Representatives from Multnomah County’s Office of Sustainability briefed the Board Tuesday, Dec. 13 on progress toward meeting the goal of meeting community-wide energy needs with 100% renewable energy by 2050. They shared that while global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the County is on the pathway to 100% renewable energy.
“The kind of future we all deserve is by no means guaranteed, especially without intent,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said in a statement. “While the transition to a clean energy economy still seems daunting, the ‘how’ of the transition is coming into sharper focus.”
The resolution that committed Multnomah County to these goals, known as “100x50,” seeks to achieve 100% clean and renewable sources of electricity community-wide by 2035, and 100% clean and renewable sources of energy, including heating and transportation fuels, by 2050. It was adopted by the Board of County Commissioners in 2017, on the same day that the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accords.
A lot has changed since then — some for the worse, some for the better, said John Wasiutynski, the County’s sustainability director.
Similar to the pandemic, the climate crisis has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, he said. People experiencing homelessness, people of color and people with lower incomes are hit the hardest by and most at risk of climate-related harms. That reality highlights the need to center equity and justice in the County’s response.
The 100x50 resolution centers justice by addressing existing disparities in health, safety and opportunity that stem from the use of fossil fuels and fossil fuel-driven climate change. Just as importantly, the County also aims to ensure the most vulnerable households are not negatively affected by the transition out of fossil fuels.
“Our goals hinge on making sure that those who have been left behind — even, and often, in the name of progress — can reap the economic benefits of this transition, and the opportunities that come along with them,” the Chair’s statement read in part.
“We can’t just talk about the concrete goal of reducing emissions,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “It cannot happen without the justice element. These are part and parcel of the same thing and they are linked.”
County on track to sustainable future, but marginalized communities need to be prioritized
Data shows the County is now 25% below its 1990level of greenhouse gas emissions, with electricity being the largest single source of emissions from energy use today. Multnomah County is much better-positioned to meet its goal than it was in previous years thanks to new legislation, such as House Bill 2021, along with milestone federal investments like the Inflation Reduction Act.
Representatives shared that the County seeks to accomplish its 100x50 goal through a four-pillar approach: efficiency, electrification, utility decarbonization and a just transition.
A just energy transition is not a given, said SilviaTanner, a senior policy analyst with the Sustainability Office. Black, Brown and Indigenous people are energy burdened, underrepresented in clean energy jobs, and excluded from many clean energy projects. Energy justice, she said, is central to the success of the transition.
“If in 2050 we have a clean energy system, but many cannot access it because of poverty, because of injustice, can we really call that success? The answer is no,” Tanner said.
The Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC) is playing a central role in ensuring an equitable transition away from fossil fuels. Part of their work includes re-envisioning the way government and community work together, said Taren Evans, CCC’s environmental justice manager.
Historically, communities are often consulted as an afterthought, if they’re consulted at all. CCC aims to “flip that model of engagement on its head and start with community to develop solutions,” she said. This means that those most impacted are valued based on their lived experience.
In one success story, a team of community members helped upgrade the June Key Delta Community Center in Portland. A former gas station polluted with contaminants, the site was transformed into a net-zero building that produces as much energy as it produces. Now it’s a beloved community space, which promotes healthy social, educational, artistic, economic, and environmental development and awareness.
Transportation and buildings are largest source of carbon emissions
Transportation and buildings are key parts and challenges to meeting the 100x50 commitment. Burning fossil fuels for transportation, primarily gasoline and diesel, is the largest sector of greenhouse gas emissions in Multnomah County, and moving forward requires transitioning away from centuries of investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, said Tim Lynch, a senior policy analyst with the Sustainability Office.
Lynch shared with the Board about some of the County’s ongoing work to bring these issues to light, including the Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program’s work to expose the health and racial injustices in the transportation system. The City of Portland is also committed to reaching 100% renewable sources of diesel by 2030. At the state level, the Clean Fuels Program will reduce transportation emissions 37% statewide by 2035.
Another state initiative, the Climate Protection Program, will help reduce 90% of greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel suppliers covered by the policy by 2050 through a combination of efficiency gains, transition to renewable sources of fuels and investments in front line communities that reduce emissions.
A just energy transition involves reenvisioning housing policies and renovating existing buildings, Lynch said. Last year, Multnomah County committed to prohibiting the use of fossil fuels in all new and remodeled County buildings and identified the need to ensure all new buildings community-wide are electric only.
Improving existing buildings will require helping historically marginalized communities upgrade their gas systems and wood stoves. Lynch recognized the County’s Department of County Human Services for their work to ensure those with the least means can have efficient homes to live in.
The federal Justice 40 Initiative will require “40% of the federal dollars that come from the funding streams are for the benefit of communities that have been overburdened by pollution and who have missed out on opportunities in energy in the past,” Lynch said.
The Community Energy Project is one organization working to help bridge the gap. The nonprofit’s mission is to help all families have a safe, healthy and efficient home regardless of income.
Single family homes are often left out of the discussion on electrification, said Charity Fain, the executive director of the Community Energy Project. Every home is unique, she said, and many clients are senior, low income or disabled, living in households with many years of deferred maintenance.
“We need to have systems in place that are flexible on how we deploy funds,” Fain said. “To meet any climate goals we need to be moving faster. We need to do every single family home in Multnomah County at a pace that we can’t even conceptualize.”
In closing, Fain urged commissioners to continue coordinating with other partners to reach its climate goals and encouraged the Board to break down systems of inequity by building flexibility into its funding structure.
“It reminds me of something we’ve all heard a lot, which is, ‘if we’re not moving towards justice, then we are cementing injustice,’” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.
Commissioner Lori Stegmann affirmed the Board’s commitment to advancing the County’s climate goals and highlighted the importance of continued investments for years to come.
“It is about passing the baton – not only from a board position but to our generations, our children, our grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren,” she said.