When I was first hired by the Portland Energy Office to work on local energy policy in the 90s, few people were interested in the issue of global warming. While scientists talked about climate change as a reality, it hadn’t yet become a key public issue.
At that same time, two city council members, Mike Lindberg and Earl Blumenauer, also agreed that national energy policy was unsustainable and that we might have to wait decades to see changes, so we should start at the local level.
With their political support and leadership, in 1993 we adopted our first Climate Action Plan and started to make things happen. And as public awareness of climate change grew, more and more businesses, government and community leaders came together around the need to act.
Fortunately, we realized early on that the things our city desired — reduced costs for businesses, more affordable housing, clean air, healthier kids, lively, walkable neighborhoods and great quality of life — all aligned with actions to reduce carbon emissions.
As business, community and political leaders began to recognize these “co-benefits,” Portland was in a position to embrace its role as a climate change leader, while showing that residents and businesses were saving money. Creating good public policy, together with programs that addressed climate change, became the norm.
Our community has some impressive results to show for it:
- We made transportation easier with a network of light rail, streetcar and buses.
- Hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes were added to the city’s street network. Today, more than 6 percent of Portlanders ride their bikes to work, compared with 1 percent on average in other cities.
- We invested in infrastructure. The new Tilikum Crossing bridge is the most recent example of investments in good urban design, energy efficiency, and healthy, connected communities.
- City facilities are now more efficient, with savings of more than $6 million/year due to investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
- Solarize Portland and related efforts resulted in more than 2,000 residential solar systems installed.
- The high performance, green building industry took off early here, resulting in large numbers of LEED Gold and Platinum buildings. These designations in Portland are now interchangeable with the words “quality building.”
- We launched Clean Energy Works to make homes more energy efficient. About 5,000 homes have been improved, thanks to the program’s mix of incentives, loans and individual investments.
- A similar effort for multifamily housing in the 1990s and 2000s resulted in energy efficiency improvements in more than 40,000 apartments.
- Recycling is another big win. Four years ago, we changed curbside collection so that recycling, yard debris and food waste are collected weekly, but garbage is picked up every other week. Practically overnight we reduced single-family waste headed to the landfill by 37 percent. The total recycling rate is now 70 percent for all commercial and residential solid waste.
Portland’s early action on climate change had some unexpected benefits with a surge in local expertise in green building, energy efficiency and developing vibrant neighborhoods. Our local designers, engineers, inventors and problem-solvers created all kinds of solutions to address climate change and use resources more efficiently. Now, those people are selling their solutions to the rest of the world. Whether it’s a green building design, stormwater management system or a recycling/waste reduction solution, the sustainable technologies and services sector is now a robust part of our traded sector economy.
Since we created our first Climate Action Plan in 1993, Portland has grown by more than 120,000 people. But we’ve managed to reduce carbon emissions by 14 percent citywide, and on a per person basis, we’re down 35 percent. In plain language, that means we are continuing to live a good life here in Portland, while cutting the use of fossil fuels by 35% per person.
And at the same time, we’ve added thousands of jobs – proving that you can grow a local economy while downsizing your carbon footprint.
But today, as we set even more ambitious goals for climate action, the sense of urgency has increased. We can’t wait decades to see the dramatic results we need.
And that means we must 1) invest in renewable energy, 2) retrofit our existing buildings to make them healthier and more efficient, 3) develop net-zero energy new buildings, 4) promote more transit, 5) implement land use planning that supports walking and biking, 6) reduce our total consumption, and 7) reuse, recycle and compost as much of our waste as possible.
As Portland has done in the past, these leaps forward will require collaboration among residents, businesses and government. For the latest thinking -- check out the draft 2015 Climate Action Plan, headed to City Council this summer. And, watch this new video to hear from local resident and business climate action leaders.
Together, we can show the world that climate innovation happens here.
Susan Anderson, Director
City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability