Portland: Bold Steps on Climate Action

Portland's been at the front of the pack for a while: In 1993 it was the first U.S. city to adopt a strategy to reduce its carbon emissions. It's also one of the only the only cities in North America to have reduced its emissions below 1990 levels (see Seattle's progress report, released after this entry was originally written).

Last week, the City Council committed to reduce the city's emissions by 80% by 2050. That ambitious target is the part of an exceptional municipal climate change action plan that sharpens the city's position on the leading edge of municipal environmental policy.

Overall, the plan is a wealth of information and strategy. It is well worth a look whether or not you happen to live in Portland.[plan in pdf]

The plan covers eight different sectors that range from “buildings and energy” to “urban forestry and natural systems.” The main thrust though is on the way that climate related action can also be a driver for a robust local economy.

A Green Local Economy
Alternative energy sources, green buildings and efficient infrastructure can also pay economic dividends – we've heard that before. But Portland shapes the theory into a convincing strategy that includes:

-- Thousands of jobs created through a drive to retrofit all existing buildings and reduce their overall energy use by 25% by 2030 [an interesting piece on Portland's expanding commercial retrofit market ].

-- A demanding goal of generating 10% of energy from local renewables, starting with ten mega-watts of on-site renewable energy by 2012, that will encourage the continued development of Portland's alternative energy sector.

--And two linked initiatives to build nothing but energy positive buildings by 2030 and push the State of Oregon to further "green" its building codes. Together these will help to support the continued growth of Portland's already well developed green engineering and architecture firms.

All with the added benefit that money that isn't spent on energy stays within the local economy. You can see some of this already in action under the banner of the city's Clean Energy Works program.

Beyond Municipal Boundaries
Portland's plan stands out not only because of the high goals that it sets, but for the boundary pushing approach that it is proposing to meet those goals. It is the only action plan that I have seen that takes seriously, for example, addressing the emissions created outside the municipality during the production and transportation of goods that city-dwellers consume.

It's a subject often discussed, but rarely included in policy. This focus gives local agriculture and food consumption choices an important place in the plan (which links up well with recent discussions of the impacts of our food choices). A full 10% of the plan's projected reductions are projected to come from changes in local food choice habits, and at least some of those edibles are to come from a community based local food system.

“The 20 minute neighbourhood” is another stand-out from the Portland plan. The idea is simple: you should be able to comfortably get your daily needs (education, recreation, shopping, transportation etc.) met within a 20 minute walk of your house. It's also got a nice ring to it that people understand intuitively much better than talking about “dense, multi-use, transit oriented development” (which underneath it are the land use and mobility principles to which the city has committed).

On Not Going It Alone
I was in Portland last year during some of the initial consultations that contributed to the action plan. (20 minute neighbourhoods was one of the concepts that come out of those conversations.) But engaging with community members is something that Portland has been doing for much longer than the preparation period for this particular plan.

Community visioning projects like VisionPDX and ReCode Portland, as well as a history of working with communities, has made it possible for the city to come out with such an ambitious document. It is built on a foundation of extensive discussions with communities and local businesses on the many links between environmental goals and increased overall quality of life, economic success, and security. That process, it seems to me, is as important as the end product itself.

"Our good work to date is not nearly enough."
My only disappointment is that there are less near-term hard targets than I would have liked to see. Why no specific 2012 target for the number of residential retrofits or energy positive buildings, for example?

One thing is certain, with such ambitious goals eyes are now on Portland to see if it can continue to deliver on its commitments and whether its approach is something that can be adapted to suit other North American cities.

The plan opens with the sobering point that “perhaps the most important lesson learned from local climate protection work to date is the frank recognition that our good work to date is not
nearly enough.”(a familiar mia culpa). What comes after is a good indication of the direction that we need to go in if we are really going to take urban sustainability seriously.


3 Responses to "Portland: Bold Steps on Climate Action"

elaine said... 24 November 2010 at 10:09

"...the only city in North America to have reduced its emissions below 1990 levels."

I'm curious about this statement - do you have a source for it? Thanks!

Alex Aylett said... 24 November 2010 at 11:07

Hi Elaine,
It's nice to see that people are reading some of my older posts!

The Carbon Disclosure Project will eventually make answering these types of questions much easier. For the moment, you have to go digging around in the Climate Change Reports published by individual cities, and then also look at exactly what they are measuring.

That's made a bit easier by the fact that there really aren't that many cities who are taking emissions reductions seriously (unfortunately).

When I wrote this entry, Portland was the only city that I have seen who was posting real reductions below 1990 levels. Since then though, Seattle has published a report that shows even bigger reductions. I've added a link to the report above.

I haven't had a chance to compare their inventories, so I am not sure if the comparison is a fair one, but I'm guessing they should match up fairly well.

You used to blog about these things as well. What happened?

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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