Metro, Portland’s regional government, says it has a plan to reduce transportation greenhouse gases

But in the 8 years since adopting the plan, the agency hasn’t bothered to look at data on GHGs—which have increased 22 percent, or more than one million tons annually.

Metro’s Climate Plan is “Don’t Look Up” 

In the new movie “Don’t Look Up,” Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play two scientists who identify a planet-killing comet headed for earth.  Their warnings go largely ignored, and by the end of the movie, there’s an active anti-scientific movement, which as the comet becomes visible in the sky, tells its adherents to simply “Don’t look up.”

The movie is an allegory for our climate peril:  faced with mounting scientific evidence about the trajectory of climate change, and the increasingly evident manifestation of heat waves, storms, flooding and fires, too many of our leaders are simply looking away.

And in Portland, which prides itself as being a green leader, the regional government has, effectively been pursuing a “Don’t Look Up” climate policy.

Noble intentions, soaring rhetoric

Here’s the background.  In 2007, the State Legislature set a goal of reducing Oregon greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050.  And in 2014, Metro, Portland’s regional government adopted what it called a “Climate Smart Strategy” to reduce greenhouse gasses.

On paper, seems good.

The Metro plan had a few policy ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example by expanding transit and promoting more compact land uses, which would enable more cycling and walking.  But for the most part, it relied on expectations that federal and state regulations and car makers would figure out a way to quickly make cars non-polluting.  Recognizing—at the time, at least—that there was a lot of uncertainty in the efficacy of these policies and the evolution of technology, Metro promised that if its efforts weren’t reducing greenhouse gasses, it would revisit the plan and take even tougher measures.

Here it is, eight years later.  How is that “Climate Smart Strategy” working out?

Well, you might read through Metro planning documents, but nowhere in them will you find any data on the change in transportation-related greenhouse gases in Metro’s planning area in the years since 2014.  In essence, after adopting its plan, Metro hasn’t looked up.

But just like in the movie, scientists are looking up.  And what they see, specifically in Portland, is that the Metro strategy is failing—greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, not decreasing, as called for in Metro’s plan.

Here, the parts of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are played by real-life Boston University physicists Conor Gately, Lucy Hutyra and Ian Sue Wing.  Their research was sponsored by NASA, published by the National Academy of Science, and their database is maintained by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  What they’ve done is to create a nearly four-decade long, very high resolution map of greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation in the US.  They’ve mapped emissions down to a 1 kilometer (0.6 Mile) square grid for the entire nation, for each year from 1980 through 2017.  (There are more details about the project below). Their data is the best evidence we have on the trajectory of this comet.  And for Portland, the news is not good.

Here’s what their data show for the tri-county Portland metro area:

The green line on the chart is the actual amount of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington Counties from 1990 through 2017.  The blue line shows the trajectory of emissions needed to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction goals spelled out in Metro’s 2014 climate action plan.  In 2013, the year before Metro adopted its plan, emissions were about 6 million tons.  The plan envisioned the emissions levels going down by roughly a million tons by 2017.  But instead, as the green line shows, transportation greenhouse gas emissions in the Portland area increased by nearly 1 million tons a year after 2013, to 7 million tons.

Metro’s “Climate Smart Strategy” isn’t just somehow behind schedule.  It is failing.  Emissions are increasing, not decreasing.  The comet is accelerating towards earth. So what are the leaders doing?

Not looking up

Metro’s climate plan promised to track emissions.  To be sure, Metro has published annual sustainability reports since 2014.  And they proudly mention the adoption of the Climate Smart Strategy.  But the only thing Metro tracks in these reports is greenhouse gas emissions (and other environmental effects) of its own internal business operations.  There’s absolutely no mention of overall regional trends from the transportation system Metro is charged with planning.  Neither does the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan provide a time series of data showing the trend in regional transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

Metro’s plan also promised to take additional and tougher measures if those in the Climate Smart Strategy weren’t working fast enough.  On page 1 of the 2014 strategy document, Metro committed to periodically assessing its progress and said:

If the assessment finds the region is deviating significantly from the Climate Smart Strategy performance monitoring target, then Metro will work with local, regional and state partners to consider the revision or replacement of policies, strategies and actions to ensure the region remains on track with meeting adopted targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But if you don’t track your progress, you don’t have to admit you’re failing and you don’t have to  bother with considering more serious steps to reduce greenhouse gases.  Don’t. Look. Up.  It’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s the approach Metro is taking.

The science behind the DARTE database.

The tragedy here is that we have sound scientific data that tell us what is happening.  The research, undertaken over a period of years, sponsored by NASA, gives us a very granular, long-term picture of how our climate efforts are fairing.  You can’t claim to be taking climate change seriously if you aren’t paying attention to this kind of data.

Gately, C., L.R. Hutyra, and I.S. Wing. 2019. DARTE Annual On-road CO2 Emissions on a 1-km Grid, Conterminous USA, V2, 1980-2017. ORNL DAAC, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA.

Their results were featured in the New York Times in October 2019.  We alerted Metro staff to the availability and importance of this data in October 2019 (Cortright to Kloster, October 16, 2019).