Washington’s New Climate Law Will Fundamentally Change Urban Planning

The climate crisis is worsening and accelerating, increasing human and ecological injustice.  In response, this year Governor Inslee signed the most ambitious climate law in the western hemisphere.   The Climate Commitment Act (CCA) will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95% from 1990 levels by 2050.  This signals the end of the fossil fuel era in Washington state.  After more than 125 years of fossil fuel aided community building, this will require profound changes to the ways we plan our communities.

Chief among those changes is meeting increased needs with less energy.    Currently, fossil fuels provide at least 60% of all energy used in the state. While renewables will grow significantly over the next couple of decades, it is unlikely that they will provide an equal amount of energy of the dirty sources being phased out.  Further, renewables only provide electricity, which is absolutely not an equivalent substitute for what fossil fuels do in our economy.  Such is what justice requires.

Crucially, this will change transportation.  Transport today relies nearly exclusively on oil.  Almost all our economic and social systems are enabled by internal combustion-based transportation networks. 

While transport electrification is a prime target of the investment funds created by the CCA, it can only do so much.  Long distance trucking and aviation are unlikely to be electrifiable at scale and counting on plentiful, cheap biofuels or hydrogen as substitutes is foolish. Urban transport will revolve around electrified transit and small personal electric mobility vehicles.  Given the limitations of electrified transport, distance will matter a great deal once again, leaving unprepared communities vulnerable.  This will affect work patterns and logistical supplies, especially food delivery.

Ending nearly all greenhouse gas emissions will bring other challenges.  For example, urban infrastructure, especially storm water systems, will need to be rethought.  Currently, most infrastructure is comprised of concrete and steel, which are enormously emission intensive to manufacture, and which are typically put into place by large fossil-fueled machines.  For the future required by the CCA, planners must reimagine how infrastructure functions. This will demand new ways of planning besides the simply additive:  un-doing, subtracting, reversing, reducing, softening, and accepting will need to become essential parts of the planning lexicon. 

Planning systems must be reimagined too.  For instance, long-range planning, zoning, and development regulations are from the era of high energy and a stable climate.  It is doubtful that planners can just bolt on additional tools to address an unstable and rapidly changing climate and less available energy. The result would be too dissonant, creating unresolvable regulatory conflicts.  New tools are needed.

The CCA necessitates that planners envision new activities as well.  Emission reduction accountability, appropriate energy landscapes, and relocalization of food production will be needed. Building codes must be redone to make reuse of all buildings the default and mandate low energy buildings and zero emission materials and construction methods for new buildings. Vitally, land use integration – the opposite of today’s planning – will be essential in creating the complete communities that will be compatible with the CCA. 

Urban planners face a daunting task.  Everything they do must be rapidly reevaluated. The good news is that the CCA will jump start the revolution in planning that has been needed for a very long time.  A more resilient and socially and environmentally just future awaits; we can heal divisions and mend fractures in the fabric of our communities and ecologies. That is no longer a dream of what we’d like planning to do.  The CCA is the law that demands it of us.

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