United Nations Environment Programme

Dramatic turnaround

A city once known for pollution is slashing carbon emissions and banning bulk fossil fuel terminals as it grasps the opportunities of the green economy.
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Portland’s streetcar loop has attracted $4.5 billion of low-carbon development, and increased the market value of the corridor by $11.63 billion.
In moving past the status quo, there are myriad opportunities to be prosperous in the green economy.

One November afternoon, the Portland City Council chambers were filled with men and women in suits, serious and practical. Standing out in the crowd were two middle school girls, poised but nervous. One of them, 12-year-old Isabel, walked to the testimony table and spoke: “If we don’t take action now, we will never grasp the opportunity to stop climate change. This is our future.”

In that moment, she captured the concerns of Portlanders, of Americans, and of global citizens.

A global issue like climate change seems to dwarf the influence of an individual city. But when mayors hear our cities’ children pleading for help, we know we must mobilize on the front lines of the battle. Portland stands alongside C40 cities, the US Conference of Mayors, Climate Mayors, the West Coast Alliance of Mayors, and other coalitions to show that while nations negotiate burdens, cities find opportunities for positive action. Cities are the locus of innovation and action on climate change.

This approach has already had a significant impact: C40 cities alone are taking 10,000 individual actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Portland, our aggressive climate action agenda has reduced carbon emissions by 21 percent from 1990 levels — even as our population grew by 33 percent and we added 90,000 jobs.

That is a dramatic turnaround from 30 years ago, when Portland’s air quality was among the worst in the country. We cleaned up our air and reduced carbon emissions through significant investments in transport infrastructure — rail, transit, electric vehicle, bike — and recycling. As Portland transport commissioner in the 1990s, I saw impending growth, and invested in the first modern streetcar in the United States. Our streetcar loop has since attracted $4.5 billion of low-carbon development, and has increased the market value of the corridor by $11.63 billion.

Our electric vehicle charging infrastructure is the best in the United States, as is our broad and growing bicycle infrastructure: 7 percent of Portlanders now commute to work by bike. Five years ago we extended recycling and curbside compost services citywide, and took waste generation from a staggering 21 percent above 1996 levels, down to 10 percent below that level. These investments are driving us toward our goal of reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.
But we won’t achieve those ambitious — and necessary — goals without even more dramatic action. We are working to double the amount of solar energy captured at City facilities, with solar panels on police precincts and community and water treatment centres. We have implemented energy performance reporting for large commercial buildings; this addresses our city’s largest energy consumer, and saves building owners money on energy costs. Our next step is to join just four other cities in the United States to require energy reporting for residential homes, which will have the same cost-saving and energy-reduction benefits. This set of actions alone will reduce Portland’s carbon emissions by another seven percentage points.

Perhaps the most dramatic action is my proposed policy to prohibit all new bulk fossil fuel terminals in the city of Portland. This is a deliberate transition from dirty, dangerous fuels to clean, renewable energy. And it’s a reinforcement of the “green wall” that West Coast cities are building to signal their values in protecting our public from the devastating effects of climate change, rejecting the fossil fuel status quo, and positioning themselves to innovate early — a strategic move that will prove both economically beneficial and climate-responsible.

In moving past the status quo, there are myriad opportunities to be prosperous in the green economy. In Portland, we have more than 12,000 jobs in the clean, green tech industry, and that number is growing rapidly. We have changed investment priorities, joining a growing wave of cities, universities and businesses by divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing in the clean energy of the future. We are also starting to use green bonds, which match the city’s climate-related priorities to a market looking for reliable, environmentally sound investment options. In the new economy, climate action and prosperity go hand-in-hand, and Portland is joining West Coast cities as the first to invest.

As mayor, I have been moved by my constituents’ pleas for action on climate change. And I have been moved by my peers’ response. In Paris last winter, I stood with more than 1,000 mayors and local leaders from around the world, as we pledged to make national agreements real. I’m proud that the example and the pressure from so many mayors taking a strong stand helped embolden the global negotiations.

A global issue like climate change may seem greater than the influence of an individual city. But together, on the front lines, cities can have a real impact. We can make good on our nations’ promises. We can heed our communities’ plea.

That plea has been heard by the Portland City Council, and we cannot resist its eloquence and immediacy. On that November afternoon, Isabel’s 13-year-old classmate, Lailanie, leaned over her written statement as she spoke. When she reached the last line, she straightened in her chair, looked Council members in the eye and said: “Please don’t let future generations look at a dying earth and say that we’re the generation that killed it. Let them look back and say that we’re the generation that saved it.”

She spoke her truth - and for all of us. That is our mandate, and our opportunity to take local action that changes the world.