Local Environmental Law Hits the World Stage

Local environmental law took center stage last month as a coalition of US states and cities gathered at the international climate conference in Bonn, Germany under the rallying cry “We Are Still In.”  Led by California Governor Jerry Brown, the coalition presented an alternative US presence as a rebuke to the Trump Administration’s retreat on climate leadership.

The US Climate Alliance claims to be taking the lead on responding to climate change while the federal government is promoting a continued reliance on fossil fuels.  The alliance says that is on track to meet or exceed its share of greenhouse gas emissions reductions agreed to by the US under former President Obama as part of the Paris Agreement, which the Trump Administration plans to abandon.

But what is local environmental law, and how could it combat climate change?  Local environmental law is, simply put, environmental law enacted by local governments, including things like land use, zoning, and building regulations.  States also implement a variety of laws affecting the environment, like erosion and sedimentation control statutes and laws that track or implement federal legislation, like the National Environmental Policy Act or the Clean Water Act.

United Nations bodies are keenly aware of the important link between land use and climate change and are already working in this area, but so much land use, especially in the US, is regulated at the local level, making actions by local governments an exceedingly important part of a meaningful response to climate change.

Here in Atlanta, these actions include a new local ordinance requiring most new construction in the city to include infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations.  The “EV Ready” ordinance requires 20% of parking spaces in new commercial and multifamily parking structures to accommodate electric vehicles and requires all new residential homes to include electrical capacity and other infrastructure to support the installation of electric vehicle charging stations.

MARTA is further bolstering the city’s green transportation infrastructure by moving forward with transit oriented development.  The transit agency is currently building mix-use developments at its Avondale and Edgewood/Candler Park stations and has held public hearings about developing other stations in a climate-friendly manner.  Transit oriented development is an important strategy for taking cars off the road by locating housing and businesses on or near transit lines to reduce people’s reliance on cars.

Both of these strategies could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and other strategies local governments could pursue to reduce emissions might include preserving green space and either requiring or rewarding greater energy efficiency in local building codes.  Local governments might also pursue so-called climate exactions, or fees on new development meant to put a price on carbon.

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