City attorneys saving the world: How municipal lawyers can help in the fight against climate change

Across the country, municipal attorneys are leading the fight against climate change by incorporating climate-responsive factors into covenants, city codes and strategic plans.

Around the world, signs of increasing impacts of climate change – forest fires, droughts, hurricanes and other severe weather events – will be abundant in 2022.

As international efforts to mitigate the effects of harmful greenhouse gases are insufficient, the frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters has led to calls for action by the public and private sectors. A new federal law has become law, funding broad initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. At the state and local levels, some governments have adopted climate action plans and net zero emissions goals.

Still, there is much to do. Incorporating language into contracts and regulations governing procurement, project management and land use can dramatically improve a municipality’s environmental impact.

City advocates are climate change advocates

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for local governments to combat climate change. Municipalities should identify both short-term and long-term measures to improve their resilience to adverse climate events. These measures depend on geographic location and many other factors, but may include:

      • improving public transportation and making communities bike and pedestrian friendly;
      • using electric vehicles throughout the city fleet and installing charging infrastructure at convenient locations for drivers living and working in the city;
      • building sea walls and upgrading drainage systems; the and
      • lower taxes that encourage private sector businesses and property owners to take action on their own.

Climate change mitigation efforts should be part of local governments’ comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and capital budgets. Many cities also have a Climate Action Plan (CAP) to guide the strategy for local mitigation efforts. Even without a CAP, developing agreements and regulations that address climate challenges is a strong first step in local efforts to combat climate change.

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Incorporating climate goals into treaties and regulations

The municipal attorney should consider the local government’s climate-related goals when developing and reviewing proposed agreements and regulations. Integrating climate clauses into legal documents and laws can be an important part of implementing a city’s climate action plan. However, even if the municipality has not yet adopted a CAP, the terms of the agreement and regulatory provisions aimed at environmental impact may pave the way for a healthy future. City attorneys can incorporate net zero thinking into contracts and regulations, with regulations focused on progress toward net zero goals.

Establishing climate goals in construction contracts — In 2020, approximately 38% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the construction and operation of buildings. However, traditional coverage standards in construction contracts do not explicitly require contractors to include climate change mitigation or adaptation measures. As a result, government agencies and their contractors often build facilities without considering climate-related risks or decarbonization.

Local governments should work with the project team early on to determine how the project design, specifications, contract terms, and budget can address the government’s climate-related expectations. Examples of clauses that municipalities may include in contracts for the construction of public facilities include:

      • require the contractor to achieve defined net zero targets, including net zero performance at various stages of the project;
      • rewarding the contractor for completing net zero tasks, rather than penalizing the contractor for not completing them; the and
      • Establish project-related construction waste management practices.

Climate targets in procurement contracts To ensure this purchases For local governments to be environmentally responsible, municipalities should consider purchasing equipment, supplies and materials from sources that require less transportation, use recycled or responsibly sourced materials or components, and reflect the supplier’s or manufacturer’s commitment to sustainability.

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Other local authority contracts Local governments sometimes operate facilities that use a lot of energy or have an environmental impact, such as landfills, schools, prisons, or convention centers. Attorneys may be involved in independently drafting contracts or clauses to address issues such as: retrofitting facilities with energy-efficient appliances, systems and lighting; reduction of single-use plastics by vendors in kitchens and other dining areas; and establishing landfill management practices that reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and other adverse climate impacts.

Climate objectives in planning, zoning and building codes

Many cities have climate-friendly features in planning and zoning, without necessarily having a coordinated approach to climate change mitigation. For example, municipal plans and zoning regulations often provide for: preservation of open spaces and allotment of land for parks; planting new trees and protecting existing trees; and incorporating bike lanes, sidewalks, and other pedestrian-oriented features into street infrastructure.

In addition to these measures, some cities expect and encourage greater use of electric vehicles: free parking on streets and in public garages; and dedicated parking lots with charging stations in private parking lots.

To ensure that buildings within the municipality are sustainable and energy efficient, the city attorney can help by: ensuring that new building and property maintenance codes emphasize energy efficient construction and operating practices; development of orders specifying requirements for processing construction and demolition waste; and establishing landscaping standards that provide shade once established but do not require extensive watering.

With the serious threats posed by rapid climate change, most cities need to step up their efforts and do more to use planning and zoning to address climate issues. Cities that adopt climate action plans can use them to support the overhaul of comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances. Municipal attorneys should help draft and review new zoning language that is within the city’s mandate, enforceable, and implements the city’s intent.

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Selling local government climate policy

Climate policy at any level of government can be a critical issue. Local government advocates and officials sometimes sidestep the political debate surrounding climate action by emphasizing terms and references that create negative reactions, while at the same time climate-related actions bring long-term economic benefits to property owners and residents. emphasize that it will come. and the general public.

Municipalities and their city advocates must continue to communicate that these steps are a clear path toward a healthy and safe living environment that preserves the community’s natural resources and beauty for future generations.

The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias in accordance with the Trust Principles. The Thomson Reuters Institute is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Roger Horner

Roger Horner is senior legal editor for government practice at Thomson Reuters Practical Law. Prior to joining Thomson Reuters, Horner was the District Attorney of Brentwood, Tennessee from 2001 to 2017. Horner has more than three decades of experience in municipal law, including land use and development, First Amendment issues, purchase/acquisition, contract preparation and negotiation, real estate transactions, labor law administration, risk management activities and municipal litigation. persecution.


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