Set Goals & Select Actions
Setting goals is extremely important for guiding and framing choices at all phases of project planning, implementation, and evaluation. Clearly articulated goals can help communities develop effective programs, communicate the intent of the programs to the public, and select specific actions to help meet the articulated goals. Thinking early on about goals can ensure a program is cohesive, well designed, appropriate for the community, and proactive rather than reactive. While this phase may be relatively straightforward compared with other phases of project development, it is nonetheless important in developing a climate, energy, or sustainability program.
The following steps will help users articulate the goals for their climate, energy, and sustainability programs, as well as to identify the actions that are most appropriate to help meet those goals. Goals can be wide-ranging and cover many areas, including clean energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and resilience, as well as economic development, job creation, air quality, environmental justice, or other local priorities.
This is an early phase of project development and implementation. After completing this phase, it may be appropriate to proceed to the Obtain Resources phase to secure funding and other resources; to the Develop GHG Inventory phase to set a baseline for emissions inventories; to the Take Action phase to begin implementation; or to the Track & Report phase to develop a plan for measuring, evaluating, and communicating progress.
The exact steps for setting goals and selecting actions will vary by community. This guidance outlines several key steps that are likely to be part of this process. The steps are not necessarily intended to be pursued in linear order, and they may require multiple iterations, as shown in the diagram.
As an example, a community may first decide they have a general goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After doing some research to understand the relevant context, the community may set a more specific goal to reduce building sector emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. Then, the community may move toward actions such as upgrading light fixtures at public facilities, adopting a more efficient building code, or sponsoring a community energy reduction challenge.
- Step 1. Articulate General Goals
The first step of any effort is to articulate, at a high level, what you are trying to do. Do you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Increase your community’s climate change resilience? Reduce energy use? Save money? Are you focusing on a particular sector (e.g., energy, transportation, solid waste; residential, commercial, industrial)?
In many cases, the answer may be obvious, but it is nonetheless a necessary and important first step to move forward in the process. You may have one goal or several. If you have more than one goal, it may be helpful to prioritize the goals so that everyone agrees on which objective is most important.
- Step 2: Understand Relevant Context
Before setting more specific goals, it is important to have a full understanding of where your community stands relative to your general goals. Conduct research to gather information on the topic. This research will help you to articulate reasonable, appropriately ambitious goals, identify actions to build on, and ensure your decisions are fully informed and deliberate.
Some questions you might ask include:
- What is already happening in your community related to these goals? Are specific activities underway? Are there relevant plans and priorities?
- Are there high-level policies (e.g., at the state level) that relate to your general goals?
- How will this effort relate to other community plans (e.g., comprehensive plans, land use plans, long range transportation plans)?
- What are similar communities around the country doing to accomplish these high-level goals?
- What are communities in your region doing to accomplish these goals? Are there opportunities for joint projects and collaboration?
- Are there any local experts in the area who have done research or implemented relevant initiatives that could help shape goals and activities?
- Are there data or information available to help you better understand or support the goals?
- Are there any complementary programs underway (e.g., led by a non-profit) that you should be aware of and coordinate with?
- What is the path to adoption or implementation for this effort?
- What are the priorities of political leadership?
- What are the priorities of the general public?
If you are planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this may be a good time to conduct a greenhouse gas inventory to understand current emission levels and potential focus areas for reductions.
As you work to understand context and inform goal-setting, gather input from stakeholders who may contribute to or be affected by the program. Stakeholders may include:
- People in your office
- Others in local government
- Local experts
- Community leaders
- Local business representatives
- The general public
Consider bringing together these stakeholders through a series of informal meetings or a more structured committee, task force, or other group, depending on the scale of your effort. You can work with them to review or contribute to the background research effort, and engage them throughout the remaining steps to articulate goals and select and evaluate actions. Engaging stakeholders early and often can increase community buy-in and support, identify potential barriers, reveal relevant activities or opinions, and ultimately increase the likelihood of success. See the Reach Out & Communicate phase for additional information on engaging stakeholders.
Old community plans, documents from previous administrations, and documents that are otherwise outdated may be “hidden gems” of institutional knowledge. Review these documents for ideas and insights about whether these specific ideas have been pursued in your community previously.
- Step 3. Set Specific Goals
Having conducted background research and engaged the appropriate stakeholders, it is time to develop specific goals. Make these specific goals as quantitative as possible, so you can use them as high-level targets. You can then develop more detailed targets as part of your efforts to track and report progress.
Setting high-level, specific goals may be dictated by outside factors. For example, the mayor of your town or city might dictate a specific goal, or there may be a state or regional mandate, regulation, or policy to comply with. Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act, for example, established a legally required, statewide GHG emissions reduction goal. As a result, local-level goals for emissions reductions might aim to meet or exceed the goals established by the state.
If no outside factors dictate your high-level goals, use the following tips to help you articulate goals that are both reasonable and appropriately ambitious.
- Keep goals concise and to-the-point. Limit each goal to a single sentence to make it easy to understand and follow.
- Consider developing two to three tiers of goals—many communities have found this helpful. In this phase, develop high-level goals (e.g., the City of Northfield, Minnesota, adopted a high-level goal to reduce GHG emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050). Then, as part of the Track & Report phase, develop more specific interim targets. For example, the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has several specific interim targets in its Greenworks Philadelphia plan, which includes three tiers of goals. At the highest level, the plan has five overarching, qualitative goals—such as “reduce vulnerability to rising energy prices” and “deliver more equitable access to healthy neighborhoods." Within the five goals, the city has articulated 15 specific, quantitative goals—such as “lower city government energy consumption by 30 percent” and “provide park and recreation resources within 10 minutes of 75 percent of residents.” The city then has a third tier of goals that identify specific initiatives to achieve the targets.
Be Both Ambitious and Reasonable
- Strive for a reasonable number of goals. The appropriate number of goals will likely scale with the size of your community and the magnitude of the effort. Consider the level of resources your community can realistically devote to pursuing the goals. In other words, avoid taking on more than you can handle.
- Aim to strike a balance between goals that are ambitious and goals that are attainable. Well-crafted goals will inspire people to take action without intimidating them. This can take several forms: each goal can strive to find that balance, or you can use a mix of attainable and “reach” goals. As you work to strike this balance, you may want to start evaluating potential actions to determine what is feasible (see Step 5) or refer to other communities for examples.
- If all goals feel too far off, the community may not be motivated or inspired to reach them. Set nearer-term, incremental, or smaller-scale goals as milestones towards your end goal to help you track your progress. Documenting specific targets and metrics can happen later in the process (see the Track & Report phase for more information). At this stage, it is primarily important to be aware that you may want to set these targets and identify tracking metrics in the future.
- If you identify actions already taken toward a goal, consider them “early wins.” You do not need to eliminate a goal just because action has already been taken to achieve it.
- While qualitative goals can be beneficial, quantitative goals are often the most useful. Make goals as measurable, concrete, and verifiable as possible.
- Consider framing goals for sustainability efforts in terms of emissions reductions, energy savings, cost savings, or jobs created.
- Where possible, include a specific timeframe for achieving goals. If goals are relative (e.g., a percentage reduction in emissions, energy use, or costs), be sure to articulate a baseline year for comparison. Be clear about units of measurement.
Once identified, write down your goals. This can be done in a formal, public document or in an informal, internal document, depending on your situation.
- Step 4. Brainstorm Actions
With your specific goals articulated, begin brainstorming actions you might take to achieve those goals. Actions tend to fall within three major categories: changes in internal government operations, policies, and programs to encourage behavior change within the community. See the Take Action phase for additional information and sources of ideas for specific actions in each category. At this stage in the process, you may just want to determine which category of action you want to pursue, or you may want to select specific actions. In any case, be all-inclusive as you brainstorm. You will narrow your options in Steps 5 and 6.
As you brainstorm actions, reach out to stakeholders, including expert advisors and the general public, for ideas. Local academics, business leaders, and the general community can be sources of creative ideas. If you choose to gather their input, be careful not to promise that you will implement all suggestions. In addition to consulting stakeholders, refer to the following resources for ideas:
- EPA's Local Government Climate and Energy Strategy Series — provides ideas for local governments related to energy efficiency, transportation, community planning and design, solid waste and materials management, and renewable energy
- Climate change action plans, or related actions adopted by other communities
- Actions taken by EPA’s Climate Showcase Communities
- Actions taken by local governments — see N.C. State University's Database of State Incentives for Renewable EnergyExit, the Sustainable Cities InstituteExit, or the National Association of Counties' sample codes and ordinances databaseExit, for some examples
Keep a list of potential actions and the goals they can help achieve. From there, you can evaluate the options and decide which to pursue.
- Step 5. Evaluate Actions
If the initial list of strategies or avenues to pursue is too long, begin systematically reviewing the options to rule out those which might not be appropriate to pursue in the near term. Depending on the number of strategies you want to evaluate, you may do this in two steps:
- Qualitative Screen
First, do an initial screen of the actions identified based on key criteria, such as their general benefits and costs (or pros and cons); technical, economic, and political feasibility; and alignment with community goals. There may be helpful information for this qualitative evaluation from the same sources where you identified the action. You can also use professional judgment to identify which policies are likely to be the most cost-effective and have the broadest community support. Choose a limited number of criteria to consider at this stage.
This screen could be conducted internally or in coordination with stakeholders, through community meetings, by using a website to collect feedback or votes, or by using a charrette-style exercise for collaborative screening. Note that if the success of your selected actions depends on community involvement, it is especially important that you involve the community in the selection and development process to establish community support early. It is also typically a good idea to gather input from the entity that would be tasked with implementing the actions, as they are likely to have informed ideas about what actions may be feasible.
This high-level screen may be sufficient to move on to implementation. However, you may want to conduct a more detailed, quantitative evaluation.
Consider creating a matrix to help with the action screening process. For example, set up each action as a row and each criterion as a column, then assign a qualitative ranking (e.g., High/Medium/Low or Good/Bad) in each cell. You can color-code and filter the responses to see which actions to eliminate or describe as low priority, and which to keep for further evaluation, as needed.
Note that the qualitative screening process does not need to be overly burdensome. You may not need to fill out every box for every action. This just represents one way of systematically thinking through the relative promise of a variety of potential options for your community, in terms of their ability to meet your goals, as well as your ability to successfully implement them.
- Detailed Evaluation
After an initial screen, you may want or need to perform a more in-depth evaluation to identify a short list of specific actions, specific sectors to target, or the best approach to use.
Evaluate each policy against different criteria. Align the criteria with the stated goals for the program. For example, criteria may include:
- Potential to reduce GHG emissions
- Multiple benefits and costs
- Relevant institutional capacity
- Economic efficiency
- Private sector costs and savings
- Public sector costs and savings
- Legal constraints
- Social equity
- Political impact and feasibility
- People/households affected
- Potential to reduce vulnerability to extreme weather events
- Alignment with other community goals (e.g., jobs, air quality)
- Public support
In particular, assess the probable success of the action. Are there solid partners in the community who are willing to take the lead in achieving the goals and take ownership of moving them forward? Consider putting actions on the back-burner if you are not able to find anyone in the community willing and excited to take them on.
Evaluate each action quantitatively, where possible. For example, several tools are available to help local governments evaluate the costs, benefits, and GHG emissions reduction potential of different strategies. For more information about these tools, see the Resources section below. In addition to calculator tools, you may also want to review other communities’ plans to learn how they identified and evaluated specific strategies. Some good examples to review are listed as case studies in the Resources section.
- Qualitative Screen
- Step 6. Select Actions
Based on the evaluation in Step 5, determine which actions or broader categories of actions you intend to pursue or investigate further. Additional information on specific actions and ways to evaluate alternatives are available as part of the Take Action phase.
Again, select actions to create a plan that is reasonable and achievable, in addition to being ambitious and inspirational. Identify a reasonable number of actions that correspond to the resources your community can devote to your program. Depending on the community, having a high number of actions can actually curtail your ability to implement them, simply because the to-do list is overwhelming.
Document your decisions on which actions to pursue. Depending on your situation, this may be an internal document or a formal, public document like a climate change action plan. List the lead entities responsible for moving actions forward in your plan. This will help create accountability and is one way to make the plans more realistic and likely to be accomplished. Begin coming up with action checklists to carry forward the momentum from the goal-setting and action evaluation processes. Checklists can help assign individual responsibility for actions and break down the process into achievable steps.
Next steps may include obtaining resources to implement actions; conducting a greenhouse gas inventory to establish a baseline, if necessary; developing a plan to track and report progress; or beginning to implement the actions selected.
Tompkins County, New York: 2020 Energy Strategy (35 pp, 214 K, About PDF) Exit
Plan adopted in 2010 to achieve the county’s goal of reducing GHG emissions 80 percent below 2008 levels by 2050. The plan includes the estimated GHG emissions savings, scale, timeline, financial feasibility, and technical needs for several measures.
Chicago, Illinois: Climate Action PlanExit
Plan that outlines goals, actions, and detailed methodologies to evaluate possible actions within five primary strategies: energy-efficient buildings, clean and renewable energy sources, improved transportation options, reduced waste and industrial pollution, and climate change adaptation.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Greenworks PhiladelphiaExit
Plan that includes five overarching goals, 15 specific targets, and a third tier with specific initiatives to achieve the plan’s targets.
City of Urbana, Illinois: Climate Action Plan (102 pp, 214 K, About PDF) Exit
Plan that articulates five overarching goals, 15 actions to achieve those goals, and the approaches used to estimate the actions’ benefits.
Miami-Dade County, Florida: GreenPrint PlanExit
Plan that outlines several aspirational goals, specific targets under each, strategies to achieve each target and goal, and a plan for tracking progress.
Tools and Templates
EPA’s Energy Efficiency Benefits Calculator
Calculator to help local governments make the business case for energy efficiency and calculate the benefits of different types of energy efficiency policies and programs.
EPA’s WAste Reduction Model (WARM)
Tool to help solid waste planners and organizations compare emissions from baseline and alternative waste management practices, such as source reduction, recycling, combustion, composting, and landfilling.
EPA’s AVoided Emissions and geneRation Tool (AVERT)
Tool to estimate the emissions benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy policies and programs. The tool is primarily designed for state-level decision-makers, but could be relevant to other stakeholders.
CAPCOA’s Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Measures (546 pp, 7.47 M, About PDF) Exit
Resource developed by the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association (CAPCOA) designed for local governments to assess emission reductions that result from GHG mitigation measures. The tool is tailored to California communities, but broadly applicable.
Tool that helps users analyze the benefits of emissions reduction measures and track emissions progress over time, among other features. ClearPath is free to ICLEI members, and a 60-day free trial is available for non-members.
EPA’s Local Government Climate and Energy Strategy Series
A suite of guidance documents for local governments on topics like energy efficiency, transportation, community planning and design, solid waste and materials management, and renewable energy.
EPA’s Assessing the Multiple Benefits of Clean Energy
A resource for states, this guide helps state energy, environmental, and economic policy-makers identify and quantify the multiple benefits of clean energy.
NACo’s Emerging Sustainability Strategies in America’s CountiesExit
Resource developed by the National Association of Counties (NACo) on actions counties can take in pursuing sustainability programs.
EPA’s WaterSense Partnership Program
Resources and information on best practices for sustainable water management in the commercial and institutional sector.
New York City’s sustainability and resilience blueprint, with information on goals, targets, and strategies across a range of sectors, including housing and neighborhoods, brownfields, public health, food, green buildings, energy, air quality, and others.
EPA would like to acknowledge Bruce Andersen (Wyandotte County, Kansas), Katie Borgella (Tompkins County, New York), Alex Dews (City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and Sam Gordon (Town of DeWitt, New York) for their valuable input and feedback as stakeholder reviewers for this page.