From encouraging the adoption of electric cars to incentivizing energy efficiency in new construction, Spokane’s newly approved Sustainability Action Plan is intended to guide the community as it helps address the global issue of climate change.
Modeled on plans passed in other cities such as Flagstaff, Arizona, Spokane’s update to a 2009 sustainability plan was approved by a 6-1 vote Monday, Oct. 25, by the Spokane City Council. Council Member Michael Cathcart was the sole member voting against the plan, saying he was concerned it did not spell out the financial impacts of its proposed policies.
The more than 80-page plan received significant public feedback, taking the council’s Sustainability Action Subcommittee more than two years to complete.
It includes not just climate-specific goals, but strategies that can make the entire region more resilient to economic pressures and disasters.
“You cannot dissect climate or sustainability or the economy or health, you can’t take any of those aspects out and only address them in a vacuum,” says Kara Odegard, Spokane City Council manager of sustainability initiatives. “We have to look at the whole health of our community.”
If other cities are a guidepost, the sustainability plan can help Spokane prioritize science-based decision-making when it comes to everything from updating the building code to investing in new gardening equipment. But the plan doesn’t change policy just by being passed. The city still has to act on each item individually.
Some critics worry that other cities who’ve done this type of planning have ultimately banned things like natural gas connections in new construction (Spokane’s plan doesn’t call for that). One resident speaking against the measure Monday said he feared a move like that could make the region more vulnerable during extreme winter and summer weather, when power lines are more likely to go down or the grid is more likely to get overloaded with demand.
But proponents, who made up the majority of public feedback Monday, thanked those who’d spent thousands of hours putting together a game plan to tackle the climate emergency. Like other cities, Spokane’s work was driven by urgent international climate reports about impacts communities are already facing. Things will get worse if the status quo remains.
“We’re at this crossroads where we need to make a decision on our energy future,” Odegard says. “What climate policies are we really willing to adopt today to ensure we have a liveable, sustainable future for people who are young today?”
Overall, the plan has three goals: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent (from 2016 levels) by 2050, build a community and economy that are resilient to climate change, and prioritize people who are most at risk of health and financial impacts.
In 2018, Spokane adopted a goal of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. That goal became a requirement (with a deadline of 2045) when Washington lawmakers passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act the next year.
Cities like Spokane must work with utilities, private citizens and businesses to make significant changes if those requirements are to be met.
The sustainability plan includes dozens of specific strategies to meet reduction requirements and ensure the community has safeguards in place, such as making sure new construction keeps efficiency and renewable energy in mind, and increasing community health through access to housing and food.
An earlier draft would have asked the city to consider banning natural gas connections in new construction. But that received pushback, including the filing of a proposition that ultimately got booted from the ballot. The strategy is gone in the final version.
“It was clear the Spokane community didn’t support that,” Odegard says.
Instead, the city is asked to incentivize electrification and renewable energy for all new residential and commercial construction. Another ask could be that the city require builders to include electric hookups for all appliances in new construction, even if they initially choose to use natural gas appliances.
“Additional ordinances and laws would need to be adopted to make these official,” Odegard points out.
Spokane is not the only city working on a sustainability plan. In fact, it’s part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, where city leaders can learn from one another’s work and avoid reinventing the wheel, explains Jenny Niemann, the climate program manager for Flagstaff.
“You can look up who’s done a heat pump training,” Niemann says. “Or it can be, ‘Can I see your building code for electric vehicles?’”
Spokane reached out to Flagstaff to learn about their plan, which passed in 2018 just a month after a United Nations report made it clear that only drastic changes will prevent the worst impacts of changes already underway.
At the request of the community, Flagstaff updated its plan with more stringent carbon neutral guidelines.
Flagstaff’s parks staff is switching to electric vehicles and testing electric landscaping tools, Niemann says. Other staff are helping the community understand the economic benefits of electrification.
Mostly, the plan helped set a baseline for other conversations, Niemann says. For example, when the city updated its building codes, the climate plan provided the background for why going above and beyond was necessary, she says. Flagstaff requires infrastructure for electric vehicle charging and solar panels in all new construction now.
“When we started the conversation about the building code, everyone knew we’d passed this climate plan, right?” Niemann says. “That was very helpful because we didn’t have to argue about whether or not we should address the climate.”
That’s not to say developers have been thrilled. There’s been pushback on some strategies, and unlike in Washington, Flagstaff isn’t allowed to eliminate natural gas under Arizona law, Niemann says. But the plan can help the community think long term and build for a more resilient future, she says.
“This plan has been a really good framework, and it looks like the big three objectives Spokane is working on can be similarly helpful to motivate people,” Niemann says. “This isn’t about painful choices, it’s about exciting choices we get to make.” ♦