Research priorities to support local climate policy

by | Aug 17, 2020

Growing momentum for decentralized climate policy and the falling costs of low‐carbon technologies are creating new climate change mitigation opportunities for subnational actors.

Image credit: Thomas Richter Unsplash

Momentum for local climate policy is growing. Across the world, cities, states, and provinces are making commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in clean energy technologies. In the U.S., for example, state-level governments with emissions reduction targets represent a majority of the country’s population.

This groundswell of local action is driven by the urgency of the climate crisis and leadership gaps left by national governments, like in the U.S., as well as falling costs of clean energy technologies. These include solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, all of which are becoming increasingly cost-competitive and accessible at lower investment.

While government and citizen involvement in climate-based movements is important, what role can researchers play in helping make local climate policy as impactful as possible?

Researchers can play a critical role in supporting local efforts to reduce emissions by co-designing research priorities with local policymakers to stretch limited resources further.

Four areas in particular can help enable a faster and more complete switch to low-carbon energy systems, which is in turn essential for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. One priority is to understand the processes of innovation (the “mechanisms”) that can be most effective in each local context. Another is to analyze and quantify the benefits to local communities that go beyond the climate benefits, such as clearer and healthier air, new jobs, and new local business opportunities. A third important research area is to develop rapid, low-cost measurement strategies to monitor emissions and assess the impacts of local policies, to enable local governments and citizens to track their emissions and identify successful mitigation measures. Fourth, a key priority is to translate results from large-scale analyses into actionable insights to inform decisions over which local citizens and governments have agency.  

In a set of conversations held with representatives from government, civil society, and industry, as well as other researchers, we repeatedly heard calls not just for more but different research on climate change mitigation that was more responsive to communities’ needs. We found widespread interest on both the part of researchers and practitioners to engage in these discussions but this dialogue is just beginning.

For an example of how research can help, we consider the allocation of funds to support cost improvement in low-carbon technologies through targeted subnational investments. Depending on a technology’s features and stage in development, different opportunities may exist for innovation, and some technologies may show more potential for locally specific innovation efforts than others.

In the case of solar energy, costs are incurred from hardware (photovoltaic modules, inverters, and mounting systems) and soft technologies (installation, permitting to allow the project to proceed). While hardware tends to be mass manufactured, the soft technologies must often adapt to local regulations, workforce strengths, and characteristics of urban and rural areas. Research can help by identifying the innovation mechanisms that can work in different local contexts, to improve costs and the quality of the installation process overall, including the experience of consumers and communities.

By identifying local opportunities for cost reduction in parallel with hardware innovations that will benefit many locations simultaneously, research can help increase the collective impact of subnational policies.

Written by: Jessika Trancik, Morgan Edwards, and Magdalena Klemun

Institute for Data, Systems and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Reference: Magdalena M. Klemun, Morgan R. Edwards, Jessika E. Trancik, Research priorities for supporting subnational climate policies, WIREs Climate Change (2020). DOI: 10.1002/wcc.646