The University of Arizona

Land Use Planning in the Changing Climate of the West

Author Profile: 
An assessment of western state climate plans finds many communities could cost-efficiently reduce their emissions by about 20 percent if their land use planning-related policies were fully implemented.
Background Image: 

NOTE: This article is based on a report written by Rebecca Carter (then with the Sonoran Institute) written for the Sonoran Institute-Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Joint Venture, May 2008

Land use planners have long had a hand in shaping the communities of the western U.S.— particularly in recent decades, as the region’s population has exploded, the economy has changed, and limited resources such as water, energy, and open space have had to be shared among more residents. Now a new challenge, global climate change, is adding another dimension to the role of land use planners in determining the future of the West.

Aerial photo of city/farm interface near Phoenix, AZ

Urban/farm interface near Phoenix, Arizona.
Credit: ©Terry Wilson,

The need for rapid implementation of effective land use-related climate action policies is particularly urgent in the Intermountain West, where projected population growth means continued rapid development of houses, commercial and service buildings; transportation, water, and energy systems; and indeed entire communities. Land use planners in this region have a unique opportunity to determine the region’s future in a changing climate.

Land use-related climate change policies have the potential to be among the most cost-effective and efficient ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if the land use planning-related policies contained in Western state climate action plans were fully implemented, it could reduce current total greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 20 percent and result in cost savings for many communities. Key aspects of many of these policies, including their potential effectiveness in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and the cost to implement them, can be found in state-level climate action plans.

This article discusses research regarding what those policies are, their potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and their cost effectiveness.

Definition of “land use-related climate change policies”

The phrase “land use-related climate change policies” is a bit cumbersome, but it accurately describes a specific set of policies primarily intended to mitigate further climate change (although many of these measures have adaptation value as well). Implementation of these policies is within the purview of land use planners and other local decision makers. In fact, although state climate action plans include many such policies, they cannot be effectively implemented without the support and initiative of local city and county governments.

These policies include:

  • Green/energy-efficient buildings – municipal, industrial, commercial, residential
  • Transit-related
    • Reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) through smart growth principles such as walkable communities, mixed use, high density development, etc.
    • Increases in mass transit
    • Transit-oriented development
  • Alternative energy – distributed generation and combined heat and power within urban areas
  • Open space conservation
  • Urban forestry
  • Wild land – urban interface fire management (building or zoning regulations)

Analysis of western state climate action plans

Despite the lack of federal action to curb climate change, western states are leading the way in enacting policies to accomplish this goal. When this research was conducted in fall 2007, eight of the 11 western states had produced climate action plans. Five of these plans had sufficiently quantified both the potential emissions reduction effectiveness and the cost effectiveness of various policies such that they could be analyzed. The state-level climate action plans examined, along with their release dates, are:

  • Arizona Climate Action Plan – August 6, 2006
  • California Climate Action Team Report – March 2006; and
    • Updated Macroeconomic Analysis of Climate Strategies Presented in the March 2006 Climate Action Team Report - October 15, 2007
  • Montana Climate Change Action Plan – November 2007
  • New Mexico Climate Change Advisory Group Final Report – December 2006
  • Washington Climate Advisory Team Technical Working Group (Agriculture; Energy Supply; Forestry; Residential, Commercial, and Industrial; and Transportation) Final Draft Priority Documents – December 21, 2007.

Each of the state plans we analyzed was created using a similar methodology with the assistance of The Center for Climate Strategies (CCS), a non-profit organization. This implies a degree of consistency between state plans and provides a basis for comparison of the greenhouse gas reduction potential and cost effectiveness of different policies.

By providing comparisons of various land use-related strategies, this analysis paves the way for communities to select a locally-appropriate mix of policies and create an effective implementation plan. Of course, since this is an analysis of state-level policies, the results will apply to different degrees at the local scale, depending on local circumstances. Perhaps more important than the exact figures, therefore, is the insight they provide for comparison and prioritization among policies.


The five state climate action plans were analyzed to separate out land use-related policies, compare each policy’s carbon reduction potential and cost effectiveness, and calculate what proportion of total greenhouse gas emissions goals could be achieved if such policies were fully implemented. Here are the three most significant findings:

1) About 20 percent of total emission reduction goals can be achieved through land use-related policies

Table 1 shows the total number of policies included in each plan, as well as the potential greenhouse gas emissions reduction that could be achieved if all polices were fully implemented. It also shows how many of the policies were considered to be land use planning-related, how much emissions could be reduced if they were fully implemented, and what percentage of each state’s total greenhouse gas reduction goal could be achieved through these policies.

Table 1. Summary of key figures from the five state climate action plans analyzed.
  Arizona California Montana New Mexico Washington
Total Number of Climate Action Policies 35 39 48 64 58
Total Potential GHG Emissions (MMTCO2e) 645.3 138.5 125.5 322.9 448.2
Total Land Use Planning-Related Policies 11 8 10 19 13
Total Potential GHG Emissions Reduction Potential from Land Use-Related Policies 128.5 25.32 12.75 56.50 110.87
Percentage of Total GHG Reductions Possible from Land Use Planning-Related Policies 19.9 18.3 10.2 17.5 24.7

The percentage of greenhouse gas reductions that could be achieved is near 20 percent for Arizona, California, and New Mexico, and nearly 25 percent for Washington. The percentage for Montana is considerably lower, at approximately 10 percent, because a larger proportion of this state’s emission reductions could be achieved through policies related to agriculture and coal consumption than is true for other states.

Graph demonstrating the effectiveness of climate action policies

Figure 1. Effectiveness of Arizona climate action policies.
| Enlarge This Figure |
Credit: Rebecca Carter, Sonoran Institute

2) Land use-related policies are effective compared to other types of policies

To assess how effective land use-related polices are relative to other types, we tabulated and evaluated the effectiveness of all types of climate action policies for each state included in the analysis.

Figure 1 illustrates the cost effectiveness (orange) and potential greenhouse gas savings (red) of land use planning-related policies relative to other types of policies found in the Arizona Climate Action Plan.

Figure 1 illustrates the potential greenhouse gas reductions and cost effectiveness for all 35 policies included in the Arizona Climate Action Plan. It highlights those considered to be land use-related in red (emissions reduction effectiveness) and orange (cost per MMTCO2e avoided), while other policies are in dark gray (emissions reduction effectiveness) and light gray (cost per MMTCO2e avoided). The graph shows that:

  • The policy entitled “1 - Environmental Portfolio Standard” would be the most effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and only have a relatively small cost to implement.
  • “2 - Demand Side Efficiency” would be the second most effective policy, and would actually result in cost savings if implemented, as shown by the negative cost effectiveness bar.
  • Of the land use-related policies, “8 - Smart Growth Bundle of Options” is projected to be the most effective at emissions reductions, and would be neutral in terms of cost benefits.
  • “9 - Beyond Code Building Design and Smart Growth Programs” would be the second most effective land use-related policy, and would save money if fully implemented.
  • “14 - Building Standards and Codes for Smart Growth” follows, and would also result in cost savings.
  • Two policies related to energy generation, “17 – Distributed Generation and Renewable Energy Applications,” and “18 – Direct Renewable Energy Support” would be in the mid-range of emissions reduction effectiveness, but would be relatively expensive to implement.
  • Forest and range-related policies such as “28 – Protect Forestland from Development,” “31 – Reduce Conversion of Farm and Rangeland to Development,” and “33 – Reforestation and Restoration of Forestlands” would be considerably less effective at reducing emissions and cost more to implement.

Thus, while land use-related policies alone are not the “silver bullet” many are searching for to solve the climate crisis, they are an important component of the “silver buckshot” of solutions that is required to confront this issue.

Graph demonstrating the average percent of total reductions needed

Figure 2. Average percent of total reductions needed.
| Enlarge This Figure |
Credit: Rebecca Carter, Sonoran Institute

3) Some land use-related policies are more effective than others

Although climate action policies for each state vary somewhat in their specifications, we were able to calculate average effectiveness of the primary types of land use-related policies described in the five plans analyzed, both in terms of the percentage of the state’s total desired greenhouse gas emissions reductions each policy could account for (Figure 1), and for cost effectiveness (Figure 2). The results indicate that:

  • Figure 2 shows that green building and other building energy efficiency policies are expected to be the most effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 6 percent of total emissions reductions needed; Figure 3 illustrates that such policies would also be among the most cost effective, providing savings of nearly $20 for every metric ton of CO2 avoided.
  • Improved transportation and land use policies, most related to smart growth, would also be among the most effective land use-related polices to implement and would result in a slight cost savings.
  • Support for combined heat and power, which involves the development and dissemination of more efficient building power systems, would also be an effective policy in terms of emissions reduction potential and cost savings.
  • On the other hand, policies to preserve open space and agricultural land from development would be less effective and more costly, although they would provide other benefits, such as open space protection and species habitat.
Graph demonstrating cost effectiveness

Figure 3. Average cost effectiveness per metric ton of C02 equivalent avoided.
| Enlarge This Figure |
Credit: Rebecca Carter, Sonoran Institute


The range of policies included in state-level climate action plans highlight the vital role that land use planners have to play in determining how effectively the West can control its greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changing climate. Many of these policies have land use planning implications and can therefore be more fully implemented—and sooner—if local land use planners and other decision makers play an active role.

Despite political, educational, and fiscal challenges to local climate action that may be more prevalent in the Intermountain West than in some other parts of the nation, planners and other local decision makers can use the information in the state climate action plans to better understand which policies make the most sense in their specific context. They can begin or continue to advocate for policies that are the most cost effective, have the greatest potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide additional benefits, and promote adaptation.

Increasing the ability of land use planners to begin to act on climate change immediately is crucial, especially in the Intermountain West, a rapidly changing region that has not embraced voluntary measures to the same degree as other U.S. regions. The form that the current explosive growth and development in the West takes, be it sprawling or compact, will largely determine the region’s future ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. Land use planners have a key role to play in determining the future of the West in a changing climate.


  1. Arizona Climate Advisory Group. 2006, August. Arizona Climate Action Plan. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
  2. California Climate Action Team. 2006, March. California Climate Action Team Report. California Environmental Protection Agency.
  3. California Climate Action Team. 2007. Updated Macroeconomic Analysis of Climate Strategies Presented in the March 2006 Climate Action Team Report. California Environmental Protection Agency.
  4. Governor’s Climate Change Advisory Committee. 2007, November. Montana Climate Change Action Plan. Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
  5. New Mexico Climate Change Advisory Group. 2006, December. Final Report. New Mexico Environment Department.
  6. Washington Climate Advisory Team Technical Working Group (Agriculture; Energy Supply; Forestry; Residential, Commercial, and Industrial; and Transportation). 2007, December. Final Draft Priority Documents. State of Washington Department of Ecology.