by Henry Houston
Looking toward Lane County’s climate in 2040 sounds like the setting of a dystopian sci-fi novel. According to Phase One of the Climate Action Plan paid for by the county, summer temperatures could be 10 to 12 Fahrenheit degrees hotter, and there could be a 400 to 500 percent increase of wildfire surface area and no more snowpack in the Cascades.
But Lane County is at last taking action.
With recent reports inventorying the county government and countywide greenhouse gas emissions, Lane County is beginning to address climate change, tackling its part in humanity’s greatest existential crisis. Earlier this year, the county hired a climate strategist, Mark Nystrom. He says the county is in a unique position to find ways to address climate change in rural areas, and he wants solutions to put priority on equity over lowering the carbon footprint.
Lane County Commissioner Joe Berney of Springfield serves on the county’s new climate change advisory committee, and he says he wants to push for climate action because time is running out.
“Before Heather [Buch] and I were elected, I was told no county staff were allowed to use the term climate change,” Berney says. “We now have an initiative that is working at every aspect of Lane County government operations to decrease carbon emissions.”
In February, the Lane County Board of County Commissioners made climate action a priority when it passed an ordinance (though Commissioner Jay Bozievich dissented).
In addition to acknowledging the Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change written by Global Network for the study of Human Rights and the Environment, the ordinance creates six phases of action items. This includes conducting a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, developing a comprehensive countywide plan of aggressive goals and strategies, making a resiliency plan, supporting green jobs, having transparency on progress toward climate action and establishing a climate advisory committee.
The county paid Eugene-based Good Company about $84,000 to develop the first phase of the Climate Action Plan. So far, the company has authored two reports: one on county operations and the other countywide emissions.
The first report was released in August, which showed the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions at the county government level is the Short Mountain Landfill.
Food waste plays a huge role in emissions, Nystrom says. He says whenever something that was once living is sent to the landfill, it starts decomposing and emits carbon dioxide. As of 2016, he says 45,000 tons of food waste is processed there. The county estimates the landfill emits about 170,000 to 180,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year, he says.
“The typical person driving a car is about 2,500” tons of CO2, he says. “That’s a lot of cars.”
In the report, Good Company points to an anaerobic digestion system to cut down on emissions at the landfill. Nystrom says the organic waste goes into the machine and is broken down into methane, a natural gas. That gas can be used for vehicles or injected into a pipeline for renewable energy consumption. “It’s a valuable commodity,” he says.
But Nystrom says the problem is that the system is expensive and city governments have to be on board. Cities have their own contracts for waste management, so the county can’t just take waste and put it in the anaerobic digestion system. And the county can’t force other cities to do curbside compost pick up like the city of Eugene does.
The county recently released the countywide greenhouse gas inventory, and it shows that Short Mountain’s emissions are lower than transportation-related fossil fuel emissions. “What makes it unique is that diesel emissions are much higher than the national average,” Nystrom says.
Nystrom speculates that what seems to account for so much transportation emissions from diesel and gas vehicles is I-5. But the county government can’t act alone on tackling that problem through economic “sticks” like higher gas taxes, he says, because a traveler or long-haul trucker would just stop for gas in another county.
Although the bulk of the county’s population lives in metro areas, there’s still a lot of rural residents to consider. Nystrom says most of the climate work in the U.S. has targeted urban areas, so Lane County is on the cutting edge. Rather than telling the city of Florence it needs more bike infrastructure, the county is going to include city transportation experts, the Department of Transportation and the public to make sure everyone is included in policy conversations.
What concerns Nystrom is equity. “One of the things I really need to do is create not only a lower carbon world but a more equitable world,” he says. “There’s a lot of groups that aren’t traditionally engaged with local government, that don’t traditionally know the avenues, that are traditionally underrepresented in the work we do. Ironically, they contribute less to greenhouse emissions but are disproportionately affected by the changes due to climate change.”
Nystrom says he’d rather see the county’s decisions take into account equity over lessening the carbon footprint. That’s why he’s partnering with nonprofits like Beyond Toxics and Eugene-Springfield NAACP to find more equity.
On Dec. 2, the World Meteorological Organization announced that 2020 is on track to be one of three warmest years on record and the past decade was the warmest ever recorded. The organization said this means climate change could be happening much faster than expected.
Berney says he intends to get more aggressive with climate action in the next year.
One way to push for more climate action is through the Lane County Climate Advisory Committee, which provides recommendations for action to the county commissioners. Both Nystrom and Berney are on the committee.
“It’s a good group of people with expertise that I am excited to work with,” Berney says. “I will tend to push to accelerate activity faster and faster because I see this as an existential threat.”
Community members are appointed by the Board of County Commissioners, and each commissioner appoints their own delegate. Bozievich, who told activists in the past to listen to climate deniers like the conspiracy website Natural News, appointed a timber advocate. Berney appointed a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.
Berney says the majority of commissioners support climate action, but he wants to push hard for it next year.
“I’m the only person saying this, but what I’m hammering for is that we need to commit to the goal of a net zero carbon neutral Lane County — not just a net neutral county government,” he says. “There are a variety of ways to get there that, if smartly pursued, are business friendly, create jobs and allow us to give our children and grandchildren the natural legacy they and we deserve.”
The Climate Change 2020 special section was funded by Alvin Urquhart and Art and Anita Johnson