Here’s how you can help stop climate change

Published on January 19, 2022

How local governments help prevent climate change and protect their communities by saying no to new fossil fuel projects

Want to help address climate change? Say no new fossil fuels! Build renewable energy projects like the solar panels and wind turbines pictured here instead

Across the U.S. and into Canada, local governments are increasingly seizing the opportunity to take action to help mitigate climate change and make a real improvement in public health and safety by saying no to new fossil fuel projects. This movement – at Stand.earth, we call it SAFE Cities, or Stand Against Fossil Fuel Expansion (SAFE) – is growing and diversifying, with new policies cropping up every week. Local action is even more important than ever.

We’re here to tell you that so much impact that can be made at the local level. There are many policy approaches that local governments can implement to help prevent climate change by directly halting fossil fuel expansion, even if state level laws make some kinds of action difficult. We’ll explain more below. But the key takeaway is this: Where fossil fuel companies say no you can’t, we say 165 places with SAFE policies (and more being added all the time) can’t be wrong.

The movement for SAFE policies is strong and effective. How do we know? There are now more than 165 policies that meet the SAFE standard of working to end fossil fuel infrastructure. With dozens of different types of policies now passed, we are seeing a growing movement to help combat climate change that restricts new fossil fuel infrastructure, requires electrification of transport and buildings, and pitches in to promote the international effort to create a Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty.

Another way we know that this strategy is working is by just looking at how hard oil and gas companies are fighting against this movement. Across the US, fossil fuel lobbyists and their political allies have worked hard to prevent these policies from passing (see: Philadelphia Gas Works, Culver City, Whatcom County, etc.). And they’re not just fighting at local level against individual policies, they’re also trying to pass laws at the state level to preempt local government from restricting fossil fuel infrastructure, with a focus on preventing “gas bans” and efforts to require all-electric buildings.

In addition to working hard to restrict local powers at the state level – especially by banning building electrification policies – fossil fuel interests are also working hard to convince elected leaders, staff, and citizens that we aren’t able to meaningfully help address climate change. But elected leaders are discovering that local action on climate is a winning campaign strategy. Local action on SAFE policies is much more diverse than the building electrification policies that industry has focused on, and local governments have much more power to impact fossil fuels than people often realize. A recent paper from the Sabin Center at Columbia University highlights the laws supporting the many different ways that local governments can act on fossil fuels.

Within SAFE Cities, we divide policies that help stop climate change and protect our health into three key types of action:

  • Restrictions on fossil fuel infrastructure: Often based in what are called “police powers” under state constitutions, land use regulation can be a powerful tool to restrict fossil fuel infrastructure directly
  • Electrification requirements: Whether through new construction standards, electric vehicle purchasing and sales standards, or retrofitting of old homes, SAFE policies require jurisdiction-wide electrification of buildings and transportation.
  • Resolutions: Local governments globally are helping build movement visibility by endorsing the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty and ensuring that fossil fuels are named in their Climate Emergency resolutions. After all, the first step to solving any problem is admitting you have one!

Now let’s take a look at the first SAFE Cities policy category, restrictions on fossil fuel infrastructure.

Restrictions on fossil fuel infrastructure

Local governments have several types of authority that can be used to create restrictions on fossil fuel infrastructure and help limit climate change impacts, but in a majority of states, land use regulation is one of the key powers of local governments. Land-use based approaches to restricting fossil fuel infrastructure include:

  • Issuing a moratorium on accepting permits for fossil fuel infrastructure
  • Making fossil fuel infrastructure a nonconforming or prohibited land use in general plans and zoning requirements
  • Conditioning use of public property to prevent fossil fuel infrastructure
  • Creating no emissions zones
  • and more!

Here’s a quick list of successful, effective policies that have been passed that you might want to consider as well:

That’s just a short list of these powerful land use policies, and is by no means exhaustive of all the approaches possibly available to you.

Want to dive deeper? First, here is a link to a 50 state study that will provide you with a high-level analysis of what authorities local governments have in each state. Second, here is a study of local legal authorities to restrict fossil fuels, issued by the Sabin Center at Columbia University law school. And if you want to brainstorm more ideas for what you can do where you live, get in touch with our SAFE team by sending us a message at SAFE@stand.earth

Resolutions and requiring electrification

So you think land use approaches are preempted in your state? Let’s take a look at additional policy types that require electrification of buildings and transportation, or focus on local and international resolutions.

If local governments in your state or province do not have some or all of the above land use authority, there are still many other actions your community can take to help take on climate change by stopping and phasing out fossil fuels. And even if you can pursue land use policies, we recommend you enact as many SAFE policies over time as possible for the maximum impact for local health, safety, and global climate. A Brookings Institute report emphasizes the importance of cities putting in place data-driven climate action plans, and taking concrete action on fossil fuels is a key part of that.

Here’s a quick list of examples of electrification policy types and resolutions that don’t rely on land use authorities:

  • Emissions standards that decarbonize new and existing buildings (New York City, NY)
  • Ban on gas hookups in new building construction (Berkeley, CA)
  • Zero-emissions standards for space and water heating in new construction and all-electric requirement for new space and water heating appliances in existing buildings (Vancouver, BC)
  • Building efficiency requirements that effectively decarbonize new construction (District of North Vancouver, District of West Vancouver, and City of North Vancouver)
  • Conversion of transit fleet buses to all-electric (Charlotte, NC)
  • Resolution endorsing the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, committing to passing SAFE Cities policies, and limit or stop exposure to lead and other toxic pollutants (Santa Ana, CA)
  • Resolution endorsing the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (Los Angeles, CA\)
  • Community choice aggregation of electricity supply with automatic opt in to 100% renewable sourcing (Brighton, NY, and Hastings-on-Hudson, NY)

Just like there are different kinds of SAFE Cities policies, there are different ways to get involved: