City hall

A March 2019 five-part series addressed actions individual people can take to reduce their carbon footprint on the road, in and around their homes, and in their diets.

That series raised the obvious question of whether individual actions on their own can be adequate to help society confront the climate challenges we all face. The answer is decidedly ‘No’: Societal actions globally also are essential. That’s the focus of this companion two-part series.

This post focuses on actions all levels of government can take in this effort. A second part of this series will address actions only the federal government can take. After that, the author plans to address a range of private sector (manufacturing, agriculture, services) actions needed to help prevent the most devastating impacts of climate change.

The following list of governmental actions, based on science and common sense, is by no means exhaustive. They are straightforward, with some already being implemented, and they could be scaled up.

All levels of government

Use best green technologies and practices for procurement and infrastructure upgrades.

All levels of government can take steps to reduce their enormous carbon footprint, For example, in the U.S., the federal government is the single biggest consumer of energy, with 360,000 buildings, 650,000 vehicles, and $445 billion spent annually on goods and services. The Texas state government has more than 30,000 vehicles and more than 28 million square feet of office, warehouse, and parking facilities. And the City of Los Angeles has approximately 11,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment.

Taxpayers, of course, will have to be supportive when government leaders want to retrofit old government buildings to make them more energy efficient or upgrade vehicle fleets to more fuel-efficient, but initially more costly models.

National, state, and local governments collectively have huge purchasing power. This power can be used to create or strengthen markets for renewable energy and green technologies. Christian Parenti, an investigative journalist and contributing editor for The Nation magazine, has written that a single action – replacing U.S. Postal Service gas-powered delivery trucks with all-electric trucks – would bring down the price of sustainable transportation: “The USPS is a perfect place to start, as most of its vehicles travel in loops of less than 20 miles each day and always park in the same garage (at night, when the demand for and price of electricity is at its lowest).”

All government employees, when undergoing job orientation, could be encouraged to look for ways to do their job in the least carbon-intensive way possible. Many might be able to minimize driving and flying while still accomplishing objectives of their positions.

More funding for land or conservation easements

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust (a qualified private land conservation organization) or government agency. It permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation value. Landowners retain many of their rights, including the right to own and use the land, sell it, or pass it on to heirs.

An easement’s purposes might include any of the following:

– Maintain and improve water quality;
– Perpetuate and foster the growth of healthy forest;
– Maintain and improve wildlife habitat and migration corridors;
– Protect scenic vistas visible from roads and other public areas; or
– Ensure that lands are managed so that they are always available for sustainable agriculture and forestry.

Conservation easements typically forbid or substantially constrain subdivision and other real estate development.

More on this.

State government

Boost funding for enforcement of highway speed limits

The federal government can mandate a maximum speed limit, but it is state and local police that enforce speed limits. Increased funding for enforcement would result in higher compliance, and therefore lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Drop unreasonable barriers to solar power development

Public service commissions in some states are allowing electric utilities to impose a surcharge on residential customers with rooftop solar PV systems.

Other states have prohibited non-utilities from selling solar-generated power directly to consumers. Allowing such sales could be a powerful incentive for businesses to install solar panels atop commercial building and parking lots. Electric utilities see roof-top solar as a threat to their bottom line, but there are counter arguments to that perspective.

More on this.

Boost public support for agricultural experiment station research

State funding for agricultural research has generally leveled off or declined since the early 1990s, and the public agricultural experiment station system has had to rely increasingly on corporate funding for support. This trend has generated concern that public research programs will become more focused on the needs of private industry – at the expense of broader interests that include small farmers, consumers, and environmental protection.

Use rebates to support energy efficiency and conservation and use of renewable energy sources

Rebates could help lower the cost of replacing old toilets and HVAC systems. (See for rebates available in your state.)

Local government

Construct and maintain more walkways, bike lanes, bike parking spaces

If we want people to consider walking or biking to work, shopping, and so on, then they must have access to safe, enjoyable, and well-maintained sidewalks and protected bicycle lanes and parking facilities.

Require composting by large food waste generators (e.g. arenas, stadiums, restaurants, schools, and food manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers)

This step can reduce the amount of organic matter going to landfills or being incinerated. Landfilled food waste results in the creation of methane; incinerating that waste lowers incinerator efficiency because of the high water content of food waste.

The finished compost created from food and yard waste could be used by local farmers to enrich their soil, thus allowing organic matter and valuable nutrient elements, such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, to be recycled.

Provide incentives to help counter urban sprawl

Infill development (i.e., new construction on vacant or underused lots in established neighborhoods or business districts) can have many benefits, but often only with local government encouragement or assistance.

Benefits of infill development include:

– Making better use of urban land, while reducing consumption of forest and agricultural land;
– Increasing access of people to jobs and vice versa;
– Reducing time, money, energy, and air pollution associated with commuting and other uses of single-occupant automobiles; and
– Making better use of existing infrastructure and lowering cost of public services, such as transit, sidewalks, water and sewer, schools, and public safety.

Strengthen urban forests

An urban forest consists of the vegetation within a city, town, or suburb – including the trees, shrubs, grasses (and other groundcovers) along roads and in yards and parks.

The urban forest can benefit a community in many ways. Here are a few:

– Strategically planted trees reduce energy use by shading buildings and pavement in summer and blocking cold winds in winter.
– Tree canopies and roots reduce soil erosion.
– Tree-lined streets encourage people to walk and walk more often and farther.
– Beautifully landscaped parks and other public spaces provide people nearby places to relax and enjoy nature, without having to drive to more distant areas.

More on this.

Reduce energy use and light pollution without compromising public safety

The International Dark-Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America have developed a template for such an ordinance. This template can be found on IDA’s website.

Charge property owners appropriately for leaf/brush pickup

Regular removal of leaves and brush from residential and commercial properties is not considered a best management practice. It is often done to maintain a certain subjective aesthetic. So property owners should be charged the full cost of this service.

By charging a pickup fee, homeowners and other landowners would be discouraged from using such a service — which in most cases is using fossil-fuel burning trucks to transport this waste to landfills or composting sites. This would provide an incentive for landowners to learn how to recycle this organic matter on their own property.

Restrict use of leaf blowers

Gas-powered leaf blowers emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases. They also create noise and air pollution. The air pollution includes fine particles that can go deep into the lungs and be especially troubling to asthmatics and allergy sufferers.

With less use of leaf blowers, roads and parking areas won’t be completely free of very small bits of debris, but there will be less dust and dirt in the air and less movement of this material into parked cars, screen porches, and open windows.

It’s important to remind ourselves that we often do things because technology has made them easy to do – not because there is a good reason to do them.

Resources used by the author to research and write this post.

Craig K. Chandler is a retired horticulturist and professor at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, where he led the university’s strawberry breeding program from 1987 until 2010.