Our new year’s resolution should be to take climate action seriously.

Time is running out to actually do something that will reduce the steady growth of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which is triggering irreversible damage to ecosystems around the planet.  There are four big takeaways you should know about climate:

1. We’re falling further and further behind our stated goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, principally because since 2014 we’re driving more.  That’s true in cities around the country, including our own home Portland.  Transportation agencies are particularly complicit in this failure, and are chiefly rationalizing “pollution as usual” in the guise of climate strategy.

2. Pledges alone won’t accomplish anything. Saying you support the Paris Accords and plan to emit much less greenhouse gas a two or three decades from now doesn’t count for anything without immediate actions now to lower emissions.

3. Cities are central to the climate solution: We need to build more great walkable city neighborhoods, and more housing in the great walkable neighborhoods we already have.

4. Pricing carbon (as well as pricing driving and parking) can go a long way to creating the incentives and leveraging the financial resources and human ingenuity needed to save the planet.

We’ve been making this case for some time now at City Observatory; today’s commentary pulls together all the various threads of our argument. Our focus is on our home, Portland and Oregon, which are self-styled climate leaders, but the lessons apply with equal or greater force to cities and states across the nation.

1.  We’re not making progress.

In Portland, per capita greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased more than 14 percent since 2013, by about 1,000 pounds per person. Total greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have increased by about 1.6 million tons per year over that time.

Portland had pledged to start a new climate conversation in the fall—there’s no information about it yet on the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s website, although Portland is advancing a proposal for a $25 per ton fee on greenhouse gas emissions for some polluters, a topic we’ll address in an upcoming commentary.

Highway builders rationalizing pollution as usual

Our institutions are still mired in the thinking of the 1950s, when they need to be helping using build the low-carbon world of 2050.  Major agencies, like state highway departments are engaged in systematic denial about their role in causing and helping to solve climate change.  For example, the Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing billions of dollars to widen freeways, which will inevitably lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions.  The Oregon Department of Transportation lied about the likely greenhouse gas emission reductions from so-called “operational treatments”—things like ramp-metering and variable speed signs, which led to the defeat of a 2015 highway spending bill. The Oregon Department of Transportation’s newly appointed director Kris Strickler, repeated the discredited myth that wider freeways could reduce greenhouse gases by lowering idling in traffic in his confirmation hearing.  The Oregon Transportation Commission has steadfastly refused to apply any kind of climate test to freeway widening projects, simply choosing to ignore the statutory state mandate to reduce greenhouse gases.

Regional planning organizations, which should have the cross-cutting perspective needed to think about climate, land use, housing and transportation, have been no better.  Metro, Portland’s regional government has adopted what amounts to a “Why Bother” climate strategy. Metro is nominally in favor of climate action, but has meekly rationalized business-as-usual/pollution-as-usual.  The technocratic details of its so-called “Climate Smart Strategy” call for only a trivial reduction in driving.

The regional government’s real priorities were apparent in its 2020 transportation bond measure  would have spent $5 billion mostly in highway corridors and reduced greenhouse gases by less than 0.5 percent.  Mercifully, voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure in the November 2020 ballot.  Along the way Metro even fielded propaganda-like surveys that intimated that building more roadway capacity to reduce congestion would lower greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Pledges won’t accomplish anything by themselves.

Groundhog’s Day:  In Oregon, every year, we observe Groundhog’s day, with a vengeance when it comes to climate.  As we’ve chronicled at City Observatory we’ve been stuck in the same tragic loop, in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. We piously declare our fealty to the Paris climate accords and reaffirm our commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent or more by some year ending in zero two or three decades hence, but when you look at the accounting our carbon emissions have actually increased.

We’ll always have Paris:  Mayors are always happy to make climate pledges, but then little comes of them. Up and down the West Coast, where climate awareness and activism are widespread, there’s widespread failure to make meaningful progress in reducing greenhouse gases.  In the four jurisdictions that make up “Ecotopia”—California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia—local inventories show carbon emissions increasing.

It’s clear that our previous efforts haven’t been enough.  The City of Portland wrote a “final report” on the implementation of its 2015 Climate Action Plan, patting itself on the back for ticking off items on a checklist, but papering over the inconvenient fact that greenhouse gas emissions have increased rather than decreasing as called for in the plan.  As we said last fall, the City awarded itself a “participation trophy” for climate action, that’s not acceptable if we’re serious about climate change.

What we observe locally in Portland with projects like the proposed $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project are symptomatic of a larger national campaign by the highway lobby to deny, ignore and aggravate climate change.  Most conspicuous of these efforts is a call from the Transportation Research Board—itself an arm of the National Academy of Sciences—to spend additional hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing literally trillions of miles of additional driving. Even climate mayors are little better.  As Curbed’s Alissa Walker points out:

. . .  members of the Climate Mayors coalition — including many who sit on a new task force to “serve as critical voices within the network” — are actively widening highways, often right through the center of their cities, despite the fact that climate goals they set do not allow for any increases in driving.

For example, Phoenix has developed its own climate action plan, and has a goal of reducing carbon emissions, but will spend several hundred million dollars, chiefly from sales taxes, to widen local freeways and subsidize more driving and sprawl.

Highway builders cloak their environmental destruction with cute, greenwashed logos and slogans, and misleading renderings that make giant freeways look like pedestrian dominated parks.

“Planning and environmental linkages” — a cover for greenwashing more and wider roadways.

In place of tangible reductions in travel or greenhouse gases, we get self-awarded participation trophies for trivial or even counterproductive measures.  Washington, DC, proclaimed itself a “LEED Platinum City” but the practical details of what that means for greenhouse gas emissions is murky at best, and the region is embarked on a massive freeway expansion strategy. Instead of tangible efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by reducing vehicle miles of travel, we get token efforts to the paint fossil fuel infrastructure in a coat of greenwash.  A classic example is a LEED certified free parking structure at the national renewable energy lab in Golden Colorado subsidizes auto travel to its suburban campus.

3. Cities are the solution.

Ultimately, cities are the cornerstone of a livable, sustainable climate strategy.  As the Coalition for and Urban Transition has written, we should be striving to build places that are compact, clean and connected.


Our friend Ethan Seltzer wrote in 2019 that it was time to get real about climate change, and to focus on building our cities to reduce the need to travel so much:

. . . transportation emissions are going to frustrate the best of our climate goals unless we find ways to diminish our dependence on auto travel for every minute aspect of our modern lives.

Building more housing in dense, transit-served locations is an essential strategy for fighting climate change. Efforts like California State Senator Scott Weiner’s SB 827 (legalizing apartments near transit) and Oregon’s missing middle housing (legalizing four-plex buildings in single family zones) promote affordability, and lessen vehicle travel.  Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has popularized the idea of a 15-minute city, and building more neighborhoods where most or all of our daily needs can be met with a 15 minute trip on foot or by bike would dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Building more housing would also help lower rents and reduce displacement.

4.  Pricing Carbon

A carbon tax is needed, not as a panacea but to realign everyone’s information and incentives in ways that support greenhouse gas reduction. Including the price of carbon in every good and service sends powerful and universal signals to consumers and producers about which things are green and which aren’t. Economists and Scientists Agree:  To save the planet, we’ve got to price carbon. The convoluted and widely gamed claims of environmental responsibility from everything from “LEED” building standards to “food-miles,” impose an impossible cognitive burden on consumers.  We lack the technical knowledge and processing power and time to calculate the carbon footprint of every decision, but we can quickly and easily assimilate information from different prices.  Perhaps most importantly, carbon pricing sends critical signals to inventors and investors about where they ought to be spending their intellectual and financial capital.  A carbon tax makes every dirty project and technology less profitable, and every clean project and alternative more feasible, sooner.  We can and should engage in efforts to regulate the worst and most dispensable forms of greenhouse gases (like chlorofluorocarbons), and we should educate people as much as possible about how to live in harmony with the planet, but these efforts will work best in a world where the damage carbon does is reflected back to everyone in the prices and profits they see from their actions.

A two cent solution for climate change.  The cost of pricing carbon isn’t out of line with fees that we regularly and willingly pay to limit environmental damage. Portland charges nearly $100 a ton for bulk garbage disposal, but you can use the region’s airshed to dispose of as much carbon as you want for free.

Pricing roadways, as well as a carbon emissions, can reduce road congestion. The high price of cheap gasoline.  We know that incentives work, when the price of oil and gasoline fell in global markets in 2014, driving, which had been declining, suddenly shot up.

Pricing carbon and roads, with the proceeds either used to facilitate low-carbon living or rebated to lower income households can also make our cities and our transportation systems more just.  There’s nothing equitable about an automobile dependent transportation system:  it makes those without cars or who can’t (or shouldn’t) drive second class citizensRoad pricing is inherently fair, because it makes buses run faster.

We’ve dawdled and dissembled on climate for too long.  We need to acknowledge that our current efforts aren’t working, and focus on the growing greenhouse gases from automobile emissions.  Pledges, good intentions and greenwashing are diverting us from the need to change our cities to allow low carbon living. Building more places where common destinations are close at hand, and building more housing in the high demand locations that already have these amenities is good for the climate, housing affordability and equity. Putting a price on carbon assigns responsibility, aligns incentives and provides the resources to make steady progress to reducing greenhouse gases.