Climate, Energy, and the Environment
The effects of climate change, along with innovations in energy production and grid modernization, are shaping both our built and natural environments. Planners may look to these trends as input for their long-range and current planning processes, to practice strategic foresight during community visioning processes, for scenario planning, or simply to inform future decision-making.
The trends are structured in three timeframes, which indicate the urgency of planners' action:
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Renewable energy is growing rapidly worldwide; investment in solar surpassed investment in oil for the first time in 2023, though global renewable electricity generation still lags behind 2030 Paris Climate Agreement targets. The Inflation Reduction Act promised $60 billion in incentives for wind and solar power generation, with potential impacts ranging from job creation to a more robust and clean energy grid. As it stands, however, only three of 50 identified components of the energy system (solar photovoltaics, electric vehicles, and lighting) were on track to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a report from the International Energy Agency.
On a positive note, as of January 2023, the Los Angeles City Council has prohibited new oil extraction operations and mandated the shutdown of existing ones within 20 years, and Ecuadorians subsequently made history in August by voting to ban oil drilling in the Amazon. In March of that year, conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Interior Department for its alleged lack of response to a petition advocating for the gradual phase-out of oil and gas extraction on federal public lands. Moreover, conservation organizations have initiated legal proceedings against the Bureau of Land Management to halt the unlawful drilling of numerous oil and gas wells in California's San Joaquin Valley. As fights against fossil fuels simultaneously grow along with increased renewable energy production, planners should explore pathways for expanding the needed infrastructure and ready themselves to contend with public concerns in the areas most affected by these changes. Explore APA's Solar@Scale guidebook to learn how planners can make better decisions to improve large-scale solar development outcomes.
Improving building performance has increasingly been a focus of federal and local policy. In 2022 the Biden Administration released the first-ever federal building performance standard aiming at increased electrification and net-zero emissions in all federal buildings by 2045, and 2023 saw the White House announcing plans to adopt building energy standards for new houses financed by the federal government. While some states have likewise advanced aggressive building codes to reduce energy intensity, others have passed legislation to make building codes more lenient concerning efficiency. Geothermal energy also gained traction in 2023, with the U.S. Department of Energy funding community-scale demonstration projects.
Improving the efficiency of existing buildings can greatly reduce carbon emissions. These techniques combined with passive design strategies are also useful for new construction, as shown by a recently constructed Boston skyscraper that uses 67 percent less energy than comparable buildings. Planners should take these practices and standards into account when considering new developments.
An increasing number of cities are considering urban forests and the integration of nature-based solutions to resolve myriad urban challenges. In December 2023 the U.S. Department of the Interior announced its support of such strategies. The UN Environment Programme has a suite of toolkits on how to implement nature-based solutions, with benefits ranging from climate change mitigation to loneliness in cities. Nature-based solutions, and the role of planning and planners, are also explored in the APA Learn course "Nature-Based Solutions for Hazard Mitigation and Community Resilience."
Our planet is experiencing what scientists are calling "the sixth great mass extinction." Wildlife populations have seen an average decline of 69 percent in the last 50 years, and extinction rates are far beyond any that have existed in modern history. For all planners, promoting coexistence between people and wildlife will be key and will likely require collaboration with biologists and wildlife experts. This is especially true in the case of rewilding, which ultimately seeks to limit human intervention in ecosystem restoration. Often, this consists of the reintroduction of a species to an area, such as gray wolves that were released in Colorado in December 2023, or a bison rewilding program that began in the UK in 2022. Such projects require a shift of cultural attitudes regarding how human development interacts with the needs of animals. Rewilding is just one piece of this puzzle, but one for which planners may be called upon to consult.
As the impacts of climate change continue to become more pronounced, people globally are facing increasing shortages of clean water. According to UNICEF, roughly four billion people worldwide experience at least one month of extreme water scarcity per year, and by 2030 nearly 700 million people could be displaced as a result of water scarcity. Construction process improvements, agroforestry, sand dams, and conservation-focused legislation are all avenues to pursue in expanding access to clean water. Planners should play a major role in building stronger links between land use and water resource management, particularly in the realm of community organizing. For more on the impacts of water scarcity and the potential major role for planning and planners across the U.S., check out "Integrating Land Use and Water Planning for a Sustainable Future" from the July 2021 issue of Planning.
The Inflation Reduction Act takes major steps toward addressing methane emissions, which are a sizable contributor to climate change. A byproduct of oil and gas production, methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. A series of new incentives and regulatory measures could significantly reduce these emissions. The IRA allows Congress to penalize companies that exceed certain methane leakage limits, though this extends only to certain types of facilities. A new federal rule from 2023, however, intends to eliminate 58 million tons of methane emissions by 2038 and will go into effect in two years. These and other measures signal a shift toward holistic emissions reduction strategies and a new willingness to address these especially harmful emissions through regulatory means, which are likely to affect planners in oil- and gas-dominated production areas.
Extreme heat is one of the deadliest climate risks worldwide, and in urban areas, its effects are especially pronounced. 2023 was the hottest year on record, and August saw 170 million Americans placed under dangerous heat advisories. Extreme heat has a cascade of impacts, including increased health risks, population displacement, and an expanded wildfire season, all of which compound each other. Communities are working to better characterize the danger posed by extreme heat and to develop strategies and tools for mitigating its impacts, and the National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors are urging Congress to pass proposed bipartisan legislation that would explicitly include extreme heat in the federal government's definition of a major disaster.
Some innovations and experimentation are on the horizon. In Spain, Madrid is experimenting with wind gardens to cool down parts of the city by up to 4°C; a coalition of U.S. cities is working to roll out innovative data analysis tools to identify and quickly remedy major heat impacts; and in Switzerland, Lake Geneva is being tapped as a means to actively cool buildings. Planners everywhere should be prepared for the consequences of rising temperatures and work to understand how mitigation and adaptation measures can be implemented in their communities. Such strategies are explored in PAS Report 600, Planning for Urban Heat, and PAS QuickNotes 95, "Urban Heat Resilience."
Climate displacement is on the rise. In 2022 alone, nearly 33 million people across the globe were displaced due to natural disasters, which were also responsible for the loss of more than three million homes in the U.S. alone. As climate change continues to worsen, these numbers are expected to grow and accelerate. By 2050, more than one billion people may be displaced due to climate-related impacts. As a result, the concept of managed retreat is back in the spotlight, and renewed discussion has sought to better characterize it as a package of potential actions rather than the wholesale abandonment of at-risk areas. A June 2023 report from the University of Massachusetts in concert with representatives from coastal communities across the state identified a variety of complementary tools for managed retreat, including enhanced setbacks, deed restrictions, green infrastructure, and an array of zoning and planning actions.
Yet continued development in hazardous areas is still the norm. In North Carolina, for every buyout, 10 new homes have been built in floodplains. There is a similar dynamic in wildfire-prone areas, as new homes are increasingly being built on the site of previous forest and grassland fires. Slowly though, this dynamic may be starting to shift, given recent actions by insurers in California and Florida to no longer serve homeowners in high-risk areas. This conflict between meeting the need for new development while ensuring that this development is safe from worsening climate impacts is likely to be a major challenge for planners in the coming years, and adaptation will be critical to both prepare for the movement of people due to climate-related impacts and more proactively retreat from especially high-risk areas. Explore the January 2021 Planning article "Climate Migrants Are on the Move" to learn more about the present and future of climate migration and the role it may play in driving population growth and loss in cities across the U.S.
The U.S. is continuing climate action under the Biden Administration. This is evidenced in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as the $1 billion America the Beautiful challenge to conserve 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030 and the March 2023 release of an Ocean Climate Action Plan. Planners should stay up to date on avenues of funding that could benefit their communities, especially given that a lot of the allocated spending in bills such as the IRA has yet to be given out.
At the same time, youth in the U.S. and worldwide are also engaging in climate action. In 2023, a Montana judge ruled in favor of a group of youth who sued the state government for its failure to include climate change considerations when approving fossil fuel projects, and a group of youth activists in Ontario are engaged in an ongoing legal fight following the province's weakening of its 2030 climate target. Youth climate rallies are happening in cities from Indianapolis to San Diego to Tucson, Arizona. APA has myriad resources on climate action, including the Climate Action Policy Guide, the PAS Report Planning for Climate Mitigation and Adaptation, the APA blog post "7 Ways to Plan a Stronger Climate Change Response," and the September 2021 Planning article "How to Overcome Local Pushback on Climate Action."
Climate change is not only increasing the frequency of natural disasters, such as coastal storms, severe flooding, and wildfires, it is also leading to more significant impacts on communities. Federal flood maps are increasingly outdated and both landlocked and coastal communities are flooding much more frequently. Natural disasters also tend to compound, as evidenced by the severe flooding, wildfires, biodiversity loss, and extreme heat now afflicting Hawaii. During the state's recent deadly wildfires, the burning of older buildings released asbestosinto the air, which then tainted the water supply. Impacts are becoming too severe and frequent for communities to manage on their own, and rarely can one type of crisis be looked at in isolation.
As a result, some cities and regions are even being connotated as "climate havens", or areas that have thus far experienced minimal effects of climate change. Ultimately though, there is consensus amongst experts that no place will be spared from damages. APA's Hazard Mitigation Policy Guide is a useful exploration of the impacts of natural hazards and the potential role of planning and planners in mitigation, adaptation, and long-term recovery.
In 2022, the global average sea level reached a record high, having risen four inches above 1993 levels. Polar ice cap melt is accelerating, and a 2024 study found that Greenland's ice sheet is melting 20 percent faster than previously believed. Pacific Island nations are disproportionately affected by sea level rise, with some at risk of being inundated as soon as 2050. A recent study of the EU and UK found that the costs of sea level rise could reach nearly €900 billion by 2100, and another report by the U.S. EPA demonstrated that coastal hazardous waste facilities could be impacted as soon as 2100, releasing pollutants into the groundwater. Planners and communities must act now to prepare for sea level rise today and into the future, which will jeopardize cultures, economies, and livelihoods. For more on the risks of sea level rise in coastal communities across the U.S., check out PAS Report 596,Planning for Infra structure Resilience.
A variety of provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act reflect a commitment at the federal level to reduce the exposure of underserved communities to direct climate impacts and provide funding to address chronic disinvestment and environmental neglect. The IRA commits upwards of $46 billion to climate justice priorities, including $8 billion to support emissions reductions for low-income, underserved, and underrepresented communities and $3 billion to address the historic injustices of highway development through urban neighborhoods.
While wealthy nations have largely contributed to climate change, poorer ones that have contributed the least have disproportionately felt the effects. One proposed solution is climate reparations, and COP28 in 2023 saw reinforced commitments from developed nations to contribute to a climate change loss and damage fund for developing countries. This will likely augment adaptation efforts in recipient nations and encourage planners elsewhere to think about how similar programs could fit into their work.
Mitigating the climate crisis requires the adoption of new technologies and industries, which likewise entails developing a workforce to support this transition. Currently, only one in eight workers globally possess at least one "green skill" about climate and sustainability, while the number of job postings mandating a green skill is greater than one in five. To address this discrepancy, in September 2023 the White House announced the American Climate Corps, a job training program to place up to 20,000 people in jobs related to climate change mitigation during its first year. Such federal programs provide support for climate action-related workforce development that is currently largely unavailable at the local level.
Outside of the green economy, climate change can affect local economies by way of decreased tourism or reduced agricultural output. Even in the absence of large-scale natural disasters, planners must integrate these broader downstream impacts on the health of local economies in their economic development considerations. This corresponds with the need for planners to upskill to prepare for new federal policies and programs, especially in the climate and energy sectors.
Wildfires are both a symptom and an amplifier of climate change. This dynamic became a vivid reality in 2023 as Canada's unprecedented wildfires burned thick layers of peat, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and causing more air quality alerts in major U.S. cities over two months than in the past 23 years. While this particular crisis has drawn international attention, poor air quality has been a major public health issue for decades, especially in underserved communities. In 2023, NOAA, NASA, and a group of leading universities launched a project to better track the sources of major air pollutants. Private foundations are stepping up global efforts such as the Bloomberg Philanthropies-led Breathe Cities initiative, which seeks to provide critical support, monitoring, and capacity-building tools for communities grappling with air quality challenges.
As temperatures warm in regions like northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, the potential for hotter and more intense wildfires that in turn release more carbon into the atmosphere also increases. Planners should be aware of this dynamic, consult and collaborate with experts, and learn more about emerging monitoring tools that will be critical to adapting to these challenges in the future.
In Quebec, the Magpie River, a sacred site and vital natural resource for the Innu First Nation, was recently granted legal personhood by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality. The rights bestowed on the river included the right to sue, the right to flow, and the right to be free from pollution. This highlights a trend that has been building for several years, both internationally and in the U.S. In 2019, the Yurok Tribe granted personhood to the Klamath River in northern California. Tribes and governments in Bolivia, Mexico, and Ecuador have also exercised this form of protection of their wetlands and other waters. Most notably, the Supreme Court of Colombia granted legal rights to the Amazon River ecosystem in 2018. It should be noted, however, that these rights aren't universally recognized by governments and decision-making bodies. This could complicate the use of this protective strategy without broader international recognition and interstate agreements. Planners should continue to monitor and be aware of these efforts, especially given their potential role in protecting vital natural resources.
The circular economy considers production processes and outlines how to reuse, repair, and recycle items, thus increasing sustainable manufacturing and consumption. In 2018, China stopped taking plastics from other countries, including the U.S. Since then, industries worldwide have begun to incorporate more circular economy practices into their work, from fashion to construction. As the imperative to reduce waste grows, planners should consider how to implement more of these strategies, including buyback programs, into their communities.
Single-use plastics refer to products that are usually used once and disposed of right after use, including plastic and polystyrene food and beverage containers, bottles, straws, cups, cutlery, and disposable plastic bags. Plastic production has exploded over the last decades, with one report finding that the world produced 139 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2021. States such as Colorado and Rhode Island, and cities including Pittsburgh and Irvine, California, have all passed bans on some form of single-use plastic, although a 2021 ban in Canada was recently overturned by a federal judge. With growing recognition of the negative externalities of plastics, it is likely that more such legislation will be passed in the future.
The dynamic relationship of pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, natural resources consumption, and socioeconomic factors is a grave cause for concern, especially over the next decade. According to the World Economic Forum, half of the world's economic production is considered moderately to highly reliant upon nature, and the collapse of ecosystems will not only lead to irreversible ecological damage but also catastrophic economic and societal outcomes. Potential consequences include increased frequency of zoonotic diseases, heightened water stress, worsening struggles over dwindling resources, decreases in crop yields and nutritional values, and loss of natural flood protection systems.
No single strategy will solve or reduce climate change effects on its own. Food system transformation efforts, enhanced sustainability of production and consumption patterns, conservation prioritization, and climate/hazard mitigation approaches that benefit nature are important to prevent reaching ecosystem tipping points. Nations, regions, and communities will need resilient and supportive infrastructure, tools, and data to help avoid ecological collapse and the destruction of vital natural resources.
Our world's oceans are crucial to global environmental and economic sustainability. When oceans are healthy, the natural benefits that they provide can mitigate the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and development issues around the world. These "blue carbon" ecosystems, which store five times as much atmospheric carbon as tropical forests and can absorb it three times as fast, could be gone in 100 years if not prioritized now. Globally, 50 percent of salt marshes, 35 percent of mangroves, and 30 percent of coral have been destroyed since the 1950s. The threats to ocean ecosystems and their significant and complex interconnection with the health of the entire planet add additional uncertainty to the future unfolding of climate change impacts. Planners, particularly in coastal areas, must pay attention to how their work intersects with these environments.
The construction industry is shifting towards more sustainable practices, including the use of lumber, which sequesters carbon and emits fewer emissions than concrete. Stockholm Wood City, a massive 60-acre mass timber development, plans to host 7,000 offices and 2,000 homes, setting new eco-friendly standards. Additionally, innovative solutions are reducing the environmental impact of traditional building materials. CarbonCure Technologies stores carbon within concrete, and mycelium in fungi is being developed into bricks.
The adoption of green construction and growth in climate-friendly financial markets is projected to cut the construction industry's carbon footprint by 23 percent by 2035 and unlock $1.5 trillion in new investment opportunities in emerging markets over the next decade. This trend is significant as it promotes sustainable building practices and encourages a shift away from carbon-intensive materials, influencing construction standards and codes. Moreover, it fosters circularity in the construction industry, which could have far-reaching implications for sustainability goals.
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Ongoing innovations in fusion power could lead to the power of the sun at our fingertips. Recent breakthroughs in waste- and emissions-free fusion energy could help to eliminate the drawbacks of fission-based nuclear power and solve critical questions about global energy needs. While practical fusion energy is still likely decades away, National Ignition Facility scientists in July 2023 again successfully generated energy in a fusion reaction. This experiment nearly doubled the energy output of the initial breakthrough in 2022, demonstrating continued advancements in the field. On the heels of this work, the Biden administration recently announced plans to build the world's first commercial fusion energy plant within a decade. While ambitious, advancements within this timeline could be key to addressing the climate crisis. The potential impacts of fusion power are extremely difficult to quantify, but if scalable and practical it could likely outcompete all of the existing energy sources in use today. Planners should take note of developments in this field and think of possible avenues for their communities to become involved.
Long the domain of science fiction, technology that extracts energy from the air itself has taken a few small steps toward reality. First emerging in 2020, "air generator" technology is based on the same principle behind clouds and the formation of lightning by capitalizing on the latent energy in ambient humidity. Recent innovations have successfully demonstrated this technology with common porous materials (such as wood), and at larger scales than previously shown. These "larger-scale" demonstrations are relative, however, with one prototype generating nearly enough power to light just a single pixel. There are major challenges of scale, cost, and long-term reliability as the technology is far more efficient in more humid environments. Nevertheless, future developments and the deployment of this technology at scale could signal major energy implications for the future.
The concept of resurrection biology is centered on the revival or recreation of extinct species. The impacts of climate change and the steady march of ecosystem loss are leading to the rapid extinction of plant and animal species across the world. Notably, resurrection biology might be critical not just to bring back long-lost species, but to reverse the ongoing extinction of current species.
Current de-extinction science relies on three different methods: cloning (using DNA of extinct species to clone new animals), back-breeding (for example, selectively breeding elephants to recreate extinct mammoths), and gene editing (adding or removing traits from existing species' DNA to recreate extinct species). While fanfare around this technology often focuses on animals like mammoths, it offers several practical use cases, such as to combat insect extinctions, which are a major threat to the resilience of the global food supply and the health of ecosystems. If critical extinctions do occur, this technology might one day be vital to reversing major impacts by reviving key species. Planners should consider not just the long-term implications of this technology, but also the present-day circumstances (ecosystem loss and the rapid extinction of plant and animal species) that drive its continued relevance.
An emerging approach to solar installations, floating solar arrays ("floatovoltaics") are a demonstrated technology with some significant upsides. At large scales, they can cover up to 30 percent of lakes or reservoirs, with the added benefits of reducing evaporation in times of drought and reducing algae blooms. These arrays also stay cooler than land-based arrays, resulting in more efficient collection and storage. Floating solar arrays are already in active use at Fort Bragg in the U.S, the Netherlands, and at much larger scales in China and South Korea. There are concerns that large-scale use of floating arrays may cause unforeseen damage to local ecosystems in natural lakes, though there is significant potential for their use in reservoirs. Much like other forms of renewable energy, the growth of this technology would likely lead to local conflicts around the use of natural areas for the siting of renewables.
An experimental class of new batteries aims to both generate and store energy from the natural decomposition of soil. Bioo, a Barcelona-based startup, has been developing a series of panels that can be buried beneath the soil to capture latent energy from biological processes. This energy can be used on-site to power a variety of potential uses, such as irrigation systems and above-ground lighting. The applications might be significant within the agricultural sector, as these biological batteries may prove to be useful for an array of necessary sensors for monitoring crop health currently powered by chemical batteries that must be changed regularly. Though the technology isn't yet being developed at scale, Bioo is attracting attention from major agricultural corporations that may benefit from major cost and labor savings.
Though technically a form of geoengineering, direct air capture (DAC) is rarely referred to as such, given that it is significantly less risky than other methods of this approach. Interest in this technology has been rapidly growing, with venture capitalist funding for carbon capture and storage initiatives totaling $1.8 billion by the end of the first quarter of 2023. In August 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it would invest $1.2 billion towards developing regional DAC hubs across the country. Another form of geoengineering - solar radiation management (SRM) - is more controversial, and encapsulates several technologies that reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. Methods proposed to achieve this include marine cloud brightening through aerosols, cirrus cloud thinning to permit more heat escape from Earth, and sun shields in space and stratospheric aerosol scattering in the upper atmosphere that would reflect light away from Earth. Though the indirect effects of SRM are not well established, both the Biden administration and the EU have signaled that they are open to the prospect of studying SRM, and over the past three years NOAA has invested $22 million into SRM research.
The debate over SRM largely stems from its unknown impacts, as well as the risk of termination shock it carries, whereby if its implementation was suddenly stopped, warming could accelerate to exceed current projections. Additionally, its effects would not be limited to one country's borders, so there is growing debate over how it should be governed, and by whom. The international organization Degrees is currently working to confront these challenges by engaging with countries that would be most vulnerable to SRM. While geoengineering at large is still the focus of much debate, forms of it have been in practice for some time. Trees bioengineered to grow more quickly and store more carbon are starting to move from concept to reality. Biotechnology company Living Carbon planted genetically modified poplar seedlings on public land in Georgia in 2023 and intends to plant upward of four million more by mid-2024, though critics have begun to voice concerns over the lack of multigenerational research into the modified trees and their interactions with other organisms over time. Cloud seeding is another in-use form of geoengineering that induces precipitation by "seeding" clouds with specialized mixtures of chemicals or other materials. While the practice has been used throughout the world for decades, it is expanding into new markets as crises around the availability of water, persistent drought, and desertification take hold. In the U.S., Nevada, Utah, Texas, Idaho, California, and New Mexico have all expanded their use of the technology, and Mexico has commissioned cloud-seeding firms to relieve persistent drought conditions in key areas.
Energy production from space-based solar power is beginning to attract attention from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the UK government. In the quest for identifying zero-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels, space-based solar power, unimpeded by day/night cycles or efficiency loss due to the atmosphere, is increasingly being investigated. A year-long demonstration project by CalTech was completed in 2023, and results suggest that this could be a feasible future. If ultimately successful, this type of technology could reimagine renewable energy production, and open up a variety of land areas on Earth that are currently devoted to wind and solar.
APA's foresight research is made possible in part through our partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.