Conversation with Maia Davis: Elements of Regional Climate Planning

Maia Davis is a Senior Environmental Planner at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). COG connects leaders across the metropolitan Washington region, representing over 5.7 million people, to develop solutions to the area’s major challenges.

Maia is part of the COG team that developed and manages the Metropolitan Washington 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan. To build this plan, COG worked with its members and stakeholders to understand the regions’ specific climate mitigation potential and adaptation needs.  

This work paid off. The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM) officially granted COG its “badges,” signifying achievement and progression on climate planning and action. COG is the first U.S. region to achieve full compliance with GCoM’s rigorous standards for climate and adaptation planning.

I talked with Maia about regional climate collaboration and what she’s learned from this rigorous planning process.

Congratulations on your GCoM recognition. What does it mean to you to have this GCoM recognition for your regional mitigation and adaptation work?

Back in 2019, GCoM recognized COG as a U.S. Metro Scale Climate Leader. With that recognition came technical assistance to meet GCoM’s rigorous standards for global best practices in climate planning. COG’s Climate, Energy and Environment Policy Committee (CEEPC) decided to become a GCoM signatory and commit to following its standards for the development of our Metropolitan Washington 2030 Climate and Energy Action Plan.

Achieving recognition from GCoM provides additional confidence in our climate work for the local government members we support, as well as the community members we engage.. I’m very proud because it was a tremendous team effort.

For two years, it involved everyone from local and state stakeholders to ICLEI to GCoM/IUC and CDP and more. Local, regional, state, national, and international, it took all those levels of engagement for us to really get here.

From what I’ve heard, achieving all of those levels of engagement takes a lot of finesse and perseverance. It’s quite an achievement. What was your process of building buy-in, especially from the region’s leadership?

We were very fortunate in that we already have strong engagement and a strong committee structure in place to support our climate work and engage the local government leaders and stakeholders from across sectors.

The COG Board of Directors is the top-level decision-maker, composed of local elected officials. They’re responsible for setting the region’s goals on climate. Our Climate, Energy, and Environment Policy Committee (CEEPC) advises and reports to the COG Board. In that group, are local, state, and federal officials and cross-sector stakeholders and public advisors. They’re responsible for developing and implementing the climate plan with the support of technical and public advisory committees. With this structure in place, we just needed to engage these stakeholders.

It was really great to have that GCoM climate leader recognition, because it got the attention of the elected officials and regional leadership. They knew we’d been recognized for the work we’d done the last several years and that there was need for and interest in being more aggressive in climate planning and action moving forward. That was a great way to get engagement upfront.

I’m curious. At the regional level of COG, do you have to have the support of every engaged municipality when putting together these plans?

Every local jurisdiction in our region, 24 local government members, all have representation on the technical and policy committees and the board. Everything for climate action is voluntary. I believe our members appreciated having GCoM guidance. There’s less questioning whether we are going in the right direction. We were able to say, “GCoM sets the international standards on how to do this work. And we know that if we’re following this process, we’re following the best of the best.” This gives local government members confidence in this work.

What does having these regional adaptation and mitigation targets and plans allow jurisdictions in your region to do compared to if they didn’t have this regional collaboration?

It’s very beneficial that we have our regional plan done. Since we went through this process, our local government members that are working on climate planning don’t have to start from scratch. We’re able to say, “here are the inventories and projections. You can leverage our scenarios and the assumptions made that are applicable to your jurisdictions. That big lift of that technical piece on the mitigation side is taken care of for you. You can take this very rigorous climate risk and vulnerability assessment that has been completed. Our action plan also lays out the priority actions for the region, and also identifies how the local governments can support implementation. That is a starting place for you at the local level to adjust from there.”

All those technical pieces have been completed and they can really dive into thinking about more specific sector-level targets or actions. It can save them questioning whether this is the right information to use for their climate planning. It can save them time and money. 

This is the outcome we really wanted to see if we were going to go through this rigorous process through GCoM. We wanted to add value beyond just the adoption of our plan. We want local communities to be able to leverage it and support and justify their work.

That’s huge. Amazing. What are the key ways ICLEI has supported COG in your climate and sustainability initiatives?

For more than 10 years ICLEI has provided COG’s climate and energy team with guidance, training, and technical support for us and our local government members on climate planning, greenhouse gas inventory development, the contribution analysis, and more. With ICLEI’s guidance, for instance, we were able to completely revamp our greenhouse gas inventories and methodologies to meet the U.S. Community Protocol, the Global Protocol for communities, and the GCoM standards.

And now, through the work with the recent cohorts, we’re working on incorporating forest and trees accounting into our inventory with ICLEI’s guidance. There’s been a tremendous amount of support and progress on that work for the inventories. I would also say that ICLEI’s support was really critical for COG to achieve full compliance to GCoM standards in our first round of reporting and trying to achieve those badges.

The list of GCoM requirements is comprehensive, and it can be easy to miss something or misunderstand a small piece of the requirements. ICLEI definitely helped fill in the gaps and answer questions. You helped us even up to the very last second of getting verified. Those are examples of the ways that ICLEI has supported us over time and very recently.

Any final recommendations you’d have for other regions pursuing this level of achievement and recognition like you’ve gotten from GCoM?

I would highly recommend regional efforts to craft the climate planning process in a way that can benefit local communities and support on-the-ground climate action. Engage them in the decision-making process and provide products that support them.

Also, if you’re setting out on achieving GCoM requirements, it can’t be an afterthought. You have to be very intentional from the beginning of your climate planning process. I recommend seeking guidance from the start from organizations that are experts in the GCoM requirements, like ICLEI or CDP, and reaching back out as you run into questions along the way. You should ask for review before your  goals or plan are adopted because that’s where experts like ICLEI can help.

Again, congratulations. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me.

Thank you. The GCoM work and climate planning work in general and achieving these climate goals can really seem overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to think about how to do this all on your own.

We’re not in it alone and it really helps to have your network there to figure things out together. The ICLEI network helps with that. Having a regional network like COG helps with that. We’re here to help each other.