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Getting a grip on climate change

Electric car charging stations in Hillsboro. Transit-oriented development on 82nd Avenue in Portland. Revitalizing downtown Beaverton as a walkable neighborhood. A new park in Gateway. A walking trail in Rockwood. A community-based bus system in Wilsonville. by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Clackamas Town Center Transit Center conveniently connects cars, TriMet buses and MAX trains for commuters and shoppers.

Those are among many local initiatives that are already fighting climate change by encouraging alternatives to private motor vehicle trips, according to a report from Metro, the regional elected governments. Similar projects will become increasingly important as proof mounts that human activity is responsible for global warming, the report explained.

The most recent proof is included in the latest United Nations’ assessment of climate change that was released on Sept. 27. It was compiled by the U.N.-sponsored International Panel on Climate Change. The assessment concluded there is now a 95 percent probability that human activity is changing the Earth by releasing a growing amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

“Human influence has been detected in warming the atmosphere and the oceans, in changes to the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise and in changes in some climate extremes,” the report noted. “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

Climate change will impact the Portland area, according to a report released Oct. 9 by Multnomah County. Among other things, the Multnomah County Health Department’s “climate change and public health preparation plan” predicts it will cause hotter summers and wetter winters, leading to an increase in mosquitoes, mold and mildew.

Although the state is committed to fighting climate change, a recent report from the Oregon Global Warming Commission is not promising. The report said the state is not on track to meet its 2020 and 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals. According to the report, the state only met its 2010 goals because the Great Recession reduced economic activity.

The three reports support those who argue for sweeping government actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Proposals include a tax on carbon-based fuels, including gasoline and diesel. Supporters claim that among other benefits, such a tax would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles by discouraging driving.

Carbon tax is option

Carbon taxes are currently being studied by the Oregon Legislature and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who worked with the Oregon Environmental Council on a survey to gauge public support for a local one. It shows some public support for a carbon tax if the revenues were used to improve roads, according to an aide to Hales.

But a state or local carbon tax is likely to face political opposition from utilities, manufacturers and petroleum companies. And mitigating its impact on low-income families and individuals will also be challenging.

Metro representatives believe there are less controversial ways to fight climate change, however. According to Metro officials, local initiatives such as those in Portland, Beaverton, Gateway, Hillsboro, Rockwood and Wilsonville are not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they are improving the quality of life in those cities.

The elected Metro Council has not taken a position on local carbon taxes, but the agency is studying local initiatives to reduce driving in the region as part of its Climate Smart Scenarios Project, started to help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

At the direction of the Oregon Legislature, the state Land Conservation and Development Commission has tasked Metro to reduce emissions from cars and light trucks 20 percent by 2035. The studies suggest the region can surpass that goal by funding more initiatives to reduce driving.

The project recently completed and published eight case studies of specific initiatives throughout the region. In addition to those in the six cities, they include employer-based commuter programs and neighborhood-based travel options. Together, they are providing residents in the region with numerous alternatives to single trips in private automobiles, which represent one of the greatest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Metro found that most of the initiatives are rooted in the 2040 Growth Concept Plan adopted by the regional government in 1990 to guide development. The document encourages growth in designated urban centers and along existing transportation corridors. Since it was adopted, cities in the region have amended their state-mandated comprehensive land use plans to include many of the concepts. They include increased transit options and an emphasis on “active transportation” options such as walking and bicycling.

The state has directed Metro to adopt a regional plan for meeting its 2035 greenhouse gas reduction target. The council will consider a range of options based on the results of case studies later this year. The final scenario, to be adopted in December 2014, could well include elements from all of them.

Funding will be a challenge, however. Metro is projecting a shortfall of up to $26 billion to build and maintain needed infrastructure in the region over the next two decades. Although many ideas are being discussed — including encouraging private investment in public infrastructure projects — regional leaders have yet to agree on financing plans.