The sun shining over Big Pink, a tall building in downtown Portland.
Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

Mayor Ted Wheeler is proposing a $2.4 million investment in mitigating climate change in the city budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the city announced Tuesday. While the investment would be the largest dedicated funding the city has allocated towards addressing climate change since declaring a climate emergency in 2020, city staff and environmental activists still consider the investment to be just a drop in the bucket.

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The proposed budget item would direct funds towards the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) to reduce the city’s carbon emissions and adapt communities to be better prepared for the impacts of climate change, like last year’s deadly heatwave. In practice, that would look like BPS meeting with regional energy suppliers to negotiate switching Portland’s electricity grid from a “dirty” mix of energy that relies on energy sources like natural gas to a “clean” energy mix that relies more heavily on wind and solar energy. It could also mean investments in addressing heat islands—large swaths of concrete that absorb and retain heat—in Portland like 82nd Avenue.

“Climate change is not stopping, or even slowing—and our opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and build resilience is fast closing,” said City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees BPS, in a press release. “I am grateful that the Mayor supported the need for these investments now.”

Historically, the city has dedicated approximately $800,000 in general fund dollars towards climate investments across all city bureaus annually, according to BPS staff. BPS has never received more than a couple hundred thousand dollars in dedicated climate investments during an annual budget cycle.

While $2.4 million is the most significant dedicated investment in climate work the city has ever made, BPS staff note that it’s still a limited amount of funding that must be used strategically. That’s why, according to BPS Climate Policy and Program Manager Andria Jacob, the funding should prioritize addressing Portland’s energy sources and transportation emissions.

“Before we start plugging in a bunch of electric vehicles and heat pumps and heat pump hot water heaters—these electric technologies…you can't plug that into brown, dirty power,” Jacob said. “It has to be clean [energy].”

Approximately 44 percent of carbon emissions in Multnomah County stem from electricity used in residential and commercial buildings and transportation accounts for approximately 42 percent of Portland’s overall carbon emissions. Addressing how the city powers buildings and transportation is key to combating carbon emissions, according to BPS.

The proposed budget would dedicate $721,000 towards decarbonizing the city’s energy and transportation sectors by investing in community solar energy projects, help the city’s transportation bureau implement incentives for greener transportation options, and negotiate carbon-free energy sources for the city. Portland has set a goal of eliminating carbon emissions from the city’s electricity sector by 2030—a full decade before Oregon’s same statewide goal for 2040. Another $955,000 would go towards creating climate-conscious building standards in the city and invest in flood, fire, and heat-resilient infrastructure, particularly in low-income communities and East Portland. The rest of the funding would support three additional BPS staff positions to carry out the bureau’s climate work and fund the creation of a Clean Air Action Plan that would guide the city’s strategies for reducing air pollution.

Local environmental activists say that these investments are long overdue.

“The [historically] lackluster response from the city doesn't make me feel like they actually believe that [the climate crisis] is a crisis,” said Brenna Bell, Forest Climate Manager with 350PDX, an environmental advocacy group. “And that’s part of the nature of the crisis—it’s quiet.”

Bell argues that the city has so far failed to address the climate crisis in a holistic way that looks at how every city bureau can play a role.

“BPS is doing some things and [the Bureau of Development Services] is doing some things and Parks and Recreation are doing some things, but where is the sense that the city is taking this on like the crisis it is with an eye to justice?” Bell said. “Mitigation, adaptation, and justice are the three things we want to see in every discussion.”

By tackling building standards and transportation emissions, BPS is aiming for that holistic approach, but the bureau’s work is still limited by staff capacity and funding. Planning for larger investments in the future is difficult too, according to BPS interim director Donnie Oliveira, because climate efforts have to involve city, county, state, and national governments.

“We're getting the investment ball rolling, but in truth, the big dollars that are going to shape the city and meet our climate goals aren't just going to come from the city of Portland,” Oliveira said, “it's going to be a state and federal investment and not just in Portland because these are regional, national, and global issues.”

According to the United Nations’ most recent climate report, global governments have until 2030 to make significant headway in reducing carbon emissions before causing irreversible damage that threatens the global population and planet’s wellbeing. In order to make adequate progress, the report said global governments need to spend three to six times the approximately $600 billion they currently spend on clean energy investments and climate change mitigation.

“Portland's taken some strides [against climate change], but every time it does something kind of good it's kind of self congratulatory, like ‘Okay, we did it!’” Bell said. “Like, no, this is going to be like one of the fights of our lifetime.”

Wheeler’s proposed budget will be reviewed and discussed for the next several weeks before city council votes on a final version in June. If these climate investments don’t withstand the budget discussions, Jacob says the outcome is dire.

“If we don't have the funding and we don't get the resources,” Jacob said, “we do not meet the [city’s climate] goals.”