Despite ambitious targets, Oregon climate policies must go further to meet global calls to action

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said global emissions must reach net-zero by 2050. Current state goals fall short.

By: - April 7, 2022 6:00 am
A misty forest in Oregon

Oregon’s 2022 fire season was one of the mildest in the last decade, due in large part to heavy rains that continued into June. It was a big year for tackling climate change in the state and was boosted by historic federal investment. (Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr)

Oregon’s top climate experts agree with the conclusions of a new international report that global greenhouse gas emissions must be practically eliminated by the year 2050. 

The state is moving faster than most others in the U.S. when it comes to policies that encourage, and demand, a transition away from the burning of fossil fuels like oil and gas to renewable energy sources like sun and wind. 

But without greater funding, political support and commitments from state industries, Oregon will not reach the emissions reduction targets outlined in the report, the authorities say.

The recent UN report, issued Monday, said using forests, water bodies and healthy croplands for carbon capture and storage will be necessary to keep global temperatures below thresholds to avoid irreversible damage to earth’s ecosystems.

A report from the Oregon Global Warming Commission published in October found state waters, agricultural land and forests could be more sustainably managed to absorb 25% more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2025 and 50% more by 2050.

“Their main message is pretty consistent with what we’ve been saying,” according to Catherine Macdonald, chair of the commission.

Gov. Kate Brown’s 2020 executive order on climate action made Oregon one of few states with concrete targets for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, the state has passed some of the most progressive climate legislation in the country, while simultaneously suffering through mega wildfires and droughts.

Erica Fleishman is director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

“A lot of things happening globally are happening locally, already, and vice versa,” she said. “Any reduction in emissions is better than none.” 

The latest from the UN Report

According to the final installment of the UN’s sixth Global Climate Change Report, greenhouse gas emissions must reach net-zero by 2050. This would avoid the worst effects of climate change in the next century and is a more ambitious target than Oregon leaders set in 2020. 

Brown mandated state agencies develop strategies to reduce Oregon’s emissions to at least 80% of pre-1990 levels by 2050. A recent analysis of Oregon’s current climate policies by several environmental groups found that the state would only hit a 30% reduction by then under current practices and policies.

Hundreds of scientists and experts from more than 60 countries contributed to the UN report. 

They found that while there is evidence that some countries – including the U.S. – have decreased greenhouse gas emissions since 2014, global emissions during the last decade were the highest in human history. 

They conclude that the science and technology needed to lower emissions and slow the effects of climate change already exist, but the world lacks the political will and the ability to move beyond fossil fuels. 

Secretary General António Guterres told reporters that the new report shows governments and industries have broken a litany of promises to make changes to preserve the climate.

“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another,” he said. “Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic.”

The report calls on world leaders to act fast to transition to renewable energy and to capture carbon dioxide emissions already in the atmosphere. 

To do this, they said governments and industries must prioritize carbon capture and sequestration methods and increase investments in renewable energy at least six-fold in the next 30 years. 

Getting Oregon to net-zero

Avoiding irreversible, catastrophic impacts of climate change such as increased droughts, floods and fires during this century requires limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, over the next several decades, according to report authors. Global warming is currently on track to reach more than 2 degrees celsius, or 3.6 Fahrenheit, by the end of the century without mitigation.

In Oregon, most greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, food production and heating and cooling homes and businesses, according to the Oregon Global Warming Commission, a group established in 2007 to tackle the growing threat of climate change in the state. Its 11 members are appointed by the governor. 

Oregon Global Warming Commission Members

Chair: Catherine Macdonald, North America Natural Climate Solutions Director at The Nature Conservancy

Aurora Jackson, Northwest Pacific Transit and Rail market lead for WSP Global

Sam Pardue, CEO of Indow Windows

Maria Pope, President & CEO for Portland General Electric

David Ford, President for L&C Carbon

Tom Rietmann, Full time Farmer/Rancher

Diana Nunez, Oregon Environmental Council

David Anderson, CEO of NW Natural

Cheryl Shippentower, Ecologist with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

Oriana Magnera, Climate and Energy Policy Coordinator at Verde

Karenga Ross, School Board Member at Gaston School District

To encourage investments in renewable energy sources, the Oregon Legislature passed the Clean Energy For All Act in 2021. It requires the state’s two largest electric utilities, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, to use only non-fossil fuel sources by 2040 and bans new fossil-fuel burning power plants. 

To address transportation emissions, the legislature adopted two new rules in 2021 that require truck manufacturers to boost their production of electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in Oregon, and require new medium- and heavy-duty diesel vehicles sold in the state to emit less smog. 

The state’s new Climate Protection Program, which was approved by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission in January, regulates heavy polluters more strictly, requiring they pay per ton of carbon dioxide they emit above limits that get lower over time until fossil fuels are phased out. The money gets invested in projects that the state Department of Environmental Quality has approved, such as electric buses and electric vehicle charging stations.

Brad Reed is a campaign manager at Renew Oregon, a nonprofit advocating for more clean energy.

“What Oregon’s been doing, making advancements on policies over the last decade or so, has made us a leader among states,” he said. “But no state is on track according to the hard science.”

Reed applauded the recent creation of a Task Force on Resilient Efficient Buildings that will address ways that the state can mandate new building projects harness clean energy. He said the state needs to go further. He said Oregon should look to California and New York, which are both considering limiting new car sales to versions which are fully electric by 2030. 

“Vehicles, equipment, all need to be electrified,” Reed said. “Imagine a not-too-distant future where farmers on electric tractors aren’t just cultivating food and crops but their own electricity on the property, with solar panels and wind turbines.” Reed said. 

The future depends on heeding the calls to action laid out by scientists in the UN report, he said. 

“If we do act fast – according to what they’re laying out – we could return to somewhat normal by 2100, which is not totally out of the lifetime of newborn Oregonians,” he said.

Capturing carbon from the air

The UN report concludes that countries need to invest rapidly in carbon capture and sequestration, either by using machines to remove carbon from the air or, more simply, restoring forests and grasslands that act as natural carbon vacuums. 

Alan Mix, a professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University, said in an email that the latest report showed “the emerging reality that some form of carbon dioxide capture and sequestration will likely be needed.” 

Without that, he wrote, “it is unlikely” global warming will be slowed as much as necessary.

But the effort to move on such work has been slowed in Oregon because state funding sought by the Global Warming Commission hasn’t been approved. The commission wanted money to work with farmers and loggers on new practices and to pay them to leave some land out of industrial use.

Globally about 22% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and forestry, according to the UN report. 

Fleishman, of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, said the state could better use old growth forests and Oregon’s waters to capture carbon dioxide, too. 

“There is tremendous carbon storage in old growth. Younger trees sequester more as they grow, but the amount stored is greater in that old growth,” she said. 

Fleishman added that Oregon has untapped carbon capture potential along the coast.

“More carbon storage in estuaries, marine systems, this gives us advantages as a state. Our potential as a state for carbon sequestration is pretty good,” she said.

Climate change already here, so are solutions

During the last 20 years, Oregon has had 20 mega fires, burning over 4 million total acres. As of this month, 75% of the state is in a drought. 

Fleishman said that those who bear the impacts of climate change in Oregon tend to be least responsible for emissions.

“Look at the internal displacement in the wake of fires,” she said. “Look at who is most impacted by drought. It’s not fair now and we have the potential to increase fairness.”

Fleishman said Oregon is well positioned to take on the challenges of climate change despite emissions targets less ambitious than the UN is now recommending.

“It’s not that reduction has to reach a certain level or it’s all for naught and society is toast,” she said. “The more we all reduce atmospheric levels of greenhouse gasses, the better it is for society. This is all a matter of degrees,” she said.

A previous version of this story misspelled Catherine Macdonald’s last name. It has been corrected. 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.