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Get Your Ordinance in Order

Is Eugene doing enough on climate change?

In July of 2014, Eugene became the first city in the country to require carbon neutrality, fossil fuel-use reductions and the development of a carbon budget based on the best available science when it passed a Climate Recovery Ordinance pushed for by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust and many of Eugene’s youth.

More than a year later, some Eugeneans are starting to wonder if this landmark city law is getting implemented the way it should by city staff, and if it’s moving at the right speed. Matt McRae, a climate and energy analyst with the city of Eugene, says the city is on track to meet its targets.

The ordinance legally commits the city of Eugene to its pre-existing climate goals of carbon neutral internal operations by 2020 and reduction of citywide fossil fuel use by 50 percent by 2030. The ordinance also directs staff to develop a citywide, science-based target and carbon budget for emission reductions consistent with achieving 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100. 

Finally, the ordinance requires regular reports on Eugene’s progress toward meeting its climate obligations, and it creates a mechanism for getting back on track if the city is not meeting those obligations.

At a Dec. 14 Eugene City Council meeting, several citizens as well as youth members of South Eugene High School’s Earth Guardians 350 gave public comment urging the city to enforce the ordinance. “What good is a law without enforcement?” Cameron Fox of SEHS asked.

Julia Olson of Our Children’s Trust says the ordinance is not just a goal or an aspiration, it “is law, and it’s mandatory and binding,” and she says there is some confusion within the city about that. During her own comments at the City Council meeting, Olson specifically addressed City Manager Jon Ruiz as she pushed for implementation, saying, “we fought hard as a community for it, and we cannot let our children down.”

Olson tells EW, “Every department within the city and every department head needs to be doing their part in planning comprehensive standards for internal emissions reductions and community-wide reductions.” And specifically, she says, the city needs to decrease its use of fossil fuels. 

“The city manager at the top is responsible for making sure this is implemented,” she says. Ruiz was supportive of the ordinance, she adds, and she is confident he will “step up.”

Shawn Boles, a member of Eugene’s Sustainability Commission and former city councilor, questions whether city staff understands the seriousness of the problem. The City Council has been proactive, he says, in passing the ordinance, and “senior management and the city manager need to get on board.”

City Manager Ruiz was out of town for holiday vacation and unavailable for comment.

Olson points to transportation planning as one place the city needs to start implementing the climate recovery ordinance. She says the city’s new transportation plan, based on what she’s seen in presentations before the sustainability commission, is not incorporating the ordinance. 

Olson says the city should focus on more public transit, alternative means of transportation, enhancing walkability, bikeability and ways for getting around that don’t involve having one person per car. “Transportation planning is one of the biggest ways the city can impact emissions,” she says. And focusing on widening roads like Beltline, adding stoplights and roads and increasing flow for single-occupancy cars is not a good way to decrease emissions. The goal is decreasing emissions while still keeping people’s commute times low, she says.

Land-use planning is another key area, Olson says, with a goal of using zoning and creating city centers where people can walk or bike to shop or get a cup of coffee, “more like the European model.”

Joshua Skov, who was a chair of the Sustainability Commission and is a candidate for George Brown’s Ward 1 City Council seat, agrees with Olson about the need to focus on land use and transportation in implementing the Climate Recovery Ordinance. “We should not have any conversations about transportation without climate change on the table,” he says.

When it comes to city planning and communities, he says it’s hard because “there are scenarios involving some change in the way we experience our city. There are some scenarios for change that leave a whole lot of us a lot better off. But they involve change.”

Skov says at the city level, it’s been a struggle at times to even include the ordinance in the planning conversation, pointing to the need to include it as a filter for decision-making in looking at the EMX bus rapid transit and Envision Eugene. He says the ordinance is an opportunity for  the City Council and executive staff to take the lead by raising this priority in their day-to-day work. 

Matt McRae is one of the people at the city for whom climate change is a job priority. He says the city is in line to provide every requirement called for by the ordinance, and if it gets off track “we do analysis and come back to council with a list of options to get back on track.” 

The current focus has been internal, he says, pointing to reducing fossil fuel use by the city’s vehicle fleet, such as police cars and fire trucks. The city is also changing the way it builds and repairs roads, he says, using coal fly ash instead of concrete. According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the cement industry produces 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Externally, McRae echoes Olson’s call to move away from single-occupancy vehicles. He says the city is working with EWEB on energy retrofits, moving away from heating buildings with natural gas. He calls for supporting businesses that repair, retrofit and recycle instead of encouraging mass consumption. 

McRae says the reduction of citywide fossil fuel use by 50 percent by 2030 is an “aggressive target,” but says the city is on the path to meeting that goal. 

Olson says the youth of Earth Guardians 350 are committed to attending every City Council meeting to ensure the Climate Recovery Ordinance is truly implemented. Eugene’s ordinance is the first of its kind, and other cities across the country are looking to it as a model, she says. 

“I think there are a lot of people within the city that see there needs to be more done,” Olson says. “City staff and department heads should be more empowered and encouraged to do this work, and someone needs to be accountable.”