Estimating the National Carbon Abatement Potential of City Policies: A Data-Driven Approach

Eric OShaughnessy, Jenny Heeter, David Keyser, Alexandra Aznar, Pieter Gagnon

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Cities are increasingly taking actions such as building code enforcement, urban planning, and public transit expansion to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide in their communities and municipal operations. However, many cities lack the quantitative information needed to estimate policy impacts and prioritize city actions in terms of carbon abatement potential and cost effectiveness. This report fills this research gap by providing methodologies to assess the carbon abatement potential of a variety of city actions. The methodologies are applied to an energy use data set of 23,458 cities compiled for the U.S. Department of Energy City Energy Profile tool. The analysis develops a national estimate of the carbon abatement potential of realizable city actions in six specific policy areas encompassing the most commonly implemented city actions. The results of this analysis suggest that, in aggregate, cities could reduce nationwide carbon emissions by about 210 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MMT CO2) per year in a 'moderate abatement scenario' by 2035 and 480 MMT CO2/year in a 'high abatement scenario' by 2035 through these common actions typically within a city's control in the six policy areas. The aggregate carbon abatement potential of these specific areas equates to a reduction of 3%-7% relative to 2013 U.S. emissions. At the city level, the results suggest the average city could reduce carbon emissions by 7% (moderate) to 19% (high) relative to current city-level emissions. In the context of U.S. climate commitments under the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21), the estimated national abatement potential of the city actions analyzed in this report equates to about 15%-35% of the remaining carbon abatement necessary to achieve the U.S. COP21 target. Additional city actions outside the scope of this report, such as community choice aggregation (city-level purchasing of renewable energy), zero energy districts, and multi-level governance strategies, could significantly augment the carbon abatement contributions of city actions toward national climate targets. The results suggest that cities may play a pivotal role in progress toward national climate targets. In addition to providing carbon and emissions estimates, this report estimates the national net economic impacts of policies for which cost and benefit data are available. Impact metrics include employment, worker earnings, and gross domestic product (GDP). For the policy areas studied, the economic analysis demonstrates that city carbon abatement may be achieved with only minimal and generally slightly positive economic impacts. Employment impacts range from 0.04% to 0.13% of U.S, employment during implementation and zero to 0.1% thereafter. GDP estimates show net impacts of 0.02% to 0.07% of GDP during implementation and impacts from -0.02% to zero thereafter. This report quantitatively demonstrates the material impact of a limited set of local policy areas on national carbon abatement potential. The magnitude of estimated carbon reductions from city policies, 3%-7% of national emissions by 2035, suggests an important role for city-led actions in reaching U.S. climate goals. Multi-level governance at the city, state, and national levels could augment the carbon abatement potential of city actions and make cities a key component of long-term U.S. climate strategies.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages88
StatePublished - 2016

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-67101


  • carbon abatement
  • cities
  • data
  • impacts
  • policies
  • policy


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