Energy and Climate: What role for U.S. metropolitan and regional organizations?
WASHINGTON -- Having worked in France for what we call a "metropolitan community of cities" in Nantes and for a regional council in Brittany, one of my objectives for my Comparative Domestic Policy fellowship at GMF was to have a close look on how metropolitan and regional organizations in the United States address energy and climate issues. That is where I met a hurdle: to do so, who was I supposed to talk to? Institutionally speaking, metropoles and regions in the United States are sketchy concepts indeed.
Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), Councils of Governments, Regional Councils, Mayors Caucuses, etc., are a diversity of appellations for organizations whose authority and effective action varies dramatically among regions, especially when it comes to climate protection. After meeting with people at the Denver Region Council of Governments (DRCOG), the Puget Sound Regional Council, and the National Association of Regional Councils as part of my fellowship, I have compiled some thoughts on the effectiveness of MPOs in combating climate change. These thoughts are also based on my experience over a couple of months spent working at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) before starting my fellowship at GMF. The level of interest and involvement in climate protection varies among metropolitan organizations the United States. A few of them are leading the way, such as MWCOG in DC region, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in Pennsylvania, the San Diego Region Association of Governments (SANDAG), the San Francisco Bay Area, or the Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle. They address the question of climate protection through different approaches. Some of them use a regulatory approach, similar to what they have been doing for years under federal mandate on air quality conformity assessment of transportation plans. In that case, the focus is mainly to determine the impact of transportation policies on greenhouse gas emissions. Some others adopt a "visioning" approach in which energy and climate are considered within a comprehensive strategy for regional growth management, which includes land use, housing, transportation, and other sectors. Under that category you will find MWCOG's Greater Washington 2050, DRCOG's Metro Vision 2035, and Puget Sound 2040 vision.
Lastly, a few COGs and MPOs have a "policy and program" approach. MWCOG, for instance, provides support to its members on a wide range of issues that pertain to energy and climate, such as green building policies, green fleets, energy-efficient street lighting, energy retrofit financing, and outreach. The objective here is to foster consistency on climate action between all members, and to have more leverage on emissions through regionally adopted policies. In that context, what are the perspectives for metropolitan organizations on energy and climate? Because of their proximity to the community, cities and counties will very likely remain the leading organizations dealing with operational projects and policies, community engagement, and outreach. COGs and MPOs are more "2nd level" or back-office organizations, but I have the feeling they will play a growing role in the coming years for a number of reasons. Firstly, the city level doesn't match the scale needed to address climate issues, especially on transportation. Since geenhouse gas emissions are for a large part the result of our everyday activities, it makes sense to work on climate protection at the same geographical scale. And today, as people live in one place and work in another, the metropolitan area is definitely more accurate than the city scale. Climate protection is a subtle mix between operational action and long-term strategy design. For the latter, metropolitan organization are well-positioned to take action. They have experience of cross-jurisdictional consensus-building and visioning processes at the regional level on other issues. They also have already-developed modeling tools well-adapted for long-term climate strategy design. Some of them -- like PSRC in Seattle -- have developed impressive evaluation capacities integrating transportation, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, these expert capacities and tools don't replace political will. But they are instrumental in supporting and facilitating policymaking. They make it possible to "visualize" the climate impacts of different policy options. Lastly, the Obama administration seems to have metropolitan issues on its agenda. The recent "Sustainable Communities" initiative, launched by HUD and DOT in June, and recently joined by EPA, aims at decompartmentalizing federal housing, transportation, and environmental policies, thus making it possible for a metropolitan vision of sustainability to grow.
More specifically on climate, aligning transportation, land use, and housing plans with GHG reduction goals at the metropolitan level is expected to be required under the Federal Energy and Climate bill. In France, metropolitan collaboration really took off about one decade ago when these organizations were given legal existence and authorities, as well as fiscal resources. Now we are talking about giving them a citizen-elected board, which demonstrates the role they have come to play in local democracy and action. I don't know if it is a path the United States is willing to take in the long run. But it would certainly help it seize strategic opportunities for metropolitan cooperation, such as energy, climate, and sustainable development.
Anne Mariani, a fellow with GMF's Comparative Domestic Policy Program, is on leave from her post as Program Manager for Climate and Energy Policy at the Regional Council of Brittany, France.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.