Not much urgency around Portland’s latest ‘Climate Emergency Work Plan’

The Portland City Council is making strong statements about climate action. Are they going to follow through?

Last week, Portland City Council moved forward on a work plan to address the climate crisis outlining the “actions Portland can and must take to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050.” This plan emerged from City Council’s 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration, which set new, ambitious emissions reductions targets and reentered Portland’s climate plan to focus on climate justice and equity.

But transportation advocates have largely stayed focused on their own work instead of commenting on this work plan at all, and those who have spoken up aren’t impressed by the vague language in the plan and the lack of dedicated funding for many of the action items in the plan. Adding to the unease are recent pro-freeway expansion Council votes which don’t give the City of Portland much credibility when it comes to climate action.

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), headed by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, led the construction of this work plan, but it’s broken up into multiple categories which involve other City bureaus, especially the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT).

There are nine actions outlined in the work plan’s transportation category. They are as follows:

A graph of City Council’s emissions reductions targets. The moonshot aim is to cut emissions in half by 2030 and hit net zero by 2050. (Source: City of Portland)
  • Make low-carbon travel options safe, accessible, and convenient for all Portlanders.
  • Use equitably designed pricing strategies and parking management to encourage less driving when people and businesses have other travel options.
  • Decouple transportation funding from fossil fuels.
  • Make low-carbon transportation options more affordable, especially for those who can least afford them.
  • Support state and regional vehicle miles traveled reduction policies.
  • Make new construction ready for electric vehicle charging.
  • Make it easier to use electric vehicles if you can’t charge at home.
  • Make freight cleaner.
  • Replace petroleum diesel at the pump.

The document explains how the city intends to follow through on these actions, with some explanations more detailed than others.

Many action items are vaguely worded and/or have no dedicated funding.

The description for accomplishing the first item is a good example of this. Here, the document says this action item will be accomplished via “allocation of space on city streets for non-single occupant auto trips, increase funding for infrastructure projects, activation and programs that support more people making more trips by walking, biking and transit.”

Other actions are more straightforward: for example, Portland has a plan in the books to price driving and parking in order to reduce car dependency, which gives a bit more weight to the second action item.

“Clapping each other on the back for saying you’ll do something about [the climate crisis] only adds insult to injury.”

– Liam Castles, in city council testimony

The 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration came right after Mayor Ted Wheeler and then-Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly revoked their support for the I-5 Rose Quarter expansion project, which added some legitimacy to their climate action ambitions. Now things are different. Not only did the City recently rejoin the Rose Quarter project, they also unanimously voted to support the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program’s (IBRP) Locally Preferred Alternative just a week before adopting the climate work plan. The IBRP will expand I-5 over the Columbia River and advocates don’t think it will provide the active transportation infrastructure necessary to offset the increased car capacity.

At the July 20th City Council meeting when Council heard public comment about the climate work plan, youth climate activist Liam Castles criticized the commissioners for what he sees as their performative support for climate action that doesn’t have any weight behind it.

“You are voting on my future and the future of every young person in Portland,” Castles said. “Clapping each other on the back for saying you’ll do something about [the climate crisis] only adds insult to injury.”

Wheeler responded to Castles by encouraging him to run for City Council in the future.

The commissioners did agree with critics that even the best-laid plans aren’t meaningful if they aren’t followed by action.

“We have a lot of work ahead, and it will take real substantive action from all of us to make the consequential changes that we did for Portland, for our families and for future generations,” Rubio said.

Current PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty acknowledged critics by thanking climate activist organizations the Sunrise Movement, Verde and The Street Trust for being good partners “no matter how frustrated they get with us at times.”

While commissioners all agreed to move forward with this plan, they’ll still accept written input until August 24th, when they’ll reconvene on the subject. Commissioners emphasized the ongoing nature of this work and said the plan will continue to evolve as more stakeholders weigh in.

The Pacific Northwest is currently in the midst of a brutal heat wave that has already been linked to the deaths of four Oregonians. Like the work plan says, it’s now or never. The question is whether or not these strong words will be followed up with action, which will require dedicated funding and considerable work on the part of City Council.

Read the full work plan here.

Advocate: Portland Council set to consider Climate Action Plan (6/24)

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Portland City Council to consider 2015 Climate Action Plan on June 24

Proposed plan contains revisions from public comment period, outlines next steps for achieving Portland and Multnomah County’s carbon reduction goals.

WHO: Portland City Council, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability
WHAT: On behalf of all City of Portland bureaus, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will present the proposed draft of the 2015 Climate Action Plan for adoption by Portland City Council on Wednesday, June 24. The plan updates Portland’s roadmap for the community to achieve an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, with an interim goal of a 40 percent reduction by 2030.
WHEN: Wednesday, June 24, 2015 at 2 p.m.
WHERE: City Council Chambers, Portland City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Avenue, Portland

WHY: In 1993, Portland was the first city in the United States to create a local action plan for cutting carbon. Since then, the City of Portland and Multnomah County have collaborated to produce updated climate plans that help guide the design and implementation of City and County efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Since 1990, total local carbon emissions have declined by 14 percent while 75,000 more jobs were added to the economy and the population grew by 31 percent. The plan being considered for adoption by City Council includes revisions based on comments and feedback from the public and outlines the actions the City and County will take in the next five years to keep Portland on the path of reducing local carbon emissions.

New focus areas include advancing equity and exploring consumption
Advancing equity: From transportation investments and economic opportunities to tree plantings and policy engagement, the proposed plan prioritizes actions that reduce disparities and ensure that under-served and under-represented communities share in the benefits of climate action work.

Exploring consumption: For the first time, the proposed plan includes a consumption-based inventory that counts carbon emissions associated with the goods and services that are produced elsewhere and consumed in Multnomah County. This inventory considers carbon emissions from the full lifecycle of goods and services, including production, transportation, wholesale and retail, use and disposal. Global carbon emissions as a result of local consumer demand are larger than the volume of emissions produced locally. The addition of the consumption-based inventory offers insight into a wider range of opportunities to reduce carbon.

Highlights of the proposed 2015 Climate Action Plan

  • The proposed plan calls for expanding active transportation options throughout Portland and ensure those infrastructure investments are resilient to the impacts of climate change.
  • Given the strong momentum in Portland around home energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, the proposed plan calls for doubling solar installations and continuing home weatherization efforts.
  • With a newly adopted energy tracking and reporting policy, the City will work with building owners and managers to improve the energy performance of Portland’s largest 1,000 commercial buildings.
  • Recent changes to garbage and composting service have led to a 36 percent reduction in garbage headed to the landfill. Residential bills are flat or down three years in a row, while Portland’s recycling rate has reached 70 percent, one of the highest in the nation. The proposed plan focuses on boosting food scrap recovery and multifamily recycling to raise those numbers even higher.
  • Bikes should loom large in City, County Climate Action Plan

    Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

    Commute mode split Portland has now…

    The City of Portland and Multnomah County will co-present their Climate Action Plan to citizens at a series of town halls beginning this Monday.

    The plan is their “40 year roadmap for the institutional and individual change needed” to reach their ambitious climate protection goals. The over-arching goal is to reduce local carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

    Read more