As climate negotiators prepare for their discussions in Lima, they must focus on one of the most neglected strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change: creating sustainable human settlements. My work for a land use law center embedded in a law school with a prominent environmental law program makes the lack of awareness and embrace of a land use law policy for climate change mitigation and adaptation, at best, baffling and, at worst, inexcusable. Despite decades of research, development, and successful implementation, this strategy is “new” in the eyes of the IPCC.

The recently released Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, for the first time, contains a chapter on human settlement. Chapter 12, Human Settlements, Infrastructure and Spatial Planning, is contained in Working Group III’s volume on mitigation. Scattered throughout the two volume report of Working Group II, Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, are insights regarding the susceptibility of human settlements to the consequences of climate change and their ability to plan for them and become climate change resilient.

The good news is that Chapter 12 finally recognizes that “cities in developed countries have lower per capita energy use and GHG emissions than the national average;” that the key drivers of emissions “are density, land use mix, connectivity, and accessibility;” and that “key mitigation strategies include co-locating high residential with high employment densities, achieving high land use mixes, increasing accessibility and investing in public transit.”

The bad news is that the IPCC report admits that “there is little scientific understanding of the magnitude of the emissions reduction from altering urban form and the emissions savings from integrated infrastructure and land use planning;” and, perhaps most lamentably, that “there is a lack of scientific understanding of how cities can prioritize mitigation strategies, local actions, investments, and policy responses that are locally relevant.”

In the run up to the critical Conference of the Parties in Paris next year, participating countries are charged with committing to cutting emissions at a level they can achieve, in keeping with political and economic realities.  While a carbon tax, or cap and trade strategy, might be more attractive, there is little doubt that most such top-down approaches are not politically realistic in the U.S.  The same cannot be said for sustainable human settlement strategies, which if properly presented, can gain bipartisan support at the local, state, and federal level.  Focusing on local responses to increasingly apparent consequences of climate change can completely change the nature of the climate conversation from belligerently negative to positive.

Professor Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, in describing the progress made in creating an agreement regarding climate action in Southeast Florida, notes that inter-municipal negotiations about sustainable settlement strategies put “a different question from the one put in the national climate change debate. The latter forces Southeast Floridians, like everyone else, to express ‘who they are, whose side they are on.’ In contrast, the decision-making [at the local level] is effectively, and insistently, testing what they know about how to live in a region that faces a serious climate problem.”

What we know at the local level is considerable, despite the lack of awareness confessed in Chapter 12.  We know, for example, that land use strategies can reduce future CO2 emissions by up to 20% through compact, mixed-use urban development near transit, and also that they can increase biological sequestration through open space requirements contained in local land use plans and regulations. Open space currently sequesters between 15-18% of CO2 in the U.S. and that number can be increased through intelligent local policies aided by state and federal initiatives. That land trusts in the Northeast are creating sequestration off-set projects that can be sold in California to secure funds to promote additional sequestration is a good example of how a national strategy could be designed to greatly increase sequestration in mitigation of climate change.

How much we know is on display this week at the Land Use Law Center’s annual conference at Pace Law School in White Plains. It features successful strategies to achieve mitigation or adaptation through innovative environmental impact review, constructing green infrastructure,  revitalizing deteriorated main streets, rezoning to facilitate and lower the cost of renewable energy facilities, enhancing biological sequestration, innovative transit oriented development regulations, sustainable neighborhood development standards, planning for resilient communities, creating no-build zones, despite the interdiction of Lucas, siting affordable housing near jobs, transit, and services, and a dozen case studies of successful sustainable development projects at the local level.

Perhaps the lack of awareness of these promising mitigation and adaptation strategies is due to the intuitive notion that one, a few, several, or even hundreds, of local initiatives cannot deal effectively with the huge challenge of emissions reductions. So many embrace silver bullet international agreements or national strategies that could work, despite decades of frustrated attempts to implement top-down approaches.  Missing from this analysis is that local strategies do work, and while they work only within their parochial jurisdictions, they can have powerful impacts if they are guided, supported, and connected by intelligent state and federal efforts.

What is intuitive here is that creating sustainable settlements is a strategy that has a fighting chance of being politically and economically realistic.  Readjusting the intuitive instincts that guide negotiators on the road to Paris could pay off as a next step for managing climate change.