City of Eugene does what the UN can’t and makes GHG reductions legally binding

City of Eugene does what the UN can’t and makes GHG reductions legally binding

This week, the City of Eugene did what no one else has been able to do since the Kyoto Protocol expired : they voted to take the first step in making their greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets legally binding. Yes, you read that correctly- the city council voted 7 – 1 in favor of drafting an ordinance setting community GHG reductions and codifying their goal of 50% reduction in fossil fuel use by 2030.

Eugene is the first city in the United States to have taken this step and joins a small group of countries and regions that also have legally binding targets. Climate Access’ Amy Huva spoke with Matt McRae about action on climate in Eugene.

Matt McRae knows that for most people, climate change is not a front-of-mind issue. Speak to most people on the streets of Eugene, Oregon where he’s the city’s Climate and Energy Analyst and they wouldn’t be able to tell you about the Climate Action Plan that’s being implemented or reporting on greenhouse gas reduction targets.

But whether people here know it or not, Eugene is tackling climate disruption head-on. Eugene has the highest per-capital density of hybrid cars in the US and household-level activities like recycling, composting and biking to work are increasingly popular. McRae says residents are hugely supportive of local and community gardens because people feel like they don’t have influence on their food systems and want nourishment grown closer to home.

Eugene is also recognizing that systemic or institutional shifts play a key role in climate progress. The city has an impressive target of reducing fossil fuel use by 50 percent by 2030. The city of Eugene has entered the ‘getting off our fossil fuel addiction’ program.

The city’s completed to-do list is already impressive: Eugene Water and Electric Board’s local energy retrofit program has been linked to low and no-interest loans for households to undertake energy saving retrofits; the city also undertook 20-minute Neighborhood Assessments where each area was rated for walkability and bikeability and local residents were engaged on how their neighborhoods could be improved with better access to services. Eugene is also thinking about more integrated approaches to building resiliency to climate change – for the Hazard Mitigation Plan update, for example, officials are asking experts from sectors like transportation, electricity, water and housing what their weak points would be in a natural disaster.

Together, these activities are making a difference. Since 2006, (the year they had best data for) fossil fuel use has decreased by 2.5 per cent each year. Electricity use is down 15 per cent from 2000 levels and natural gas consumption is down 12 per cent since 2006. All of this adds up to Eugene being on track to meet its 2030 target.

There’s only one kicker – no one is sure precisely what caused the turning point in fossil fuel use. It could be one policy, two policies together or the sum of all the parts. This is a question McRae wants to answer. With the help of occasional interns at the Oregon Department of Energy and Transportation, he’s going through a list of ‘suspects’ to try and identify exactly how and why change is happening (which sounds to me like a PhD topic waiting to happen).

Regardless of how Eugene is doing it, McRae firmly believes changing our systems will have the biggest impact. He’s trying to make sure that people who are taking steps in their daily lives to deal with climate change connect the dots between local and state policies and energy choices and costs, in the hopes of raising a voice for long-term thinking when decisions are being made. His goal is to make sure climate change is a consideration in all things the city does.

For instance, the Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan needs to be updated every five years in order to get access to FEMA funding, so he wants to make sure the update covers heatwaves as well as the usual flood, fire and earthquake risks.
It’s no small task.

But once McRae’s figured out the solution, he’ll be sure to let us know so we can all get started on it.

image: Sean McGrath vis cc flickr