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Is a 95% reduction in Spokane’s emissions possible by 2050? A new plan calls on the city to try

UPDATED: Wed., May 5, 2021

Smoke from area wildfires settles in and around Spokane in August, 2018.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Smoke from area wildfires settles in and around Spokane in August, 2018. (COLIN MULVANY)

It’s easy to set a goal.

It’s harder to figure out a way to achieve it.

A broad and ambitious new plan attempts to lay out a path for the city of Spokane to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 95% from 2016 levels by 2050.

The Spokane City Council’s Sustainability Action Subcommittee has finalized its draft report and is seeking public input. In addition to releasing the full 81-page document, the subcommittee has released a 24-minute video to explain the plan and will make its case to just about any group willing to listen.

“What we’re hoping this process will do is start conversations,” said Kara Odegard, the City Council’s sustainability policy analyst. “This is a draft plan and we really mean that we are looking for community input to make revisions.”

Serving as a de facto sequel to a similar plan released in 2009, the new document offers dozens of strategies to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The end goal is a city that’s better girded for a warming planet and proactively protective of those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

The report is the byproduct of two years of work by about 40 volunteer subcommittee members and a 2020 community survey that drew more than 1,400 responses. It is broken down into goals, strategies for achieving those goals across seven sectors, and direct actions that can be taken to get to the finish line.

The concepts are old standbys of the environmental movement, like finding ways to get more people taking public transit and making buildings more energy efficient. But some specific proposals would be substantial and groundbreaking in Spokane, such as a requirement that natural gas hookups be prohibited from new commercial and multifamily housing developments beginning in 2023 and from all properties by 2028.

Other strategies are more ambiguous, such as protecting water resources by creating “opportunities for more community input during (the) planning phase of City programs.”

Both approaches are valid, Odegard argues, and set the tone for where the city wants to go.

“There are some challenges and some things that we don’t have answers to today, which is why it’s really important to have community conversations around what we see as the future for Spokane,” Odegard said. “This plan is really intended to get everybody with the same baseline understanding on how climate change is going to impact our community, and get us all to agree that we want to walk in this direction.”

Action can be taken once that foundational, shared understanding is solidified, Odegard said.

After review of community feedback, the subcommittee hopes to finalize the plan this summer.

The goal

The subcommittee’s plan builds on goals already established locally and in Washington . In 2018, the Spokane City Council adopted a goal of generating 100% of the city’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who has helped spearhead the city’s sustainability efforts, told The Spokesman-Review that the plan also aims to help the city keep up with rapidly evolving state and federal environmental standards.

“The City Council hasn’t signed off on any of the specifics or the whole thing. We essentially hope to get the public feedback. … I think the goal for me as a City Council member is, I wanted all the ideas on the table so that we could look at them,” Beggs said.

Climate change isn’t simply Spokane’s future – it’s already here. For example, the plan notes the increased number of days that Spokane has suffered unhealthy air in recent years, primarily due to wildfire smoke. In the future, summers will continue to get hotter and drier, the mountain snowpack will diminish, and events like Pig Out in the Park and Hoopfest risk cancellation due to intolerable heat.

How to get there

The plan’s drafters realize it’s a dense document with dozens of proposed actions that can be difficult to absorb.

Many of the proposed action items could draw vigorous debate if taken up just on their own.

The proposed gas hookup ban, for example, caught the eyes of those who work in the housing industry, representatives of which have already decried new building regulations adopted in Washington state.

Tom Hormel, president of the Washington Realtors Association, said he hopes to have a conversation with the subcommittee about the assumptions built into its proposal – for example, what level of efficiency is the committee assuming in the natural gas furnace installed in a new home?

The action items included in the proposal will have an impact on the housing sector, but the subcommittee did not feature representatives from those industries, Hormel added.

“We’re just wanting to have a conversation about where did it all come from, what’s their plan, what’s plan B, what’s their next steps,” Hormel said.

One proposed action item is a requirement that all new residential and commercial buildings have renewable energy production, such as solar panels, on site whenever feasible.

“I’m not a climate (change) denier, I agree we have to move forward on this stuff, but what’s the cost and are you looking at the totality of it?” Hormel asked.

Energy-efficient homes might hurt the builder with initial costs, “but over the life of that building, energy cost savings will far outweigh the initial investment,” Odegard contends.

“It’s cheaper to build a home using all electric energy than it is to bring gas into it. Who is going to be burdened by the cost long term?” Odegard said.

Beggs also champions short-term investment to offset long-term costs of climate change.

“We can either invest money and effort and planning now and put a brake on climate change or we don’t and we’ll be in the middle of it – windstorms, bad fires … It’s going to cost way more if we don’t do anything,” Beggs said.

Beggs is sensitive to questions of financial burden.

“Questions like that definitely that are out there and I don’t think anyone on City Council is going to be proposing that we eliminate natural gas hookups by 2023,” Beggs said.

The government at the federal, state and local level could play a role in offsetting costs.

“That’s going to be key, and I hope government continues to invest because if they lead the way it’s going to shift the market forces so it becomes cheaper to be more sustainable because of economies of scale,” Beggs said.

Beggs noted that transitioning away from fossil fuels will have a tangible impact on the skilled workers who install and maintain natural gas infrastructure. Conversations with unions led the subcommittee to include calls for a “just transition” into the green-energy economy for those workers.

“We’re most interested in talking to people who have particular concerns of about particular planks of the proposal,” Beggs said.

The action items will not immediately be enacted if the council adopts the sustainability action plan. They will require separate implementation.

Feedback

The draft action plan has been online since early April and public comment is welcomed via a survey on the subcommittee’s website.

The subcommittee is hosting public workshops, via Zoom, on May 20, May 29 and June 3. Registration details and times are available on the subcommittee’s website.

If your group wants to hear from the subcommittee, it will make the time for you, Odegard pledged. It’s already scheduled meetings with representatives of real estate industry and engaged with reps from skilled labor unions.

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