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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lee Anne Willson

A successful climate action plan

The Ann Arbor Climate Action Plan, A2Zero, provides us with an inspiring example of how a city not too different from Ames can adopt an ambitious goal and make it work. They have had their plan in place now for two years. In this post, I am going to identify some of the innovative thinking that has made it possible for them to make rapid progress towards their goal of net zero by 2030 – which is even more ambitious than our goal for Ames. The Ann Arbor example shows how we can leverage a reasonable investment by the city into an ambitious climate action plan.

Ann Arbor & Ames city comparison

Ames has 55% of the population of Ann Arbor. Our population is 51% students; theirs is 40%. Both cities have Research 1 universities that include people with expertise in climate change, relevant biology and agriculture, communications, power and utilities, and a host of other sciences and humanities with something to offer for development and implementation of a successful climate action plan. Both cities also have a decades-long history of taking action for sustainability.

Ann Arbor’s process

Ann Arbor began their process with fast-moving and extensive community involvement: they set up four community-based “technical advisory” committees, each with 20 members. These groups brought together a wide range of experience and insight, and put in many (unpaid) hours developing the initial plan. While that was going on, the city staff organized or attended 68 community events to spread word about the process and invite input.

  • In just 82 working days from the decision to create a plan, they had well over a hundred citizens deeply committed to making it happen – because they had a hand in designing it.

  • They did not hire a consultant. The city investment was staff time to work with the committees and to reach out to the public. One consultant fee of $200,000 can pay for 2 city staff for a year.

  • This process produced a plan that was broader and more innovative than what we have seen so far in the Ames plan.

We can’t go back and do it over, but can we build from here to capture some of what Ann Arbor managed to do?

When the Ann Arbor plan came together, they looked over the array of actions proposed, and realized something fundamental: there was no point in prioritizing the actions, because they would have to do all of the actions, as soon as they were possible.

Skipping the prioritization step saved months in the process.

Instead of prioritizing, they made a list of actions – 44 actions in 7 categories – and then evaluated each one according to whether it could be implemented immediately, could be implemented with the acquisition of currently available resources (grants etc.), or would need to wait for funds or technology. Two years into the CAP, less than 2.5 years from deciding to launch their CAP, they have started 35 of the 44 actions.

A powerful element of the Ann Arbor plan is their network of collaborators – local companies, nonprofits, and nearby cities that take on responsibility for some piece of the plan. In a webinar presentation I attended, they commented that not all the entities are in favor of all the actions, but most of them could find an action that they were happy to adopt.

In addition, Ann Arbor recognized that they would need a lot of citizen involvement to accomplish their plan. They started a program of climate ambassadors – individuals who receive training from the city so they are able to go out and make public presentations, answer questions, and encourage participation.

In practice, this means the city staff can act as catalysts for the action, rather than trying to do everything themselves.

Evaluating actions

Ann Arbor established a Prioritization Framework for deciding “what next?” from the list of 44 actions. Criteria that are assigned points includes greenhouse gas mitigation potential, cost criteria, feasibility criteria, and potential co-benefits.

Co-benefits are important in deciding what to prioritize. After all, the cheapest route to net-zero might be buying cheap offsets from somewhere else, but that cost would not have any co-benefits for the city.

In contrast to Ann Arbor, Ames has been looking at a restricted set of criteria, according to a letter sent to the Supplemental Input Committee:

  • Feasibility to implement each task

  • Legal authority to fund and legal authority to implement the tasks

  • Cost to citizens

    • Charged by the City: utility fees/property tax payments/permit fees

    • Charged by non-City: apartment rent payments/building lease payments/construction costs

  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per $100,000 of investment

    • This helps prioritize the tasks that provide the greatest carbon reduction for the least investment

The Ames version assumes that the job of implementing the CAP falls entirely to the City acting alone, and omits the crucial consideration of co-benefits to each action. It was never going to be true that we could have an ambitious climate action plan if the only entity taking action is the City – a much broader collaboration will be needed, as Ann Arbor’s plan demonstrates.

The challenge

Until recently, most city governments have been organized in a way that provides a rather narrow view of their role in the community. They have tended to follow a top-down model for managing the city government. The way that budgets are managed tends to compartmentalize what is going on – the people responsible for transportation have a separate budget from those involved in planning land use, for example. This kind of top-down structure resembles a for-profit business more than it does a not-for-profit, even though a city government is not a for-profit operation. As is true in Ames, typically there is a city manager (CM) or equivalent who manages the staff. This individual reports to the council, who generally accept most of his/her recommendations. When that stops happening, either the CM resigns or the Council decides to look for a new CM.

For most cities, and certainly for Ames, there is a sense that “the city does what it can control, and does not get involved in what it cannot control.” Outside groups that influence the city actions tend to be mostly those for whom what the city does affects their business’s bottom line.

For Ames to have a successful climate action plan, two things will need to change.

  1. The city will need to be more open to involving citizens in planning and implementing actions in support of the climate action plan. It will need to depend on a lot of volunteers. This approach is what many non-profits have always had to do to leverage resources. However, managing an operation with a lot of volunteers requires very different skills than telling paid employees what you want them to do.

  2. The internal structure of the city government will need to be adjusted so that the priorities of the climate action plan can be implemented. One example of a simple way to do that is Ann Arbor’s internal carbon tax: departments are taxed according to the emissions that they produce, and this money is then channeled back to departments for actions that reduce emissions. That creates a flow inside the city budget instead of purely top-down budgeting. The departments retain the autonomy they have now, but they have a strong incentive to compete for the money collected in the internal carbon tax.


The Ann Arbor documents – the Climate Action Plan, the financial analysis, the prioritization framework, and the process for dynamical decision-making about what to implement next – can be found on their website:


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