Wishful thinking at the finish

The Oregon Global Warming Commission 2015 Biennial Report to the Legislature finishes with a hearty dose of “We really need to start taking this pretty darn seriously soon,” downplaying the damning evidence that “our state, and way of life” in no way exemplify “how prosperity can be reconciled with a light environmental footprint,” given that Oregon is by any measure not prospering when the people of Oregon are taken into account, rather than just its largest corporations.

By its self-imposed deadline of 2010, Oregon had met its first legislatively-adopted greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goal of arresting emissions growth and beginning to reduce emissions. In fact our emissions peaked in 1999, and are now almost 16% below that peak (and almost back to 1990 levels)52. However, we are still not on track to meet our 2020 goal; based on present projections we’ll miss it by around 11 million metric tons of CO2e, with the gap widening thereafter (see page 32, above). As this Report demonstrates, we have to add substantially to our actions to date, considering both programmatic measures (e.g., mandating more utility renewable energy) and incentives (e.g., a carbon tax or cap).

Many Oregonians like to think of our state, and way of life, as exemplifying how prosperity can be reconciled with a light environmental footprint53. And indeed there is statistical support for that perspective (although our statistical bragging rights are bulked up by choices made in the last century to develop the region’s hydropower potential).

Above all, we use gas and electric energy far more efficiently than we did even one generation

  20 years ago; and more efficiently than in most other states. And while hydropower now only provides 40% of our electricity54 (many Oregonians mistakenly believe it still meets all our power needs), that hydro base is still a first critical building block in any Oregon GHG strategy.

Oregon’s Renewable Portfolio Standard is now adding a first tranche of new wind and solar energy to utility generating profiles. At the same time, Portland, Eugene and other Oregon communities have successfully stepped up local efforts to manage their own emissions down, leveraging local government authorities and voluntary community efforts to improve carbon efficiency.

There’s no more hydropower of any significance to be developed, and without a strong partnership with the State and Federal governments, Oregon’s communities are limited in what local authority can accomplish. The next low carbon power generation will have to come from stepped up investments in wind, solar and other renewables, and in energy efficiency; while lower emissions from our cars and trucks will depend on successful biofuels development, and on low carbon electricity to power a new fleet of electric vehicles.

How do we get from here to there? Generally, the analysis in this Report supports the following recommendations:

·   Set a 2035 Goal: Given the gap between Oregon’s 2020 and 2050 emissions reduction goals, and the fact that we are not likely to meet the 2020 goal, the Commission and Legislature should set a plausible intermediate goal for 2035, and a plausible menu of measures that can attain it. In light of technology and policy changes, the Commission will revisit this target every 5 years to evaluate progress and ensure it continues to be an appropriate one for the state, as well as consider additional interim targets.

·   Develop a long-term strategy, with interim benchmarks and specific measures, to meet our goals: As this Report demonstrates, a combination of strengthened programmatic measures energy efficiency, stronger utility renewable energy commitments, low carbon vehicle and fuel incentives and an economy-wide carbon signal (carbon tax or carbon cap) that starts modestly and builds over time, can put us on our trajectory55. There are other combinations of measures and signal than the one offered in this Report that can accomplish this end; the important thing is to settle on a realistic strategy and revisit it periodically to ensure effectiveness and cost-efficiency.

·   Carefully consider cost and equity in setting Oregon’s long-term strategy: Many of the potential strategies for reducing emissions will ultimately save consumers and businesses money in the long-term, particularly as the external incentives for using lower-carbon energy grow stronger. However, some may either involve significant upfront costs or could result in an inequitable distribution of costs and benefits over the course of implementation. We are particularly concerned about these equity considerations with respect to low income Oregon households and many rural Oregon communities, which are likely to be more vulnerable to both the costs of measures to contain emissions, and to costs of our failure to contain the effects of climate change. While this Report does not seek to advise the Legislature on precisely how the measures contained herein could or would be implemented in practice, we consider addressing cost and equity to be an urgent priority in policy design.

·   Encourage technological development to help meet our goals: It will be critical to keep abreast of new technologies and ensure that Oregon’s strategy incentivizes adoption of the best choices for the state. For example, battery technologies and applications will materially affect both electric utility and electric vehicle potentials and GHG outcomes. But the strategy we adopt today needs to depend only on technologies we can see today as practical contributors. Wishing for a technological get-out-of-jail-free card is not a strategy.

·   Begin with targeted emissions reductions from our biggest contributors: The wedge analysis in this Report indicates that reductions will need to occur from all sectors in order for us to meet our long-term goals. However, the biggest reductions will be needed from the biggest contributors, and it therefore makes sense to prioritize actions that begin to make the necessary changes in those sectors. “Light Duty Vehicles” (cars and light trucks) are about 25% of Oregon’s emissions. GHG’s from coal combustion at power plants is another 25%. These are the two priority areas for early action, especially since they interact with each other (Electric Vehicles powered from a renewable energy- dominant electric grid equals progress in both sectors).

·   Set state and local policies to support and leverage federal action: By 2025, Federal vehicle fuel economy standards will double new car and truck carbon efficiencies. But state and local incentives for families and businesses to trade up on the efficiency scale are needed for these vehicles to more rapidly displace older, less efficient vehicles. Local incentives and enabling regulation are also needed to deploy refueling infrastructure, accelerate transit/bike/pedestrian investments, and support efficient land use planning that creates options to driving. Equally, the proposed Federal carbon emissions limits on new and existing power plants will help Oregon to meet its adopted state goals. Oregon needs to participate in shaping these new rules to be both cost-efficient and carbon- effective. At the same time, without strengthened state and local commitments to renewables and energy efficiency, Oregon could find itself trapped in a future where gas-fired generation has replaced coal and locked us onto a GHG plateau that has reduced emissions near-term but is blocking progress toward our 2050 goal.

·   Consider adopting consumption-based GHG goals: One of the ways advanced economies manage GHG emissions is by “off-shoring them to countries that make the goods we consume. There is a good argument that Oregonians are still responsible for the emissions associated with those imported goods (e.g., flat-screen televisions; smart phones; athletic shoes). Oregon now has a “consumptionbased” inventory of these kinds of GHG emissions (Oregon and Portland have been leaders in doing this analysis) and we need to consider whether we should adopt a parallel set of consumption-based emissions reduction goals.

Today, greenhouse gas emissions are an embedded part of Oregon’s economy and infrastructure; of our mobility for work or recreation; of our food supply; and of the gas and electricity that warm and cool and light our homes and businesses. Preserving what we most value about our lives and our state, while systematically reducing the GHG content of the goods and practices on which those values are constructed, is the great challenge of our times.

Oregon has taken the first steps in rising to that challenge, and we are well positioned to take the next ones. The State occupies a critical space between local communities and Federal Government efforts. State authorities are essential to many strategies, from utility regulation to transportation investments. What is most important is that our state commits to developing those new strategies, and begins taking meaningful action on them without delay.
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52 Overall US emissions also have peaked, but not until 2009 and in large part due to recession-driven economic weakness. Thus far in the recovery, however, emissions have remained down as more efficient vehicles have entered the national fleet and a mix of gas, renewables and efficiency has replaced retiring coal plants.

53 The Global Footprint Network ranked Oregon fifth best among all states in sustainable use of our resources (although it may not have recognized the carbon burden of the coal-generated electricity we import from other states).

54 Another 40% of our electricity comes from fossil fuels: coal and gas.

55 Descriptions of California’s so-far-successful carbon strategy often begin and end with its AB 32 carbon cap-and- trade. But programmatic measures collectively play a larger role than the cap.

As so often happens in reports full of corporate happyspeak, the footnotes have to be examined closely. No. 53 above is a priceless example– Oregon gets about 40% of its electricity from the Colstrip coal-fired plants in Montana, while telling itself that it has addressed greenhouse pollution in the electricity sector with efficiency measures — but, as the graphs show, all of the efficiency has been lost to excess: the ever-bigger flatscreen TVs that consume as much electricity as a full-size refrigerator-freezer are populating more and more living rooms. They are more efficient to be sure, but there are also many more of them, and they are keeping residential emissions pretty much level. When all efficiency gains are merely converted to more consumption (of products made elsewhere, using energy that counts against someone else’s totals), the net result is more pollution, not less.