Climate and the City

The urgency for the city of Eugene to take climate action — and how to get there

by Taylor Perse

The world is reaching the point of no return when it comes to climate change, and its effects hit locally as well as globally. Eugene is no exception. Though smaller than other municipalities in land size and population, Eugene still has the responsibility to take action on climate change — and to do so quickly.

The city has taken some bureaucratic steps in creating climate change policy, but it has also been criticized in the past for being slow to take action. Local climate experts say the city can still make a monumental impact by leaving behind fossil fuels and natural gas and instead electrifying buildings and reworking the transportation system. 

The caveat? To accomplish these actions efficiently yet equitably — not at the expense of marginalized communities and people of color who often experience the worst effects of the warming planet.

Much of Eugene city staff’s recent work began in 2014, when the City Council adopted a Climate Recovery Ordinance. This created two climate goals for both the wider community and the city’s operation. These goals include reducing fossil fuel levels by 50 percent of 2010 levels by 2030. A goal for the city was to become carbon neutral by 2020 — meaning no net release of greenhouse gas emissions.

In implementing the climate ordinance, Eugene developed the Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2.0 over the last few years, which provides a researched “roadmap” of smaller steps that will lead the city to its bigger climate goals.

Local climate activist and expert Matt McRae has a clear vision of the direct action the city can take and show leadership. He says residents are ready for big shifts in how they live, even though the city is dragging its feet in some areas. In addition to being on the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), McRae works with the climate organization Our Children’s Trust and is the city’s former climate and energy analyst and natural hazards specialist. 

He says there are three areas Eugene can focus on if the city is to have any chance of preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change: renewable electricity rather than natural gas, more accessible and carbon neutral transportations and getting people off fossil fuels.

“We have to do a whole bunch of efficiency at work to reduce energy overall,” McRae says. But he says it isn’t going to happen without a significant investment and strong council leadership.

He explains that this is something that needs to be seen on the business and community level with commercial buildings and homes moving off natural gas. The best way to do this would be to change building codes, McRae says, which can only happen at the state level. However, he says, there is a policy opportunity where the City Council can mandate that all new buildings funded by city money have to operate on electricity.

“I’m hopeful that the council will look at it in the near future,” McRae says of buildings being more energy conscious. “Energy efficiency and electrifying everything. That’s what we have to do.”

Eugene city staff is also currently negotiating a franchise agreement with the local natural gas provider NW Natural, the results of which could have a major impact on the city’s goal to reduce fossil fuels. 

Chelsea Clinton, the sustainability manager with the city of Eugene, works on coordinating and implementing the Climate Recovery Ordinance. Clinton notes that the city has made progress on its climate goals, citing the recent 13th Avenue bikeway project as an example. This road redesign created an easy-to-use bike path from downtown to the University of Oregon campus, which encourages less driving and more alternative modes of transportation.

She adds that the city has almost 250 other projects that focus on transportation and are trying to replace city vehicles with ones that are electric or run on renewable diesel. In addition to the new bikeway this includes new greenways and new street designs that are more bike and pedestrian friendly.

“We are trying to make the messaging really simple here,” Clinton says. “We want to be reducing gas and diesel fuel use as a community. We wanted to build momentum and build on existing work.” Clinton says the city is basing its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions data on 2019 and using those projections together with purchasing carbon offsets to cover the emissions estimates it will meet its carbon neutrality goal.

Clinton also cites the city’s climate resilience work. She says Eugene’s emergency preparedness team is working on plans that incorporate extreme weather, because climate change will make weather patterns more erratic. This includes updating flood plain maps and utilizing vulnerable population maps. 

Other activists point out that in creating these various policies, the city needs to not forget populations who are more affected by climate change.

Aimee Okotie-Oyekan is an environmental justice coordinator for the NAACP. She echoes the importance of change in the transportation sector as well as the removal of natural gas. For Okotie-Oyekan, one of the most important aspects is making sure that these climate policies are done equitably for all people in Eugene.

Another grassroots organizer who works with Beyond Toxics and NAACP, Haley Case-Scott, emphasizes the equity aspect, too.

“One big thing is ensuring that the cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels are not pushing on people who have the least ability to pay for them,” Case-Scott says. “Not at the expense of low income and people of color.”

As a part of the city’s CAP 2.0, an equity panel representing people of color met 10 times in 2019 to represent voices of communities that are often marginalized. Though including diverse voices in the process was an important step, Case-Scott says now it’s a matter of making sure they are continually included in the conversation and holding the city accountable for recommendations of the panel.

In creating and implementing climate policy, Okotie-Oyekan says there is often a false notion that legitimate knowledge and ideas can only come from expert institutions.

“BIPOC communities have their own expertise because they have lived through those experiences. They can tell stories of things people can’t imagine because they’ve lived through it,” Okotie-Oyekan says.               

With clear ideas and pathways of mitigating climate impact, the question remains, is the city doing enough? McRae says Eugene residents are open to climate action, but he doesn’t think the city is moving as quickly as it should because there have to be large infrastructure changes in a short period of time.

“We are not seeing a shift that reflects our desire to change,” McRae says.

The Climate Change 2020 special section was funded by Alvin Urquhart and Art and Anita Johnson