Sprawl: the climate change elephant in the room

Guest Opinion published in the Mail Tribune on September 6, 2021.

Gov. Kate Brown recently appeared on CNN saying, “Climate change is here, it’s real and it’s like a hammer hitting us in the head — and we have to take action.” Brown then singled out her recent signing of a “clean energy bill” (HB 2021) as evidence that Oregon is on the right track to tackle the ever-worsening impacts of climate change.

If only it were so.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, the transportation sector is the single largest contributor to climate change, and over the past 30 years, this sector’s share has increased more than any other. But despite Oregon’s long-established goals of halting urban sprawl and eschewing reliance on the single-occupant vehicle, we have done exactly the opposite.

Legislation such as HB 2021, which requires Oregon’s power companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, offers at best only a partial solution to our climate-change nightmare. A more comprehensive approach is needed that includes an end to sprawl and the endless miles of roads and auto dependency it breeds.

Oregon’s infrastructure dollars are primarily spent on road and highway projects that lock us into a cycle of perpetually sprawling development dependent on single-occupant vehicles for access. These new road corridors are approved by the same “green energy” champions who pledge their commitment to a green energy future.

The sponsors of HB 2021 will tell you that their bill will deliver the goods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing the economy. However, what our public servants will not or cannot say is that there are limits to growth that no amount of green techno-fixes can overcome. Our auto-dominated growth pattern still destroys land, resources and wildlife habitat at unsustainable rates. We need to immediately slash our carbon footprint. A better strategy would be to cancel road and highway projects that simply exacerbate unsustainable levels of auto dependency. This reduces carbon emissions and disincentivizes sprawl immediately, allowing us to redirect these dollars to creating opportunities for innovative solutions to remedy unsustainable growth.

Additionally, we cannot overlook that developing “green” energy infrastructure, like those needed to supply electric vehicles, comes with its own environmental costs. For example, chemicals required to produce solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have global warming potential many times that of carbon dioxide, and this industry is one of the fastest-growing emitters of these gases. Like any other mass-produced product, solar PV involves extensive mining, manufacturing and disposal of materials, some quite toxic, with only a 25-year lifespan for these systems. Installation, maintenance and replacement of solar panels and inverters, extension of transmission lines and the fencing of PV perimeters can have dramatic implications on overall energy consumption, wildlife corridors and scenic resources in Oregon.

It is a fallacy that Oregon’s solar industry is a bastion of environmental stewardship. In Jackson County, a large PV solar facility was proposed on some of the best farmland in the Rogue Valley. Another solar facility has been constructed on a portion of the last remaining intact vernal pool habitat, home to critically endangered species. The solar industry is like any other in its quest for profit. And the solar panels to be installed on Oregon’s rural lands will mostly be manufactured in China, where coal is the primary fuel source for PV panel manufacturing plants.

Climate change is upon us. It is destroying our economy, our natural world and our children’s future. We must do everything we possibly can to eliminate its root cause — all forms of unsustainable growth, especially in land use. Green techno-fixes such as electric vehicles, solar and wind power, though welcome replacements to current carbon dependency, alone will not solve this problem. It is simply not possible to grow our way out of the problems caused by growth with techno-fixes alone. We must focus on conservation and eliminate wasteful, unsustainable patterns of growth.

When it comes to minimizing Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions, a comprehensive solution is needed. This must include an end to the wasteful land-use patterns that make single-occupant vehicles a necessity. We can do better, and we must do better now. We are running out of time.

Jimmy MacLeod is president of Rogue Advocates, a public-interest land-use watchdog, and an affiliate of 1000 Friends of Oregon.