The Challenge of Equity in California’s Municipal Climate Action Plans

Hillary Angelo, Key MacFarlane, and James Sirigotis
Posted on: 12/03/2020 - Updated on: 8/23/2022

Posted by

Kathryn Braddock



In the face of intensifying environmental crisis, and the apparent failure of national politics to address it, municipal planning has become the leading frontier of climate change action. Though the United Nations put “equity” on equal footing with economy and ecology in laying out its “three pillars” of sustainability in 1987, incorporating social equity goals into sustainability planning has remained a challenge in urban practice. “Equity”—like sustainability itself—is an amorphous goal, and a large-scale problem not obviously solved through city-scaled planning efforts. 

This report analyzes the inclusion and operationalization of “equity” in 170 California cities’ and counties’ Climate Action Plans (CAPs). California’s municipal climate action planning landscape is unique for both its size and diversity, as aggressive statewide environmental legislation has put unique pressure on all cities—even (or especially) small and less well-resourced ones—to adopt climate/emissions plans. We conducted a content analysis of the plans, compared different cities’ approaches to equity, and how cities’ approaches relate to city characteristics such as size, social composition, and income inequality. 

Findings Include: 

  • We identified three distinct phases of CAP adoption in California. Early CAP adopters (2004-2008) tended to be progressive jurisdictions with a high rate of inclusion of social equity considerations. Mid-phase adopters (2009-2012) were more conservative overall, and fewer CAPs included equity language. The most recent phase of CAP adoption (2013-2016) has been marked by an increase in the inclusion of social equity considerations even as increasingly conservative cities adopt CAPs; 
  • We found little association between cities’ existing forms of inequality and the inclusion or operationalization of “equity” goals in CAPs; and 
  • We found that while aesthetically “green” policy interventions, such as street trees and open space, were ubiquitous across plans, the rise in equity language has correlated with an increased presence of more systemic “gray” socioecological policy interventions, such as dense and/or affordable housing, in CAPs. 

These findings suggest that while planners should do more work to assess and respond to local needs when formulating equity goals for CAPs, the increasing presence of equity language does present an opportunity to broaden the scope of climate action plans—traditionally focused on greenhouse gas emissions—to consider and address some socio-economic aspects of sustainability.