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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2007 : Feature

It Starts at the Local Level
Our nation's cities, the building blocks of our society, are an obvious place to begin to address the challenge of sustainability.

by Dennis Walsh


The lack of sustainability is the largest risk facing any city today. That said, few communities and businesses are planning for sustainability in a strategic way. Municipal governments need to integrate economic, social and environmental concerns in their policy-making. Cities that are unable to adapt must contend with myriad economic challenges that negatively affect them.

What does it take for a city to become sustainable? Public Involvement — recognition that sustainability cannot be achieved, nor significant progress made toward it, without the support and involvement of the whole community. If sustainability planning is catching on, the first question is, “Why?” The day-to-day debate about global warming and peak oil is over. Global warming is happening now. As our environment disintegrates, a result of our own choices, so does our ability to survive.

The Earth’s climate has been changing since the pre-industrial era, but it was not until the 1970s that the concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) began to reach their highest levels. Before that, the atmosphere was viewed as chemically inert. The air seemed to transport pollution away from cities, and factories. Beginning in 1970, a few scientists drew attention to the nitrates like jet plane emissions in the stratosphere. They speculated that the chemical aerosols could stimulate the formation of water droplets, altering cloud cover and affecting the climate. New ideas provoked a few scientists to take a look at how the upper atmosphere might be affected by the hundreds of space shuttle flights that NASA hoped to launch. They found that the chlorine shuttles would discharge as they shot through the stratosphere might be another menace to the ozone layer.

This concern was discussed at a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in 1973 along with the effect of other chemical emissions. Eventually, controversy broke out over the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosol spray cans. Well into the 1980s, while many thousands of tons of a variety of GHGs were pouring into the atmosphere, the public, government agencies and even most scientists thought “global warming” was synonymous with “increasing carbon dioxide.” >

Scientists started looking at about 30 trace gases that absorbed infrared radiation. These additional GHGs were discovered to bring as much global warming as carbon dioxide (CO2) itself. Scientific and public concern was turning to the “ozone hole.” For whatever reason, there was evidently some kind of connection between temperature and the level of methane in the atmosphere. Ozone holes in the stratosphere over the poles each winter drove home the idea that even small concentrations of some industrial emissions could have a powerful effect.

In 1993, Portland became the first U.S. city to adopt a strategy to reduce emissions of CO2, the heat-trapping gas primarily responsible for global warming. A few years later, 160 countries met in Kyoto in December 1997 to hammer out a protocol calling for developed countries to reduce their GHG emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by the years 2008-2012. This meant that to meet emissions-reduction targets, governments would need to turn to industry to develop environmentally friendly and energy-efficient products and technologies. Suffice to say, until recently, American business has opposed the Kyoto Accord, but there are positive signs of a shift in attitude among industry executives—and not a moment too soon.

In 2001, Multnomah County, Ore., joined the effort to create the Local Action Plan on Global Warming, charting an aggressive goal of reducing CO2 emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. By 2006, the thawing of large areas of permafrost was visibly underway in many Arctic regions. Global warming and oil supply problems are now topics of daily concern all around the world. Business leaders are asking for changes and new regulation; governments are seeking solutions and ideas; citizens want to participate in the changes; and everyone wants a bright future for their children and grandchildren. Positive changes have begun.

Good ideas can make a difference; that, and innovations like focusing on development, not simply growth. This implies that economic activity is conducive to and supports sustainable urban development. The world has become more industrialized. There have been increasing environmental pressures such as harmful emissions and waste. Urban communities are affected by economic change. Municipalities are the building blocks of our society and are therefore an obvious place to begin to address the challenge of sustainability. There is a consensus among experts that sustainability must be achieved at the local level if it is ever to be achieved on a global basis.

Portland’s GHG emissions are now less than 1 percent above 1990 levels—a key benchmark of the international Kyoto Protocol—and emissions have declined in each of the past four years. Though not ratified by the United States, the Kyoto Protocol set a national reduction goal of seven percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. On a per-capita basis, Portland and Multnomah County emissions have fallen 12.5 percent since 1993, an achievement likely unequalled in any other major U.S. city. Per-capita emissions in the United States have increased slightly over the same period, with total GHG emissions up 13 percent.

Without a doubt, municipal governments must take the lead role in orchestrating the delivery of sustainable communities. The overriding task facing municipal governments is to maximize the positive influence of industrial activities on economic and social development.

Sustainability needs to be integrated into the process of local community development, which is about communities, families, and educated and responsible citizens. Economically sustainable cities must promote economic activity that contributes to the quality of life without compromising the natural environment.

The successful reduction of GHG emissions in Portland and Multnomah County is due in large part to a number of local initiatives. There has been a 75-percent growth in public transit use since 1990. More than 750,000 trees and shrubs have been planted since 1996, improving the quality of local waterways as well as absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. Portland enjoys a 53-percent recycling rate, among the highest in the nation. Nearly 40 high-performance green buildings have been constructed. The Energy Trust of Oregon has been established to provide funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. Twelve percent of the city’s municipal electricity purchases comes from renewable sources. Portland is in the process of pursuing options for 100-percent-renewable electricity for all city facilities and operations.

Sustainability improves the quality of life in a city, including ecological, cultural, political, institutional, social and economic components, without leaving a burden on future generations. In 2001, the city finished replacing incandescent traffic signals with LED bulbs, saving three percent of total city CO2 emissions, and cutting the city’s electricity bill by $265,000 per year. A year later, in early 2002, the city took delivery of 30 Toyota Priuses, hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles that get up to 60 miles per gallon—and all diesel vehicles and equipment that use the city’s fueling stations are fueled by a 20-percent biodiesel blend. Overall, Portland is a great example of what every city should aspire to do in saving the environment.


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