The Portland City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a five-year, $750 million plan aimed at climate action and environmental justice.
The Portland Clean Energy Fund’s (PCEF) Climate Investment Plan aims to reduce carbon emissions and ensure residents are better prepared for climate change, with a focus on helping communities of color and low-income residents. The climate justice program will fund a wide variety of projects from renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades to lowering greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector by encouraging electric vehicle purchases over the next five years.
During Wednesday’s City Council vote, Commissioner Carmen Rubio said the plan reflects what Portlanders want. She said it’s an investment strategy that provides solutions for communities hit first and worst by climate change.
“I believe this is a huge step forward for the program and for the city and community,” said Rubio, who leads the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability that oversees the fund.
After nearly a yearlong overhaul that led to more focus on community resilience against climate change and transparency in how the money is spent, the voter-approved Portland Clean Energy Fund is set to take off. Last year, the fund experienced a series of setbacks, including an unfavorable audit, in which auditors found the clean energy fund lacked oversight and accountability.
The Portland Clean Energy Fund raises money from a tax on large retailers, and has so far raised much more money than initially expected when voters passed the tax in 2018.
The fund’s staff said the climate action plan approved Wednesday was created by multiple rounds of input from Portland residents, business, subject matter experts and community organizations to ensure the funds would address climate, social and racial justice.
Indi Namkoong, transportation justice coordinator with the environmental nonprofit Verde, was part of the yearlong process. She said she reviewed many early drafts of the plan and was floored by the process of getting the final draft across the finish line.
“I was able to see changes, draft to draft, meeting to meeting that were being made in direct response to conversations that we’ve had, to feedback that we’ve given,” she said. “In some cases, pretty substantial or notable changes… that kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time.”
Namkoong said PCEF staff took community input very seriously and has gotten positive feedback from residents who participated. Namkoong said she is looking forward to watching the plan be a model for other cities across the nation if they decide to develop similar climate actions.
Mayor Ted Wheeler expressed a similar sentiment during Wednesday’s vote.
“There is no other fund like PCEF anywhere else in the country,” Wheeler said. “We’re leading the way in designing climate solutions with and for communities on the frontlines of climate change. And because of this, this program is being watched by many, many people all across the nation, and therefore we have to do it right.”
Though the climate investment plan passed unanimously, Commissioner Rene Gonzalez expressed what he called “deep” concerns with how the fund was being dispersed. He questioned whether the fund would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the fund’s focus on race.
“I think deeply embedded in this ordinance is permanent racial grievance… As a framing of public policy moving forward, I question if that’s the way we should be defining issues,” Gonzalez said. “One of the deep concerns is the exposure of marginalized communities to some of the real negative effects of climate change. While that is a true concern, the greatest predictor of that is poverty of all races. So, a strictly racial framing of that concern to me is problematic.”
Gonzalez also expressed concern about “insufficient” investment in infrastructure and transportation.
During Tuesday’s Portland City Council meeting, the Portland Bureau of Transportation said the agency will have to undergo massive budget cuts and layoffs of at least 89 employees if the city does not find more money for transportation issues. The agency has a $32 million budget gap and said the cuts could impact routine road maintenance, street repairs and pedestrian safety programs.
Gonzalez has floated the idea of using some PCEF money to help fund the agency.
“But I’m not going to let the perfect be the opposite of a good. We have made some improvements here,” he said before approving the spending plan. “I hope we preserve space to continue to evaluate such substantial spending of dollars.”
The Portland Clean Energy Fund’s spending is set to take effect at the end next month and two strategic programs will immediately be implemented.
One of them focuses on planting 25,000 trees in heat-vulnerable neighborhoods to increase tree canopy. The other program will focus on adding energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies in new and redeveloped affordable multifamily housing.