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08/25/2005 01:26 PM     print story email story         Page: 1  | 2  | 3  

Portland and Emissions Reductions - Much Gain, Little Pain

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by Oakley Brooks

Portland, Oregon was the first city in the United States to adopt a greenhouse gas reduction plan in 1993. Now, the city claims to have achieved an overall emissions reduction. In other words, while the rest of the country has been discussing the costs and benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, Portland has all but done it. The Ecosystem Marketplace reports from the US metropolis that has decided to stop talking and start walking.

In 1997, Eric Sten, then a year into his first term as a city commissioner in Portland, Oregon, visited Japan to discuss his city's efforts to combat global warming. Portland--the first US city to adopt a greenhouse gas reduction program--had been working on the issue since 1993 and local governments around the world were interested in what the city had done. At a Japanese forum, a member of the audience rose and asked Sten how city officials had convinced Portland citizens to care about cutting fossil fuels. Sten's response was surprisingly candid, "I'm not sure the public does care."

Eight years later, in June of this year, Portland announced that it had succeeded in cutting greenhouse gas emissions levels to within 1% of 1990 levels, on the way to a targeted 10% reduction below 1990 levels by 2010. Sten, still a Portland commissioner, insists that the reductions came not because Portland converted all of its citizens into global warming believers but because the city made investments that had tangible environmental and quality of life benefits, in addition to reducing greenhouse gasses. "We made progress on this issue by doing things that make Portland a good place to live," Sten says, "Not because of things that are specific to global warming."

Sten's observation is provocative in light of recent debates concerning the best approach to global warming. When it comes to cutting greenhouse gases, politicians at the federal level have been arguing over the choice between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. But cities such as Portland are showing that they can cut greenhouse gas emissions without bringing communities and local economies to a grinding halt.

"I knew there were efforts going on but to have that kind of significant reduction was remarkable," says Dennis Wilde, a Portland-based developer. "What's really remarkable is there's been no pain. People didn't put on hair shirts and go live in caves."

Slowly but surely

As Portland officials count it, overall greenhouse gas emissions have dropped to 0.7% above 1990 levels. Transportation-related emissions essentially have been flat, combined emissions in homes, offices and industry have decreased slightly, and waste gases--largely extrapolated from methane gas escaping from rotting landfill waste--have decreased significantly.

For more than three decades, continued investments in public transit have given Portlanders one of the best transit systems in the country. Meanwhile, statewide energy efficiency programs aimed at stabilizing prices have also conserved energy. On top of transportation and energy efficiency, Michael Armstrong, Portland's lead analyst on global warming, says that the state's land use program has provided a solid foundation for greenhouse gas reductions over the last 15 years. "We wouldn't be here without land use," Armstrong says.

Oregon's 30-year-old land use system was formed in the early 1970s, after Oregonians watched California-style growth creep onto the state's farmland, forests and wild coastline. The system confines most development to urban centers.

There's little question that compact development has been effective in limiting auto use and related emissions. A recent study by the Seattle-based think tank Northwest Environment Watch found that the 45% of Portlanders living in compact inner-city neighborhoods use 25% of the gas of typical suburbanites. Portlanders' low driving rate can be attributed to widespread transit use. Downtown Portland, in particular, is served well by the local transit agency, Trimet. And there are corresponding greenhouse gas benefits--75% of Trimet's 290,000 daily trips are by "choice" riders who leave a car at home.

Energy efficiency efforts were aided by two key policy decisions: around 1990, Oregon's utilities commission began requiring investor-owned power companies to include energy efficiency spending in new resource plans; at the same time, the state also dramatically raised building code requirements for things such as roof and wall insulation.

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