By Judy Stadler

A September 28 Wisconsin State Journal article by Chris Hubbuch points out that Madison ranked 39th out of 50 cities evaluated for their planning for climate change. This is among the conclusions of a report published just days earlier by the Brookings Institution, “Not According to Plan: Exploring Gaps in City Climate Planning and the Need for Regional Action.” The city’s ranking reflected poor performance in tracking progress toward climate goals and achieving equity.

The Brookings report posits that we must change how we build, travel, and generate power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. Such sweeping change will require policy reforms, new technologies, and capital investments. Ideally, cities, national governments, private businesses, and NGOs would act together to deliver the results the planet needs, but that isn’t happening in the current polarized political climate. In the past year, however, the federal government has stepped up. Since November 2021, Congress has passed three landmark bills — the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — together investing hundreds of billions of dollars in research programs, utility-focused incentives, modern manufacturing facilities, and consumer rebate programs. In the face of this federal effort, the question is whether cities are ready to do their part.

Madison’s outdated plan

The fact that Madison’s sustainability plan is 11 years old factored into the city’s poor rating by the Brookings study. According to Jessica Price, the city’s sustainability and resilience manager, the plan broadly emphasizes environmental sustainability, economic prosperity, and social well-being rather than comprehensive decarbonization. A revision is currently under way that will identify steps for cutting community-wide emissions in half by 2030 and adopt more ambitious targets for city operations.

The Brookings report is not the first to find Madison deficient in meeting its goals. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s 2020 City Clean Energy Scorecard placed Madison 64th among 100 cities.

Recommendations of the Brookings report

The Brookings report recommends that cities:

  • Identify sector-specific strategies for electricity, buildings, and transportation decarbonization;
  • Clearly identify who will lead decarbonization efforts;
  • Establish clear funding sources and financing rules:
    • Test new financial instruments such as green bonds;
    • Experiment with new ways to measure costs and benefits;
    • Have clear rules on how to identify and procure projects;
    • Bundle funding with other public and private peers.
  • Establish a regional leadership network to coordinate local and regional strategies;
  • Develop a skilled workforce to manage decarbonization efforts;
  • Use regional entities to standardize climate data and measurement practices;
  • Use regional groups such as chambers of commerce and coalitions to negotiate with private infrastructure and economic development stakeholders.

Looking ahead

Madison needs to do better. The city knows it, and it is making progress. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway recently published a blog post identifying 15 ways the city is leading on climate. These include installing solar at city facilities, providing green workforce training through the GreenPower Program, and investing in energy efficiency for naturally occurring affordable housing. The updated Sustainability Plan draft is expected to be available for public comment by the end of this year, and we already know it will be using clear metrics to establish accountability for reporting back to residents on progress toward its goals.

Stay tuned!