On July 1, 2020, Portland city officials declared a climate emergency, signaling a commitment by City Hall to tackle a growing environmental crisis head on and detailed over 30 steps the city would embark on in the coming years to make the city greener.
In the year since the declaration, it has become increasingly clear that the city will not escape the devastating effects of climate change. A recent record-shattering heat event killed at least 54 people in Multnomah County. A historic ice storm left hundreds without power. Wildfire smoke covered the city in a gray, acrid haze for days.
On Thursday, city commissioners got an update from staff on how Portland was progressing toward the goals set out in the declaration, most notably the goal that the city cut carbon emissions by half by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The city is behind schedule.
“If we continued on our current trajectory, we would be very far off from meeting our carbon emission goals,” said Andria Jacob, who is shepherding the city toward its climate goals as a senior manager for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
The report, presented to council Thursday, echoes a criticism often leveled at the city by local environmental advocates: Portland, which once had a reputation as one of the greenest cities in America, has fallen behind its peer cities. The report states that — if the city wants to meet its carbon reduction goals — it needs to move faster on politically difficult, high-impact policies.
“The City must make some big moves, including eliminating carbon from existing buildings, updating the renewable fuels standard, supporting electrification in the transportation sector, and exploring policies to reduce embodied carbon in new buildings,” the report states. “For decades Portland has been a leader in climate action, but now most leading cities are well out in front of where we are.”
One potential reason the city is behind? Lack of funding. In a budget office review of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability conducted last winter, the budget office noted that the bureau did not have the money it needed to achieve the goals outlined in the declaration. Andrea Durbin, the head of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the problem has persisted.
“I will tell you up front, we have not mobilized the resources necessary to address the climate crisis in Portland and ensure that we are serious about decarbonizing buildings and the transportation sectors — the two largest sources of emissions,” said Durbin.
She said the bureaus did not have the money they needed to deliver on the commitments called for in the declaration. She did not expect the money to come from the city’s general fund.
“We need new ways to fund this work and those who emit carbon pollution need to be part of the solution,” she said.
Jacob said some of the biggest steps city leaders could take to bring the city’s climate goals within reach would be to eliminate carbon from existing homes and buildings, including city facilities, and focus on electrifying transportation.
“There is no single one action or even two or three that get us to the 2050 reduction targets. We have to eliminate carbon from every sector of the economy — that means building, transportation, energy supply and industry,” said Jacob.
Transportation emissions have been on the rise in recent years. Art Pearce, a policy, planning and projects group manager with the city’s transportation bureau, said transportation emissions have increased by 6% since 1990. He said the city would have to “radically change course” to meet either of the targets laid out in the declaration.
The declaration also committed City Hall to growing the city’s tree canopy, particularly in East Portland where the tree canopy covers roughly a fifth of the area. That’s far less than on the city’s west side, where the tree canopy covers more than half of the area. This means the effect of climate change is borne disproportionately by residents of East Portland. During the heat wave in early July, Willamette Week reported that the temperature in Lents reached 124 degrees — 25 degrees hotter than Northwest Portland.
The resolution also emphasizes that vulnerable communities — such as communities of color, immigrants, refugees, low-income individuals, people living with disabilities, and people experiencing homelessness — are on the front lines of the climate emergency and will be disproportionately burdened by the crisis.
Since the climate declaration, city officials said they’d worked to advocate for these communities by creating “the Climate Justice Initiative,” a space for communities of color to provide input on the city’s climate action, and “Build/Shift,” a team led by people of color that develops net zero carbon building policies.
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will return in a year to provide another update to council.