Portland’s climate emergency efforts are tarnished by an inability to plainly speak the facts about climate change

But the tragic fact is that the city is utterly failing to meet even its own previous goals, and more alarmingly, isn’t owning up to the failure of its 2015 plan to reduce emissions.

Instead, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is promoting trivial and incorrect stories about greenhouse gas emissions.

On June 30, the City of Portland adopted a climate emergency declaration. It steps up the city’s goal for 2030 to reducing emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels (the previous plan had a 40 percent goal). The resolution declaring the emergency contains some sensible findings:  for example, explicitly acknowledging that “expanding roadways does not solve congestion but leads to additional vehicle miles and carbon emissions.” The resolution is an expression of concern, and a promise to do more, but rather than specific concrete steps, simply says that the city will, later this year, “co-convene” a process to talk about what we might do to reduce greenhouse gases while promoting climate justice.

You’d hardly know it from reading the climate emergency resolution, but as we wrote earlier, Portland has essentially failed to make any progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions under the Climate Action Plan it adopted five years ago.

On July 10th, Andrea Durbin, Director of the City’s Planning and Sustainability Bureau, appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” to discuss the city’s climate emergency declaration  She was interviewed by host Dave Miller, who quickly cut to the chase:

Dave Miller:
As you know, emissions reductions countywide have stalled in recent years and if I understand the numbers correctly, its largely because of an increase over the last five years, in emissions from the transportation sector.  In other words, even though the city has this climate action plan, compared to five years ago, emissions from people driving around are going up—its the opposite direction.  What’s not working?
Andrea Durbin:
Well, that’s correct.  More people are driving.

The only way to attain the city’s stated goals is to reduce vehicle miles traveled, as the the technical analysis done for the 2015 plan made very clear:  It said that the city would need to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by more than half by 2050 in order to achieve the planned greenhouse gas reductions. Instead VMT (pre-pandemic, at least) increased sharply after gas prices declined in 2014, and greenhouse gas emissions went up as well—by 1,000 pounds per person per year in the Portland metro area.

The new climate plan will fail unless it, too, reduces driving. The Portland City Council laudably adopted Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s proposed amendment to require demand management, such as congestion pricing, before allowing any new freeway capacity to be built in Portland.  While that’s a good step, Planning and Sustainability Director Andrea Durbin could only point to two things as concrete examples of how to reduce transportation emissions:  reducing freight-related emissions by electrifying delivery vehicles, and mandating electric vehicle charging stations in new apartment buildings.

Climate justice: Let them drive Teslas?

The city’s new climate direction puts considerable emphasis on helping “front-line communities,” which it defines to include low income Portlanders, and people of color. It’s absolutely correct that climate change affects low income people more than others, which is why fighting climate change is, by its nature, intrinsically just. But Durbin’s example for how the plan will help low income Portlanders strains credulity:

For instance, in transportation, we will be doing work, again with multi-family housing, rental housing, to require electric vehicle hookups in those buildings as they’re being built, because we know there’s really an opportunity and a need to provide electric vehicles for communities of color, low income residents, because it is less costly to operate and so if we can provide those opportunities, and build out the infrastructure so that people have more choices, to pay less for their energy bills, or pay less for their gas costs because they’re driving an electric vehicle to work, those are the kinds of solutions that we’ll be looking for and trying to enable.

It’s hard to understate how small and potentially counterproductive requiring electric vehicle charging facilities are for fighting climate change or aiding the poor. Many poor households can’t afford cars at all; none can afford Teslas (MSRP:  $37,990) or other new electric vehicles.  Many can’t drive, due to age or infirmity. And aside from a few hundred newly built affordable housing units, few will be able to afford to live in newly constructed apartments with vehicle charging hookups.

Let them drive Teslas?

In addition, requiring parking (and attendant charging infrastructure) will drive up the price and likely reduce the supply of new apartments, which could collectively be worse for the economic prospects of low income households. Eliminating parking  and parking requirements (including ones with built-in charging) would do more to reduce greenhouse gases and promote affordability; parking requirements add an estimated $200 a month to apartment rents. Subsidizing electric cars is one of the most expensive ways to reduce carbon emissions and chiefly benefits higher income households.  And the plan doesn’t even acknowledge the vast subsidies the city provides to motorists, with free and under-priced parking on public streets.  It’s also paradoxical that the city charges a per mile fee for the use of electric scooters—the one type of electric vehicle that is arguably within the economic reach of low income populations—that is about ten times higher than the comparable fees charged to gas-powered cars.

Freight follies: On-line shopping reduces greenhouse gases

Pushed by Think Out Loud Host Dave Miller to elaborate on how the city would grapple with rising transportation emissions, Durbin singled out freight and specifically increased e-commerce deliveries as a source of rising emissions.

We’re also seeing an increase in emissions from the freight sector as more and more people are ordering their goods and products on line, on Amazon, and having it delivered. And we to make sure when they’re having it delivered, they’re being delivered in clean freight vehicles. And that also has direct benefits for communities of color, and low income communities, because its these communities that are most directly impacted by the air pollution

While much talked about, there’s actually no data to support the claim that Portland’s emissions growth is attributable to either freight generally, or e-commerce deliveries in particular.  The city’s most recent climate inventory, produced by Durbin’s office and released late last year contains no greenhouse gas estimates for freight or deliveries, and in fact, doesn’t contain the words “freight,” “trucks,” or “e-commerce.” A single reference to “delivery” discusses the operation of the  electric grid. As we’ve demonstrated at City Observatory, rising transportation emissions are almost entirely due to an increase in driving following the decline in gas prices in 2014. Also, the available evidence on e-commerce is that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, by reducing the number, frequency and distance private car shopping trips. Each UPS, Fedex or USPS delivery vehicle takes dozens of Suburbans and Subarus off the road.  MIT economist Will Wheaton estimates that each dollar spent on E-commerce generates about 30 times less vehicle miles of travel that conventional brick and mortar shopping.

Delivering packages and reducing urban traffic congestion! Credit: Jason Lawrence, Flickr
Delivering packages and reducing greenhouse gas emissions! Credit: Jason Lawrence, Flickr

Focusing on electrical vehicle charging stations in new apartments and e-commerce deliveries, two categories that have almost nothing to due with the city’s failure to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals signals that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability isn’t taking climate change seriously. This fashionable trivia diverts attention from the much larger and more difficult steps we’ll need to take to reduce greenhouse gases. This city’s 2015 plan made it plain that achieving a more modest goal would require a huge reduction in driving; the new declaration and the BPS director, are virtually silent on this question, despite an even more aggressive goal. Soaring rhetoric about front-line communities is no excuse for a climate plan that simply won’t own up to past failures and lay out policies and strategies that will actually work at scale.

Editor’s Note:  Revised August 18 to include additional references on electrification.