Article News from the Institute for the Local Government By Karalee Browne

So you have a climate action plan and a budget deficit. What now?

Karalee Browne is the assistant executive director for the Institute for Local Government; she can be reached at

A report released earlier this year found that many local government respondents are prioritizing climate action. Roughly three-quarters of city respondents either have a climate action plan, are creating one, or are preparing to adopt one. However, with local budgets shrinking and staff resources at a minimum, many of those same cities are also looking for ways to do more with less.

The state views these voluntary, local plans as key to meeting its carbon neutrality goals. The Institute for Local Government’s BOOST Program, a partnership with the Strategic Growth Council that helps cities prioritize climate work, has worked with several cities — including Paramount, East Palo Alto, and Bakersfield — to develop strategies, conduct public outreach, and find funding for climate action plans. Many of those cities are now working to implement them on a budget. Here’s what they’ve learned.

Paramount leverages energy savings

Paramount was part of a regional climate action plan when they joined the BOOST program, but city leaders wanted a plan that better reflected their residents’ input. Their local plan centers on policies and cost-effective programs that the city and residents can implement in an ongoing, sustainable way. These strategies align with community values, such as improving public health, promoting sustainable economics, reducing costs, improving social equity, and increasing community resilience. 

The city developed the plan with careful consideration to its financial impacts, local and public health benefits, and the synergy with existing city and regional plans. “We saw immediate benefit from the local climate action plan,” said Adriana Figueroa, director of public works. “It helped us prioritize our projects and be more competitive for grant funding.”

In the first year, the city council supported the plan with $100,000 from the General Fund, which was put towards energy efficiency projects throughout the city. The savings from those projects allow the city to continue with additional projects.

Paramount just signed a multimillion-dollar contract to install new smart water meters throughout the city. The smart meters will allow the city to more accurately track and bill for residential water use, reducing water usage, staff time, and revenue loss. It’s good for the environment and the city’s financial position.

“We are chipping away at our list of projects a little bit at a time,” Figueroa said. “We must balance our ambitions with what we can afford.”

East Palo Alto relies on partnerships

East Palo Alto updated its climate action plan in September 2023. After adopting the plan, the city hired a sustainability coordinator to implement the strategies and track the city’s progress. Council Member Rubin Abrica says while the city has a very tight budget, it is important to invest in staff that can help keep the city on track and evaluate opportunities.

“We need to get creative and identify all the things that we can keep going,” he said. “Some efforts are more costly in the long run if we don’t do them now.”

The city council has developed strong policies regarding new development and energy use, which are helping the city meet its sustainability goals at little to no cost. East Palo Alto also works with county and regional groups, like SamTrans and Peninsula Clean Energy, as well as nonprofits to implement priority programs.

“In the absence of a lot of money, we find partners with their own networks and basis of support,” said Abrica. “We can jointly apply for grants to do projects that meet mutual goals and benefit our community.”

Bakersfield focuses on building support

After receiving feedback from residents and other stakeholders, Bakersfield adjusted its approach to climate action planning.  Rather than creating a standalone document, staff recommended that the city address the state’s energy and sustainability requirements through its current General Plan Update. The city’s development services and planning director, Paul Johnson, says this approach addresses resiliency within a broader land-use planning context while considering the diverse feedback the city received from its community on the draft plan. 

“We are committed to engaging with the community, fostering partnerships, and capitalizing on available resources to reach our goals,” he said.

While the city will not have a specific climate action plan, Johnson anticipates creating locally prioritized policies will make the city more competitive for the grant dollars the city needs to move forward with eligible infrastructure projects that have broad community support.

What if my city can’t afford a climate action plan?

Last year, ILG joined forces with the Berkeley Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment to better understand local climate action in California. We found that climate action plans are important, but not necessary, for action. Developing a greenhouse gas inventory and engaging the community to prioritize certain reduction strategies is very beneficial. However, most plans lack funding strategies, which often makes them difficult to implement — especially during financial hardship.

ILG has developed a framework, consisting of hundreds of actions that local governments have implemented, for cities that cannot afford a costly and time-intensive climate action planning process. Through its Beacon Program, ILG collects policies, programs, and projects that have been implemented by local agencies throughout California. These initiatives are available through a new online resource: the Local Climate Action Library.

These actions cover ten areas of sustainability, including energy, waste, transportation, land use, low-carbon fuels, and climate-friendly purchasing. Many of these actions promote equitable solutions and community partnerships. Cities can implement many of these activities at no cost.

The options in this framework vary in complexity and effort and are designed to be adaptable. Every jurisdiction can find practices that meet their unique needs, strengths, circumstances, and budgets.