Wind turbines near Huntington, Oregon. Credit: Baker County Tourism via Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Meredith Connolly and Shelley Wenzel. Connolly is the Oregon director for Climate Solutions, a Northwest-based clean energy policy nonprofit. Wenzel is an energy data analyst at Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan climate and energy policy think tank. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

No matter what happens with federal climate progress, state climate action is imperative to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and help achieve the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement. Outside the media spotlight, Oregon has adopted some of the nation’s most significant climate policies, recently finalizing rules to slash emissions from fossil gas and transportation, while targeting 100 percent clean electricity by 2040.

But new research shows the state won’t achieve its climate goals without coupling power sector progress with additional policies that get vehicles, buildings, and industry off fossil fuels. In short, the winning climate playbook for all leading states must be “clean the grid and electrify everything.”

In 2020, Governor Kate Brown enacted an Executive Order (EO) to set a statewide goal of cutting greenhouse gas pollution 45 percent by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050. The same EO led to increased transportation electrification, cleaner fuels, and a Climate Protection Program (CPP), which sets emissions caps for transportation fuels and fossil gas.

And last year, Oregon’s legislature passed the fastest 100% clean electricity target in the West, requiring the state’s largest utilities slash emissions from power generation 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040.

Even with these successes, Energy Innovation modeling shows the state is off track for reaching its own goals: If all recently adopted policies are rigorously implemented, Oregon would still only cut emissions 60 percent by 2050.

But there’s good news. The modeling also finds that adopting additional policies – especially for transportation and buildings – would not only cut emissions by 75 percent, but would also boost statewide GDP by $4 billion, create 18,000 jobs, and prevent nearly 900 asthma attacks annually in 2050.

Oregon’s emissions trajectory

Examining statewide GHG sources illuminates why a broader set of policies in Oregon, along with a pathway for how they will be achieved, is needed. As with most of the U.S., transportation has surpassed the power sector as the largest greenhouse gas source, composing 35 percent of all emissions. Meanwhile, homes and buildings consuming power and gas make up the second largest source at 34 percent, followed by industry and agriculture at 10 percent each.

With Oregon’s population expected to hit almost 4.6 million by 2030, these emissions will trend upward unless policies to shift from fossil fuels to clean electrification start right away. Every new gasoline car or truck, every new gas furnace and new gas-heated building or home locks in emissions for decades. Without meaningful progress in these other sectors, the state won’t hit its 2050 climate goals.

What’s next for Oregon—and other leading states

The Oregon policy modeling used the Energy Policy Simulator, a tool created in collaboration with Power Oregon and the Green Energy Institute, to evaluate the state’s new 100% clean electricity by 2040 law and the Climate Protection Program, finding they get Oregon much closer but still fall short of the state’s 80 percent reduction by 2050 goal. The open source, peer-reviewed EPS estimates the emissions, jobs, and health impacts of climate and energy policies using federal and state data.

The Oregon EPS research modeled a set of broader climate policies for all sectors that would put the state on track to achieve its goals and align with the U.S. Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement (i.e., Oregon doing its proportional fair share). The findings show an “NDC Scenario” for Oregon would avoid $4.8 billion in climate and health costs in 2050 (on top of the $4 billion in GDP growth).

Oregon is in a perfect position to adopt additional policies that leverage its clean electricity sector to secure compounding emissions reductions across the economy through efficiency and electrification policies.  And state policymakers must ensure the clean energy transition’s health and economic benefits are broadly shared and reach frontline communities hit the hardest by pollution and climate impacts.

First, Oregon should adopt a 100 percent all-electric new vehicles sales standard by 2035, paired with an EV subsidy lasting through 2030, to supercharge transportation electrification. These policies must be accompanied by EV charging investments to plug in rural areas, low-income communities, and trucking corridors.

Second, increased investments in public transportation, as well as safe walking and biking paths, would reduce emissions while improving equity and air quality. An expansion of the state’s Clean Fuels Program could further cut emissions as the state moves toward a zero-emission future. These transportation sector policies achieve nearly one quarter of all the reductions under the NDC Scenario, showing how vital they are to reaching Oregon’s climate goals.

Third, Oregon must phase out fossil fuels for indoor uses. Similar to Washington’s recently passed commercial and large multi-family building heat pump requirement, the NDC Scenario modeling finds the most important policy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from buildings would be a building code or standard requiring all new buildings or building equipment to be electric by 2030. This policy alone achieves over 10 percent of all the NDC Scenario’s reductions. To be most impactful, this transition must be coupled with strong efficiency standards.

These policies also create other health and economic benefits. Transportation electrification, along with greater reliance on active transportation, cuts health-damaging particulate and NOx emissions. Electric vehicles are also cheaper to own and maintain than gas cars and protect drivers from volatile oil prices. Electric heat pumps for space or water heating are more efficient than their fossil gas burning counterparts, and electric or induction stovetops avoid harmful fumes from gas cooktops that experts say may cause childhood asthma symptoms.

Together, a broader set of policies like those included in the modeling would get Oregon within a couple percentage points of the state’s 2050 emissions reduction goal, while additional land use and climate-smart agricultural practices could make up the difference. Equitable policy design and planning that prioritizes access and affordability for low-income households and communities will ensure the benefits are enjoyed by all residents, not just the wealthy.

The key takeaway

While transitioning the power grid to 100 percent clean electricity is a critical step, Oregon’s lesson is that state climate action can still fall short if that isn’t coupled with rapid electrification. Cutting power sector emissions alone will not solve climate change, but it can make a big difference and leverage clean electricity to secure urgently needed emissions reductions in the transportation, buildings and industrial sectors. If we equitably and rapidly electrify as we clean up our grid, more of our cars and homes will be emissions-free, hopefully in time to avoid climate catastrophe.