Read it and Weep: the 2017 Oregon Global Warming Commission Report to the Legislature

Despite the anticipated reductions due to implementation of Oregon’s RPS and other policies, the state’s forecast is not expected to come within striking distance of either the statutorily mandated 2020 and 2050 emission reduction goals, or the 2035 interim goal that the Commission proposed in our last report.

Executive Summary

This Oregon Global Warming Commission (OGWC) 2017 Biennial Report to the Legislature contains five somewhat distinct sections covering a wide range of the topics that the OGWC is statutorily directed to track and evaluate. Some sections, like providing the most current available greenhouse gas inventory data and recently updated emission projection, are topics that the Commission has covered in detail in previous reports. Others, notably a discussion of forest carbon accounting in Oregon, represent new or updated work by the Commission that remains ongoing at the time that this report is being published. The key takeaways and recommendations from each of these sections are summarized below.

Oregon’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions: In-Boundary Inventory Update

Source: ODOT.

1979-2015 VMT (Variant on Figure 4 in OGWC Annual Report, which only shows 1990-2015)

Key Takeaway: Rising transportation emissions are driving increases in statewide emissions.

As the updated greenhouse gas inventory data clearly indicate, Oregon’s emissions had been declining or holding relatively steady through 2014 but recorded a non-trivial increase between 2014 and 2015. The majority of this increase (60%) was due to increased emissions from the transportation sector, specifically the use of gasoline and diesel. The reversal of the recent trend in emissions declines, both in the transportation sector and statewide, likely means that Oregon will not meet its 2020 emission reduction goal. More action is needed, particularly in the transportation sector, if the state is to meet our longer-term GHG reduction goals.

In the 2017 session, the Oregon Legislature has an opportunity in the context of discussing a transportation funding package to prioritize policies and programs that will make material differences in the GHG emissions from transportation, and, by extension, the state’s ability to meet its legislatively adopted reduction goals.
The Commission recommends that the 2017 Legislature, in addressing Oregon’s overall transportation and transportation funding needs, use the occasion to devise and adopt measures that will bring transportation GHG emissions under control and aligned with Oregon’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals.

Oregon’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Projection

Key Takeaway: Oregon’s GHG goals are not likely to be met with existing and planned actions.

The new forecast clearly shows the expected impacts of legislation from 2016 which extended the renewable portfolio standard and implemented a coal import ban that comes into effect in 2030. We appear to be on track to miss our 2020 goal by just under 11 million MTCO2e. In 2035, we project we will miss the Commission’s adopted interim goal by just under 22 million MTCO2e.

Forest Carbon Accounting in Oregon

Key Takeaways and Recommendations for the Oregon Legislature: The Commission recommends that the Legislature defer enacting new forest management policies that would significantly affect carbon balances in Oregon’s forests until the Commission’s Forest Carbon Accounting Project is complete and can inform such policies.

Oregon’s forests sequester very large quantities of carbon, presenting both risks (of release) and opportunities (for greater capture and containment). Tools for quantifying amounts and tracking flows and fluctuations – due to normal forest function, to climate change-induced effects, and to human intervention – are evolving but incomplete.

There are three observations that argue for paying new and urgent attention to tracking forest carbon fluctuations (flux):

  1. Oregon forests contain on the order of 3 BILLION tons of carbon (roughly equal to 9.7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent), variously in standing timber and vegetation, standing and fallen dead trees, and soils.
  2. In the two reference periods (2001-05, and 2011-15) identified by the OGWC Forest Carbon Task Force and involved experts, average CO2e emissions from wildfire averaged between 1.5 and 4 million tons (mmT) annually. We are unable to establish yet if this can be considered excessive, or normal, or somewhere in between. We find it difficult, in fact, to define and identify a normative period. Absent additional information and analysis, we hesitate to assert that this is a significant, or non-significant, addition to Oregon’s + 60 mmT overall emissions inventory, especially after it is netted against carbon taken up by and sequestered in growing trees? We also need to better understand the flux effects of human interventions in the forests, whether for timber harvest, forest health (thinnings), forest biomass-to-energy or other purposes.
  3. When we have reliable inventory and flux numbers, we will still need to anticipate how they may evolve as climate change increasingly affects Oregon’s forests? [sic] What does this suggest about modifying forest practices going forward? What does it suggest about human interventions in forests, whether to harvest for lumber or biomass-to-energy feedstock, or to address forest health concerns resulting from historical and prevailing practices (fire suppression; clear-cutting)? If forest health considerations indicate removal of overgrowth and/or controlled fire as remediation, what are the implications for both forest carbon accounts and carbon reduction options in other sectors?

Fixing State Climate Policymaking

Key Takeaways and Recommendations for the Oregon Legislature: the State’s climate policymaking machinery is not measuring up to the task of achieving GHG reduction goals and preparing the state for the effects of climate change.

This failure is especially noteworthy for tasks not being informed by rigorous cost/benefit analysis, guided by agency assignments and benchmarks, and tracked for performance.

The Commission recommends that the Legislature direct agencies to collaborate with the Commission to set assignments (from the Commission’s Roadmap) and benchmarks, and to report annually to the Commission on progress or lack of progress, and reasons why.
The Commission further recommends that the Legislature provide the Commission with modest but sufficient resources – staff and budget – to enable it to discharge its responsibilities in a timely and efficient way, including its analysis, communications and tracking functions.

Climate Impacts, Adaptation and Preparation

Key Takeaways: Oregon is warming and the consequences are, and will be, notable. Adaptation is necessary, as mitigation alone will not prevent serious impacts. Oregon must do more to adapt to climate changes already underway.

Oregon at its peril remains unprepared for the health, flooding, drought, fire and ecosystem damages that climate change is likely to bring. As noted in the Third Assessment Report from the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI), some Oregon agencies have begun work to prepare for the future effects of climate change. Despite efforts at a few select agencies, there remains no statewide strategy for identifying adaptation and preparation needs or tracking progress toward meeting those needs. At the State level the only effort to look broadly across all agencies’ responsibilities took place in 2010 and needs updating, particularly in light of the accumulated analysis and findings by OCCRI and other climate scientists.