External ContentFail Better! Lessons from Effective Climate Action

Fail Better! Lessons from Effective Climate Action

External Content
External Content
This content was kindly provided by a guest writer. If you would like to contribute to our platform, please visit https://citychangers.org/contributors-guide/

Cities have been identified as key actors for reaching adequate emissions reductions, but still fall short on the effectiveness of their actions. The City of Helsinki is no exception. But we have recently begun to pay attention to these notions by critically reviewing and renewing our city climate action plan. In this article, we share what we found out, the lessons Helsinki learnt, and take you through the steps for drawing up an impactful climate action plan of your own.

Time is running out!

The past seven years were the warmest on record. March 2022 was the fifth hottest since records began in 1850, and both poles saw record-setting heat waves, with Antarctica temperatures at times nearly 40°C above the normal level.

In 2021, four key climate change indicators – greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat, and ocean acidification – set new record highs.

In response to global warming, already in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) requested rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. Even so, the 2022 World Cities Report stated that “[t]he transition to net zero [greenhouse gas] emissions has been marked by a lack of ambition and policy pitfalls”.

So, how can cities know if their actions have the desired impact? And how should we prioritise public mitigation investments in a reality where no organisation has endless resources for trial and error?


Key Challenges in Climate Action Plans

Helsinki’s previous City Strategy 2017-2021 aimed to make Finland’s capital carbon neutral by 2035. To operationalise this target, 147 actions were written into the Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 Action Plan.

In 2021, the new City Strategy 2021–2025 cut five years from the target, promising to reach carbon neutrality already by 2030. Consequently, the actions in the original plan had to be reviewed to reach the target on time. Their effectiveness and additionality were assessed to ensure that they provide the adequate foundations for reaching this ambitious target.

The review was coordinated by the city’s climate unit and decided by the City Board. A decision was also taken to review the plan regularly on a yearly basis to ensure that the actions are based on up-to-date information.

There is no single universal definition for effectiveness. As a rule of thumb, we can measure the scale of change an action achieves towards reaching a desired target.

Additionality, on the other hand, means that the action is separate from work that is done in any case and would not be implemented outside of a climate action plan.

Upon review, only 5% of the additionality actions directly corresponded to the set target. Over 90% of the actions did not contribute at all. Actively reflecting on the success of the targets like this allowed Helsinki to renew and refocus the action plan. They improved both effectiveness and additionality – and designed actions that got better results based on the agreed set criteria.

Climate Action Plan analysis - CityChangers.org
Figure 1. Analysis of the effectiveness and additionality of the actions of the previous Carbon neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan. Image credit: Susa Eräranta & Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen

This example clearly demonstrates why assessing the effectiveness and additionality of current climate actions is so important – especially when operating with limited public resources. If just 5% of actions contribute to the plan’s targets, the majority of time and resources spent on them are wasted.

Overall, the key challenges in current climate action planning were identified as forgetting to consider or implement the:

  • effectiveness of actions, with the focus instead shifting to quantity.
  • big picture: the focus gets lost in the details.
  • target, as the focus instead shifts to the promotion of the common good.
  • new information, and so the focus remains on actions chosen years ago.
  • clarity and assignment of actions. Nobody feels responsible for those chosen.

The way forward: clear targets, indicators, and effective actions.

But when the current climate action planning traditions do not provide adequate outcomes, how can we identify which targets, indicators, and actions are actually needed? And which of them should be prioritised? Strategic management provides some answers.

Step 1: Set Actionable Targets

One of the most important parts of effective climate mitigation is to set an actionable target, which can be monitored along the way.

A good target clearly defines the outcome that you are trying to achieve, such as: “An emissions reduction of x by the year y”.

Sub-targets should be derived directly from the target, such as: “Transport distances travelled will decrease by x km within a time-frame of y months/years”.

A target should clearly define the verb, the object, the current state, the target state, and time – as outlined below – before we move on to set the indicators:

Define a CAP target - CityChangers.org
Figure 2: Defining a target. Image credit: Susa Eräranta & Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen

Step 2: Define Indicators

Monitoring is a key part of strategy implementation and ensuring targets are achieved.

The number of indicators does not need to be high, as long as they are relevant. In the case of an emissions reduction plan, the most important indicator is usually the change in total emissions output.

An indicator should clearly define the connection to the target, relevance, and the monitoring cycle as outlined in figure 3, before moving on to identify the actions needed:

Define CAP indicators - CityChangers.org
Figure 3: Defining an indicator. Image credit: Susa Eräranta & Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen

Step 3: Identify & Assess Actions

When the target(s) and the indicators are defined, effective actions for reaching them need to be identified and prioritised.

Effective action is always based on a clearly defined target and contributes to achieving that chosen target. Actions that do not contribute to that should not be included.

Assessment of the effectiveness depends on the target and is always context dependent. To assess the potential effectiveness, actions need to be measurable on the same scale as the actual target.

For example, the effectiveness of climate mitigation actions needs to be measured against the emissions reduction target. A good action should clearly define additionality, effectiveness, feasibility, clarity, assignment of responsibility, timescales, and monitoring as outlined in figure 4:

Define Climate Action Plan actions - CityChangers.org
Figure 4: Defining an action. Image credit: Susa Eräranta & Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen

An action plan is effective only if it manages to allocate the available and (presumably scarce) resources to individual actions, which will deliver the set target. Based on the scale of effectiveness, actions can then be prioritised.

Effective Climate Actions in a Nutshell

Climate leadership must be founded on learning through critical reflection. To reach the agreed targets, climate actions need to reach beyond beautiful words and general sustainability rhetoric to their actual effectiveness.

A climate action plan itself will not lead to emissions reductions unless effective actions are defined and implemented. The targets will only be reached by taking the necessary actions.

Key learning points for the process are:

  • Build an action plan based around a clearly defined target, indicators, and actions.
  • Focus on the effectiveness of actions instead of their quantity.
  • Maintain an overview of progress towards the target.
  • Define a sufficiently frequent update cycle for the action plan so that corrective measures can be implemented promptly.
  • Encourage participation from desired target groups by channelling a broad field of representation and voices.

Further Reading

A guidebook detailing the insights, reflections, and guidelines learnt in Helsinki has been published and is available for free. It includes clear principles and provides examples of the formulation of targets, indicators, actions, and general instructions for preparing an action plan and managing it throughout its lifecycle.

We also challenge other cities to score their climate action plans based on effectivity and additionality and to join the dialogue on how to reach the targets in time!

This article was written for CityChangers.com by Ms Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen, who works as a Head of Climate Unit at the City of Helsinki, and Dr Susa Eräranta, Project Director at the City of Helsinki and Professor of Practice at the Aalto University. Collectively, they lead on climate change mitigation in Finland’s capital city through strategic planning and management.

You Might Also Like