Bellingham can create a clean energy future: Climate Action Fund

With the right design and implementation, the proposed City of Bellingham Climate Action Fund can help us get to 100% clean energy in the next decade. | February 23, 2022

Join the Feb 23rd Public Forum

How are we going to secure a 100% clean energy future by 2030 in Northwest Washington? At RE Sources, we believe in a three-pronged approach that makes it possible to get there:

  1. Electrify everything we can.
  2. Bring more renewable electricity online ASAP.
  3. Equitably fund clean energy.

The recently proposed City of Bellingham Climate Action Fund helps tackle this last point.

How the Bellingham Climate Action Fund came to be

In 2018, the City of Bellingham initiated a major update of its Climate Action Plan through the Climate Action Task Force. The Task Force identified numerous policy options and goals for Bellingham to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate impacts. But unsurprisingly, many of these policy options are expensive. The City budget is already strained by important spending priorities around the COVID-19 pandemic, housing costs, education, and more. But the City recognizes that delayed action on climate change will ultimately undermine the long term success of other key priorities, and that it can and should be tackled in tandem  if we want to meet our 2030 climate goals. Therefore, the City is proposing a ballot initiative for November 2022 to create a Climate Action Fund to help implement many of the policies outlined in the Climate Action Plan.

How the funding works

Although the ballot initiative is still being drafted, the proposed plan would raise several million dollars each year through a property tax levy, which the Public Works Department could use to leverage matching State or Federal monies, or to fund other climate projects.

RE Sources appreciates that any increase in taxes merits careful consideration, especially in a time of economic instability and rising costs, but we also know that the costs of inaction will be far greater than upfront investments in climate mitigation and adaptation. Despite recent concern, the heightened prices of housing and rent we’ve seen locally appears to be part of a wider economic and social phenomenon in our region — not because of tax levies.

The City has outlined four initial priorities for the fund, including: 

  • Rapid decarbonization of our electricity generation, such as purchasing renewable energy through a Public Utility District.
  • Energy efficiency and electrification upgrades in existing buildings, such as providing low-cost heat pumps or electric water heaters.
  • Encouraging and enabling the use of electric vehicles rather than gas/diesel vehicles such as installing more electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
  • Protecting vulnerable populations from climate impacts, such as providing heating and cooling centers for extreme weather events.

We applaud the City for acting decisively on a range of  climate priorities, and support a Climate Action Fund as a mechanism for making greater policy impacts possible much sooner. This Climate Action Fund has the potential to be a groundbreaking advancement in our approach to a clean energy future.

How to strengthen the Climate Action Fund

Community Engagement: So far, the City has suggested that the Climate Action Fund should have authorization to address various climate concerns. This would enable the City’s Public Works department to fund the most pressing needs every year, and to pivot between priorities if unexpected circumstances make new opportunities available. It makes sense for Public Works to have flexibility in its spending, but the broad mandate in the current proposal doesn’t yet include any public input for that spending. We believe that the community should be involved in determining how those funds are spent.

One opportunity to manage this challenge would be for the Climate Action Fund to be partially directed by a community board or committee, which would recommend annual spending priorities and ensure that funds were properly allocated to priorities in previous years.

Equity: The City’s plan appropriately identifies the need to prioritize vulnerable populations as part of our approach to climate adaptation. However, without representation from these populations in the planning and decision-making process, there would likely be significant policy gaps and inaccurate assessments of needs relating to clean energy and climate impacts. This is particularly important because the City has not yet identified who it considers vulnerable, or how it hopes to prioritize them.

Committing dedicated seats for representatives from vulnerable populations to the oversight committee (mentioned above) could help address this challenge within the Climate Action Fund.

Priorities: The City’s priorities for the Climate Action Fund come from the Climate Action Task Force’s 2019 report, which identified emissions reduction measures and recommended emissions areas to address, but did not identify policy priorities. So far, the City has not specified a policy implementation strategy for achieving these emissions reductions or how it will balance efforts at climate mitigation with the important goal of addressing the impact of climate-related extreme weather. Some of the City’s stated priorities are ready for policy implementation right away, like subsidizing heat pumps and electric water heaters for low-income residents. Other priorities are important for emissions reductions but not well-suited for city policy, like providing renewable electricity through a Public Utility District.

While policy needs will likely evolve by the time this reaches the ballot, clarifying how the City will assess policy options as it seeks to address all the Task Force’s recommendations would help strengthen the Climate Action Fund.

What Happens Next?

The City of Bellingham is taking feedback from the public this week on the proposed Climate Action Fund. Tune in this Wednesday, February 23rd from 7-8pm to listen into the discussion and provide feedback. If you can’t make the listening session, you can also submit online feedback through the Engage Bellingham site here.

The City will take in this feedback and come back with a Climate Action Fund 2.0, if you will, that hopefully addresses these opportunities to serve the community in the most equitable way possible.