Cities Leading on Sustainability

Energy management and sustainability is a rapidly expanding policy arena for local governments.
by , | April 4, 2011 AT 9:00 AM

Reducing energy consumption, decreasing dependency on non-renewable energy sources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- all components of sustainability -- are generally cast as global issues requiring action by national governments.

In reality, however, it is local governments, not the federal government, that have taken the lead in sustainability policy innovation and implementation. Numerous local governments in the U.S. have enacted energy conservation and efficiency measures along with emissions reduction plans to address the global dimensions of energy problems that extend far beyond their borders. The city of Charlottesville, Va., for example, has a program and policies that promote environmental sustainability.

There is little practical information available to guide local government officials in how best to approach this challenge. A new report, A Guide for Local Government Executives on Energy Efficiency and Sustainability, by Nathan Francis and Richard C. Feiock, is based on a survey of mid-sized cities, and offers advice to local government decision makers on sustainability programs.

Local Government’s Role in Managing Energy and Sustainability

Cities play an integral role in advancing sustainability, not only because they are major contributors to climate change, but also because they are increasingly challenged to control costs associated with energy use. Local governments can contribute a great deal to U.S. climate change mitigation by reducing emissions within already well-accepted domains of authority. The powers of local governments, especially over land use, make them well suited to play a lead role in sustainability and energy management.

Based on Feiock and Francis’ review of local energy management programs and strategies, they have identified six strategies that local managers can employ to strengthen their sustainability and energy management programs. Management of energy and sustainability at the local level encompasses several complex and interrelated sets of activities and program areas. While there is no single set of programs or policy tools that will be perfect for every community, the six strategies are applicable in most local government contexts.

Strategy One: Local government executives should formulate specific targets and performance measures as benchmarks in local climate action plans

The first strategy is to develop or update a Climate Action Plan (CAP) with specific targets and performance measures. A CAP is a strategic plan that outlines how best to meet energy reduction goals and successfully implement sustainability programs. It may be developed as a stand-alone plan or be incorporated into a more general strategic planning process.

When CAPs provide implementation timelines for emission reductions, specific reduction targets, and assessments of costs and benefits, they can more effectively guide local government efforts to reduce emissions and conserve energy. These plans enable local governments to link performance goals with accountability: assigning clear responsibilities to government departments and specific actions can then be linked to the achievement of targets.

Strategy Two: Promote citizen and stakeholder participation in administrative design decisions for energy efficiency and sustainability

The second strategy focuses on the local government executive’s role in promoting citizen and stakeholder participation in sustainability decisions. Citizen involvement is critical at the implementation stage because reductions of energy consumption and greenhouse gases require behavioral changes by employees and citizens to be successful. Demand-side management approaches must be taken into account when citizens are the end users.

Strategy Three: Engage interested parties and share knowledge through sustainability networks and regional collaboration initiatives

A third strategy is for administrators to proactively utilize policy network resources and regional collaboration tools. Administrators learn from one another through sharing information and personal interactions. Through networks sponsored by national organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, or by participating in the International Council for Local Environment Initiatives’ (ICLEI) Cities for Climate Protection program, municipal governments commit themselves to addressing energy efficiency and sustainability in their own communities. Coordination with citizens and local stakeholders may also be important to spurring local action on sustainability issues. The Sierra Club Cool Cities campaign, which started in 2005, provides local environmental activists with a platform for working with their local government leaders to address global climate change. Without these commitments, policies are likely to be haphazard and lack significant impact. This is even truer at the local and regional levels.

Cooperation and collaboration with other local governments as well as the state and regional stakeholders are essential to promoting sustainability and energy efficiency. Multiple levels of government can play complementary roles in promoting sustainability. Though local governments have an important role in fostering sustainability on their own, their actions, where possible and practical, should complement and be coordinated with the efforts of other levels of government.  Community involvement is essential not only to provide guidance to policy makers, but also to increase the likelihood of buy-in to developed policies by the general public.

Strategy Four: Establish a dedicated sustainability office with appropriate funding

A fourth strategy is for local governments to designate an office with government-wide sustainability responsibilities to coordinate efforts across programs and agencies. The successful implementation of sustainability and energy management programs is tied to the level of resources that local governments dedicate to them. The establishment of a sustainability office represents a tangible commitment of resources -- human, financial, and capital -- to sustainability and energy efficiency. These investments may in turn assist local governments in their identification of additional short-term and long-term opportunities for funding their sustainability programs.

Dedicated funding of a sustainability office institutionalizes energy management efforts in a local government. If climate protection and energy efficiency are ancillary functions within an agency, and are not directly budgeted for, they are less likely to be sustained.

For municipalities that have created a dedicated sustainability office, a key function is the measurement of performance. While the importance of measuring greenhouse gas emissions may be too abstract conceptually for many people to grasp, performance indicators such as total energy consumption and how much energy is consumed from renewable sources (and the savings achieved from it) are easier to quantify and thus easier for citizens to understand. Examples of specific goals include California’s renewable energy consumption requirements. Specific indicators make sustainability clearer and more “real” for constituents.

Strategy Five: Coordinate sustainability and energy programs with traditional services and economic development functions

A fifth strategy is to design energy and sustainability programs to complement ongoing governmental activities, particularly with regard to a city’s core land use, service provision, and economic development functions. There are ways local governments can reduce carbon emissions that may be associated with programs or program delivery. The potential benefits include cost savings for local government from reduced energy costs, conservation of green areas, reduced environmental impacts, and opportunities to stimulate and enhance local government efforts in economic development, transportation, and growth management.

Strategy Six: Lead by example—increase sustainability initiatives by first practicing sustainability within local government operations and activities

A final strategy is for local officials to lead by example by focusing on in-house governmental activities and operations first. They can then use the success and support generated by these efforts to extend additional efforts to the community. Cost savings are available to local governments through efficiencies that reduce their own energy usage, which in turn can generate broader support for sustainability efforts.

Programs that produce fiscal benefits to local governments and can be implemented by existing bureaucracies face fewer political hurdles than those proposed at the federal and state levels. Moreover, investments in energy efficiency improvements often have short payback periods.


Energy management and sustainability is a rapidly expanding policy arena for local governments. While there is still much to be learned, the experience gained in the last few years provides important insights to enhance program design and implementation.


Jonathan D. Breul is the executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government and a partner with IBM Global Business Services.  He is also a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and can be reached at

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He is also an associate partner with IBM Global Business Services and a fellow of the National Academy.  He can be reached at

For more on this topic, read: “A Guide for Local Government Executives on Energy Efficiency and Sustainability,” by Nathan Francis and Richard C. Feiock, Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, Florida State University.