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From BPS Director Susan Anderson: From Portland to Paris, cities deliver on climate action

As we welcome this New Year, I am excited and hopeful for Portland’s future. Over the last 12 months, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability worked with many of you or your organizations to build plans, enact new policies, research and develop new technologies, and provide technical assistance to create a more prosperous, healthy, equitable and resilient city. 

In 2015, Council adopted an award-winning Climate Action Plan that will take our local leadership to new heights. You’ve also helped us take significant steps towards the completion of the state-mandated Comprehensive Plan. Much more than simply a map and new City Code, the 2035 Comprehensive Plan provides a framework to create financing, zoning and regulatory tools to achieve our most critical goals: a low carbon economy, more jobs, affordable housing, a clean environment, increased mobility and greater equity among Portlanders.

As the world shifts to investing in clean energy and healthier communities, cities around the world are delivering results. Portland is a leader in this effort, and we stand ready to do more. That was the message Mayor Charlie Hales and BPS sustainability manager, Michael Armstrong, took to Paris last month when they joined leaders from more than 500 cities to urge strong international action on climate change.

The global agreement that emerged from the Paris talks -- to pursue efforts to limit the increase in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) -- demonstrates an unprecedented level of international cooperation. But by necessity, it leaves much of the hard work for subsequent action to nations, states, cities the private sector and local residents. For the first time, world leaders, who signed the climate agreement, also recognized the central role of local initiatives, if we are to be successful. The agreement is international, but much of the action will be local.

With just a handful of other U.S. cities, Portland has a very encouraging record of accomplishment reducing carbon emissions. Since 1990, local emissions have declined 35 percent per person, even while  adding more than 75,000 jobs. Also since 1990, the population of Multnomah County has increased by more than 182,000 residents, yet total emissions are down 14 percent. Clearly we are doing more with less energy.  We are more efficient, we are saving money, and we are using more renewable energy sources. This is good news and Portland is making progress, but we have a long way to go: Portland’s goal, along with other leading cities, is to reduce 1990 level carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

That will require much more from all of us — from the city, the private sector, non-profits, academic institutions, faith organizations and individuals. It is important than we understand that these reductions are not necessarily hardships.  A new low-carbon economy, which relies on less energy and fewer fossil fuels, presents us with an enormous opportunity to be more efficient, create jobs, and build a healthier and more vibrant community for all Portlanders, addressing equity each step of the way. As French President Hollande said in speaking to the group of mayors in Paris, “You can't separate climate action from the struggle against inequality.”

The role and value of cities had unprecedented visibility in Paris. Alongside mayors from Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, London, Los Angeles, Vancouver (BC), and Copenhagen, Mayor Hales was a featured speaker and shared Portland’s experience in creating employment and a livable community, while reducing carbon emissions.

“When you listen to most national leaders talk about this issue, you hear a language that’s really about the allocation of burden,” Hales said. “But Mayors and cities are not looking at it that way, because of our experience. Portland is prospering because we are green, because we’ve reduced our carbon footprint even while our economy has grown. We see climate action as an economic strategy for success, not a burden that we have to shoulder.”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was also compelling, declaring early in the negotiations, “I have this to say to the negotiators: We cities will be with you, but we need you to be with us, too.” Cities are leading and will continue to do so, but success requires a strong partnership with state and national governments.

Days after returning to Portland, Mayor Hales hosted the mayors of San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Eugene for two days of discussions focused on climate change, housing affordability, and homelessness. On the surface, these topics seem mostly unrelated.  However, the mayors together recognized their interconnections, and they emphasized the words of Pope Francis earlier this year: “Environmental issues are social issues.”

Together with other West Coast cities, Portland is committed to meeting the linked challenges of environmental quality, housing affordability, climate change, and building a city where families and businesses can thrive today and in the future.

This commitment, however, will not see results without the involvement of a determined community of advocates and organizations. I am profoundly grateful for your involvement, the individual and business actions you have taken, and the many hours you have spent at public hearings, testifying, writing letters or volunteering on committees.  Thank you – your efforts make a difference.

All the best for an abundant and resilient 2016.

Susan Anderson
City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability