‘They’re not ready’: Cities scramble to implement climate law

By Timothy Cama | 02/09/2023 01:48 PM EST

Municipal leaders and experts say there is a significant risk that many cities could miss out on climate spending.

The harbor and the city skyline are seen after sunset, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in the East Boston neighborhood of Boston.

The harbor and the city skyline of Boston in 2022. City governments face a lot of work to implement the goals of the Inflation Reduction Act. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The landmark climate change law passed last year relies heavily on cities and towns to implement some key provisions, but some aren’t yet ready to take on the challenge.

City governments, still battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, struggling to retain staff and being pulled in all directions, could be the difference when it comes to fully realizing the Inflation Reduction Act’s promises in areas like electrification and environmental justice.

The place where most of the nitty gritty of implementation for municipalities will take place is in local sustainability offices, which typically deal with encouraging environmentally friendly infrastructure, building standards and low-emission transportation, among other efforts. And a lot of them are unprepared for what’s coming.


“As a whole, I think sustainability offices — probably all of us — are not positioned to take this on,” Jenny Hernandez, the sustainability specialist for Las Cruces, N.M., told E&E News. She said lack of staffing in her office will likely mean the city will miss out on applying for an environmental justice grant. “I think for a lot of municipalities, sustainability is not well understood or valued, and is therefore not well equipped. A lot of municipalities haven’t quite grasped how sustainability is interdisciplinary and touches every department.”

The Biden administration is trying to help, with outreach and assistance to aid cities in applying for funds and carrying out programs. Outside groups and the private sector are pitching in as well. But municipal leaders and experts say there is a significant risk that many cities could miss out on valuable benefits they could get under the $369 billion climate and energy portions of the law.

Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said she’s concerned that cities aren’t staffing up with specialists to prepare for implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act in a way similar to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, sometimes known as the stimulus bill.

“There doesn’t seem to be the clear understanding that we have New Deal-level of investments in this country for a transformation that is historic. But in order for that promise to be realized, there needs to be a drastically different approach at the local level to how the money gets there, to how the federal government engages, and right now we just don’t see the capacity to do that,” she said recently.

“That is definitely what keeps me up at night,” Goldfuss said.

Aaron Deslatte, an Indiana University, Bloomington, professor who studies climate and sustainability efforts by local governments, agrees.

“Cities are essentially the implementers of this climate legislation, and they’re not ready,” he said, pointing to “changes in the built environment” as one of the key themes of the Inflation Reduction Act. He also has concerns that rural and poor areas might get the short stick when it comes to funding.

Missing out on EJ grant

Las Cruces’ main goal for Inflation Reduction Act funding is to use the various grants and rebates to establish a program to pay for electrification of low-income residents’ homes, installing appliances like heat pumps and electric water heaters to people who otherwise could not afford them.

The city has been able to plan for funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, also called the IRA, mostly because its leaders passed an electrification plan in 2021, which allowed it to spend time planning for many of the initiatives that dovetail with the new law, Hernandez said.

“Prior to the IRA, we thought we would have to subsidize that on our own,” she said.

Still, Hernandez feels like many other cities are far better equipped. She’s one of just two full-time staffers in the sustainability office and has already had to think about what funding opportunities Las Cruces might miss out on simply because it doesn’t have the staff.

One program that’s likely on the chopping block is EPA’s $3 billion in Climate and Environmental Justice Block Grants, at least for now. EPA formally started soliciting applications last month from community groups and local, state and tribal governments for an initial $100 million round of grants. The initial round was announced in January, with applications due in April.

“I don’t think that is enough time for us to submit a robust grant application,” Hernandez said.

City vs. state

While municipalities are not the main beneficiaries of the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate and energy funding — the largest chunks of money go to purposes like low-emission energy and electric vehicles — they nonetheless can benefit from some of its programs and help businesses, nonprofits and individuals to take advantage of others.

Some programs can go directly to the municipalities themselves, skipping over state governments that could be hostile to the law and try to stand in the way. In 2009, Republican governors worked to block funding from the stimulus law from going to their states, the Associated Press reported at the time, spurring the U.S. Conference of Mayors to ask federal officials to find ways to let cities access the programs directly.

EPA is working to set up the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, sometimes called a “green bank.” While details are still being hashed out, some of the $27 billion program can likely benefit or be administered by cities, thus circumventing state governments.

C40 and Climate Mayors, two organizations that aim to promote city climate initiatives, published a guide in October that’s meant to help local leaders navigate the law and its potential opportunities, both those directly for cities and those that cities might be able to help with, like encouraging businesses to apply for the energy tax breaks.

“We certainly see this as a big climate win. But we know that there are components that could work against our climate goals if we’re not careful in showing our due diligence. And some of that is a local role,” said Kate Wright, executive director of Climate Mayors.

Wright said cities can play a major role in making the Inflation Reduction Act a success.

“The flip side of that would be not meeting the moment and not coming out of this proving very strongly that investment in climate projects at the local, regional, state and national level results in green jobs, results in savings for homeowners, results in greenhouse gas emission reduction and improved air quality and improved quality of life,” she said.

Boston: We’re ready

One city that’s working to make the most of the law is Boston.

Mayor Michelle Wu came into office in 2021 on a platform that included aggressive efforts to implement a Green New Deal on the local level. She appointed Oliver Sellers-Garcia last year to be the city’s Green New Deal director, and he’s taken a leading role in IRA implementation, too.

“We as cities recognized from the beginning that we are enormously important as implementers. A lot of it is going to be left to us, as cities and states, to implement, either directly or where we have a really important role,” Sellers-Garcia said about his role in carrying out the new climate law’s programs.

He said Boston is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act because it already sets aggressive decarbonization goals, particularly for transportation and buildings, and has programs in place to build out a workforce targeted to those goals. The climate law can help fund those initiatives.

“We’re getting ourselves ready to understand what the scale of new funding can do within our existing way of doing things, which is a leg up over letting the funding drive the creation of something new,” he said.

Sellers-Garcia is most excited about the law’s funding for building and home energy efficiency and electrification programs. But he also is focused on the environmental justice, Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, and Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant programs.

Concern over rural, poor areas

Deslatte, the professor at Indiana University, said that the money for cities will be spent, but he has concerns about whether poorer, rural or other disadvantaged areas will get what they need.

He commissioned a survey last year, before the Inflation Reduction Act passed, on sustainability programs for cities above 20,000 in population. It found that just 47 percent had any dedicated sustainability staff and just 41 percent had never applied for a sustainability grant.

“What we tend to see in the research on local government sustainability and climate action is that the governments that are the most active are the governments that are generally wealthier, have more resources. And unfortunately, those are the governments that, all other things being equal, will be more competitive for these grants,” he said.

Deslatte encouraged the federal government to be more proactive in its outreach to cities and to learn some lessons from past major laws that benefitted local governments, like the 2009 stimulus bill. He cited the Department of Energy’s help for cities on messaging and public relations for Recovery Act programs, which was meant to push back against local opposition stemming from that law.

At risk is “disproportionate” results from the law.

“We’re going to have two different landscapes that emerge. Some of them will benefit massively from these investments and others will be further disinvested in,” he said. “That’s a very real concern, especially in rural areas and areas that don’t have as much community wealth.”