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Preparing a Plan and Setting Priorities

At this stage of formulating a climate action plan, research campuses choose greenhouse gas reduction goals, set dates for achievement, and determine financial constraints and opportunities. The resulting plan can be goal driven or finance driven.

In preparing climate action plans, there is usually a desire for specific goals and a need to stay within financial constraints. Because of this, a hybrid approach that combines goals and financial constraints is most typical.

Developing a climate action plan is an iterative process that sets preliminary goals, evaluates specific measures, calculates financial impact, and then revises the goals.

Set Preliminary Goals

Research campuses should carefully consider where to set greenhouse gas reduction targets because it is a long-term goal against which you will measure progress for many years. Targets are usually expressed in terms of percent reduction in energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions by a certain year.

A typical date range for climate-neutral targets is between 2020 and 2050. Plan your targets and dates to achieve goals on time and at the lowest cost possible. Remember, climate neutral means a 100% reduction in your current baseline carbon impact.

"Set Target Date for Emissions Reduction" that shows a line increasing from left to right with carbon emissions presenting on the abscissa and time labeled historical, present, and future on the ordinate.  From the present to 2050 on the graph, there is a darker black line that decreases toward a point near zero labeled "target."  The area between the increasing line and target is shaded in and labeled:  "Emission reduction necessary to meet target."

Research campuses should set energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals with measurable milestones and deadlines.


Graph titled "Example of a Climate Action Plan" that shows a line increasing from left to right with carbon emissions presenting on the abscissa and time labeled present and 2050 on the ordinate.  From the present to 2050 on the graph, there is a darker black line that decreases toward a point near zero labeled "target."  The area between the increasing line and target is shaded in five different colors representing:  people and policy (purple), buildings (green), transportation options (blue), energy sources (yellow), and carbon offsets (gray).

When all technologies have been selected for the energy efficiency and supply options, a campus climate action plan shows each sector's contribution toward the target.

The American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment tracks the targets set by hundreds of institutions of higher education. Federal research campuses work towards national targets that are based on reducing overall energy intensity. You can read about these Federal energy goals and requirements on the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) Web site.

Evaluate Specific Measures

Evaluate and select technology-specific measures for each energy sector on your campus. Assessing the costs and benefits of each measure is important. Once this is complete, assemble the specific measures into your overall plan, which should meet climate action plan goals within established financial constraints.

Such a plan can be represented graphically (see below). Each step in your plan's particular approach is essential to achieving deep reductions in consumption of fossil fuels and meeting the corresponding greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Determine Acceptable Financial Criteria

The next step is to determine acceptable financial criteria for individual measures and for the plan as a whole.

Return on investment: Many climate actions reduce greenhouse gases and save money at the same time. For example, energy conservation projects can sometimes result in very high rates of return. Calculating a return on investment or simple payback for these projects allows measures to be ranked relative to each other in terms of financial performance.

Cost/benefit (dollar per ton of carbon): Other carbon reduction measures, however, have a low rate of return or might even have a negative net present value. For these measures, it is useful to calculate performance in terms of cost per ton of carbon saved. Using this metric allows you to pursue the measures that have the greatest impact per dollar invested.

Cost-based plans usually focus on simple payback for individual measures, and this type of plan often becomes a series of individual measures that have the highest cost-benefit ratios. Unfortunately, these measures may not address the energy sectors with the highest carbon emissions (in your baseline). And focusing on individual measures rarely results in big ideas with large energy savings that are needed to make significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Portfolio analysis: Under this scenario, you evaluate an entire group of energy reduction measures as a single portfolio. This type of analysis allows you to combine energy conservation measures that yield a good return (i.e. a high cost-benefit ratio) with measures yielding a lower return. A portfolio allows large impact measures that may have marginal financial performance to be worked in with smaller measures that have very good financial return.

This approach also allows you to bundle measures for approval or financing, which could in turn lead to lower transaction costs. In other words, you can obtain an acceptable cost-benefit ratio for the entire group of energy projects, some of which would not be included if the same cost criteria were individually applied to each project.

Portfolio analysis almost always results in larger reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions because it allows you to focus investment on areas with the greatest emissions.

Revise Goals

The final step in the planning process is gathering information gleaned from the process and revisiting the original goals. Research campuses often find the need to revise climate action plan goals based on financial constraints and results uncovered by evaluating specific measures and/or the portfolio approach.

Revising goals at this stage increases the likelihood of success. There is little point in striving to meet preliminary goals when financial and specific measure analysis shows them to cost-prohibitive or outright unattainable.

After you reach agreement on your long-term goals, the next step is to implement the climate action plan.