climate change will be significant. Examples include:
- Energy bills are expected to rise by $200 million each year due to the extra cost of keeping homes cooled.
- Effects of a long-term drought will cost the state $3 billion.
- Replacing buildings impacted by sea-level rise would incur costs of $18 billion.
Mitigation and adaptation efforts are critical to minimize future costs associated with the worsening impacts of climate change. Early investment in mitigation has demonstrated significant returns over the long-term; a 2017 Study by the National Institute of Building Sciences revealed that federal mitigation grants save $6 for every $1 spent.
Safeguarding Health and Safety
2020 has also proven that a healthy economy depends on the health and safety of residents and workers. Sustainability staff will not prevent another pandemic, but there are many ways that the efforts of sustainability staff will safeguard community health and safety.
For example, sustainability initiatives often target key emission sources, thereby improving air quality and mitigating the harmful health effects of climate change such as illnesses (respiratory illness, heat stroke, vector-borne disease, etc.), water and food insecurity, displacement, and mental health consequences including increased social conflict. The public health, emergency management, fire, law enforcement, and public works services that local governments need to provide to respond to these worsening impacts can be overwhelming without early action, preparation, and mitigation.
Sustainability staff can effectively work across departments (e.g., water, utilities, emergency planning, community development, etc.) and bring additional capacity to respond to emergencies and ensure their constituents have power and running water.
Sustainability staff can also build upon the lessons learned during the pandemic to advance solutions more rapidly and equitably. For example, these staff can encourage businesses to continue teleworking practices as a way to reduce vehicle miles traveled and improve air quality, and target sustainability and workforce development investments to address the inequalities and vulnerabilities that have only become more apparent during the pandemic.
Prioritizing Environmental Justice
Not only has COVID-19 brought uncertainty to the economy, it also elevated the urgency of addressing the historic and ongoing injustices that burden marginalized communities – from health inequities and income disparities to institutionalized racism and other forms of systemic oppression. A national awakening led to a deeper examination of the root causes of inequity, many of which also contribute to climate change. While the timing of these intersectional crises has further strained local resources amid growing urgency and need for local government responses, sustainability staff are absolutely essential in prioritizing these underlying issues, safeguarding frontline communities from the worsening impacts of climate change, and building community resilience, equitably. In fact, the State of California has prioritized aligning billions of dollars to serve disadvantaged communities, which sustainability staff can use to help local governments apply those resources to advance both equity and climate action within their communities.
Local Example: The Portland Clean Energy Fund was created and led by communities on the frontlines of climate change building over the course of many years. Nonprofits, alone or in partnership with for-profit companies, schools and/or government agencies, can apply for grants from the $44 to $61 million revenue to weatherize homes, install solar and other renewable energy projects, provide job and contractor training, expand local food production, and build green infrastructure in Portland. The revenue is raised by a 1% business license surcharge on the Portland revenue generated by retail corporations with over $1 billion in annual revenue and at least $500,000 in Portland revenue.
Restoring and Protecting Natural and Managed Resources
Another way local governments can build community resilience is by planning and implementing strategies that restore and protect ecosystems, waterways, forests, agriculture, and other natural and working lands. As recent fires have proven, a healthy environment is the foundation of healthy and well-functioning social, economic, and built systems.
In 2020, statewide wildfires cost the state $130-$1500 billion, which include impacts to jobs, homes, agriculture, schools and power outage impacts to residents and businesses.
Sustainability staff can work with core service departments to support the ecosystem services and natural resources that all Californians depend upon, such as by installing green infrastructure, improving soil health through sustainable land management practices, preserving open space and expanding urban forests. Ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions also yield significant financial savings and returns. In fact, a study from 2017 on the value of urban forests revealed that California’s 173 million trees intercept 196 million m3 of rainfall annually, resulting in storm water management savings of $324.6 million. The same study found that the amount of energy saved by California trees is equivalent to the air conditioning demands of 210,280 households. Additionally, for every dollar spent on planting and maintaining their urban forest, a city can expect to receive a return of $2.50.
Effective management of urban trees is essential in order to prevent destructive impacts of invasive pests and species and to ensure that communities do not lose essential ecosystem services. If, for example, 50% of the trees in Southern California susceptible to disease were to die, the loss in ecosystem services would equate to $616.8 million with an additional cost of $15.9 billion for removing and replacing the dead trees. Increasing this percentage to 80% would lead to an asset loss of ~$25.4 billion and loss in ecosystem services to ~$1 billion. Initial maintenance costs pale in comparison to such a figure.
Readying Better Buildings and Infrastructure
Local governments can be proactive in ensuring that buildings and infrastructure are built to withstand the worsening impacts of climate change like extreme heat, floods, and fires while minimizing the use of resources when installing improvements. Sustainability professionals can develop codes or programs to encourage developers, building managers, and homeowners to consider climate risks when developing new buildings or implementing retrofits – from identifying climate-safe sites for new construction to utilizing passive design and home hardening techniques. They are also vital in leading efforts to build energy resilience and reliability, which are increasingly under threat of wildfires and other climate impacts, by evaluating grid weaknesses, energy load projections, efficiency opportunities, and supply options. They are also key in developing microgrids and storage systems for critical facilities like emergency centers and hospitals, which can keep power in times of disaster. These types of efforts are good candidates for a growing number of funding opportunities made available by State and federal agencies.
Local Example: The Santa Rosa Junior College solar microgrid and battery storage system is a $5 million electrical infrastructure project that addresses climate change and fundamentally transforms the way energy is distributed and used on campus. The new solar arrays can operate independently from the utility and provide essential services to community members in the case of a Power Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) event or wildfire.
The concurrent crises of COVID-19, historic and ongoing racial injustices and catastrophic wildfires have demonstrated that failure to act early can result in devastating outcomes for communities and overwhelming fiscal impacts for local governments.
While not often considered a core public service, sustainability is essential to protecting community health and safety, especially as the impacts of climate change worsen. It is contingent upon local governments to embed sustainability and resilience priorities in all decision-making processes as these issues become more intertwined in the everyday realities of local communities.
Local governments may be tempted to scale down their sustainability efforts as a budget-saving measure but such a decision will lead to missed opportunities, unsafe conditions for their communities, and much steeper costs in the near future. Local sustainability staff are hardwired to recognize looming social, environmental and economic threats and find cost-effective ways to mitigate and adapt to them. This paper enumerated the many reasons to consider keeping sustainability staff on board to play this critical role. By delivering financial savings, new resources, and resilience to future crises, the value of sustainability staff far outweighs short-term labor savings, especially during challenging times.
Rather than eliminating or reducing sustainability positions, local decision-makers can benefit from welcoming these knowledgeable, strategic, and innovative thinkers to be part of core response and recovery efforts, and to help integrate resource management and community resilience into decisions across departments. As the immediate crises of 2020 begin to subside, a sustainable approach to economic recovery will be critical to ensure that local governments have the ability to weather the literal and figurative storms ahead – and sustainability staff must be maintained to lead the charge through partnerships, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to equity.