Climate and Planning

Climate and Planning

The debate on the existence of human-driven climate change is over.  For the last two centuries humans have been burning solid, liquid, and gaseous fossil fuels in increasing amounts, which has been gradually changing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans.  And with those changes, new changes occur in the complex system of our planet's biosphere, yielding differences in typical surface temperatures, rates of precipitation, even the acidity of seawater.  These changes pose a considerable risk to the current and future well being of people by endangering sources of fresh water, wildlife habitat, and infrastructure to support human habitation and commerce.

So it is with these concerns in mind, that the City of Tacoma has undertaken a third iteration of its environmental initiatives known as the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan of 2021.  The plan includes an analysis of the current sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Tacoma and establishes a goal of reducing "net emissions" of greenhouse gasses to zero by 2050.

2019 Emissions - Greenhouse Gas Inventory (Source: City of Tacoma)

The two largest culprits the city can point to as contributing to the problem are not a surprise: transportation and industrial emissions.  Tacoma boasts a nearly carbon-free electricity system based predominantly on hydroelectric power, with other forms of energy contributing the remainder: wind, solar, and nuclear.  While our power grid may be a source of strength in climate action, in the area of mobility, fossil fuels are the dominant energy source propelling people and goods from origin to destination.  As a result of this relationship the Climate Action Plan targets personal vehicles, trucks and public fleets for fuel switching to electric power, which on paper should reduce emissions.

In a recent letter, the Planning Commission provided feedback on the draft plan.  We called into question some quantitative assumptions about how many personal vehicles should be planned for, given the fact that the city is poised to grow by over 100,000 new residents by the year 2050.  The numbers considered in the plan assumed a similar ratio of vehicles to people with the city as it is today in comparison with 2050, which is hard to fathom considering most new residents of Tacoma will not all have access to a two-car garage.  In recent years, it has been the tendency of most new housing to have fewer parking spaces, especially in areas well served by transit and with walkable access to destinations like grocery stores, restaurants, and other day-to-day services.  The Planning Commission encouraged revision of these numbers with a greater emphasis on walking, biking, and transit, and a better commitment to not expanding roadways that will contribute to climate change.

Planning Commission acknowledged the elephant in the room was the trend of industrial emissions, noting that the assumption in the plan was that no further expansion of fossil fuel emissions in industrial applications were considered in identifying a way forward.  To bring existing emissions down to zero, the City plans to provide incentives for new efficient processes and technologies.  The Planning Commission's letter made it clear that any assumptions about the trend in industrial emissions would need to be down over time in order to meet the overall goal per the Paris Climate Accord.

What was refreshing about the approach by the Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability was their emphasis on equity as a driving concern, acknowledging that the City's actions to address climate need to not only mitigate its sources, but also confront the impacts in a way that protects frontline populations.  An example of this is to create more cooling centers and to distribute air filtration devices to allow for people to find shelter when there are wildfire events that blot out the sun and make it unsafe breathe air outside.  The plan also identified the importance of planting and taking care of additional street trees in low equity areas susceptible to high temperatures due to the "urban heat island" effect.

One of its strengths of the plan is its ability to draw connections between Climate and Health, Climate and Safety, Climate and Jobs, etc. It is my hope that the plan when implemented also recognizes the critical importance of Climate and Planning so that as the city grows, this growth can aid in transforming the city into a more livable place to live, work, learn, and play.