Honolulu Charts a Path Away from Fossil Fuels

As part of the American Cities Climate Challenge, a coalition of climate advocates just helped pass a series of bills that will curb emissions and rein in Honolulu’s sky-high cost of living at once.
A study by University of Hawai‘i found a third of the state’s shoreline is vulnerable to erosion as the waves and storms that hit the islands intensify because of rising sea levels. Here, a view of Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Honolulu of Elizabeth Stampe’s childhood has changed.

Some of the sandy beaches she remembers frequenting as a teenager have been swallowed by the Pacific Ocean. Once rare in Hawai‘i, hurricane warnings and torrential downpours known as “rain bombs” have become a regular enough occurrence that Stampe sometimes worries about the safety of her family and friends living on the island of O‘ahu. And when she visits them from San Francisco, where she works as a climate-focused city strategist for NRDC, she can’t help but notice that Honolulu seems to be getting warmer. In fact, the city experienced its hottest year on record in 2019.

These sea-level and extreme weather trends serve as urgent reminders that Hawai‘i must confront its unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels. The state remains the most oil-dependent in the country, with petroleum making up about two-thirds of its energy consumption—a fact that is out of sync with many Hawai‘i residents’ environmental values.

“There’s this idea of living ‘pono,’ which means righteously or in alignment with your values,” Stampe says. “And in Hawai‘ian culture, that means valuing people and valuing the land; to take care. Kanaka Maoli [Native Hawai‘ians] and Hawai'i residents have always paid so much attention to the natural world around them—to the stars for navigation, to the birds, to the plants. It’s inspiring, and it colors Hawai‘ian culture today, even though so much has already been lost.”

Since 2019, Honolulu has been one of 25 cities participating in the American Cities Climate Challenge. A partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, Delivery Associates, and several other organizations, the Climate Challenge is a program to spur city-led climate action within the building, energy, and transportation sectors.

Last year, Honolulu's Climate Challenge team helped move the needle forward to pass a series of bills that will ease the city’s transition to cleaner, more equitable energy sources.

Hawai‘i’s Fossil Fuel Past

With its abundant sunshine, wind, and underground reservoir of volcanic heat, Hawai‘i is a natural candidate for the clean power revolution. In 2015, the state became the first in the nation to set the goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

But progress has been slow. Geography is partly to blame: The state sits on the most isolated archipelago in the world and has no oil, coal, or gas resources of its own. It spends an estimated $5 billion each year to ship petroleum, its top import, thousands of miles across the Pacific. The result? High emissions and high energy bills—for instance, Hawai’i residents pay upwards of 20 percent more than the national average for gasoline and more than double for electricity.

“Despite Hawai‘i being a beautiful place to live in, it can be a hard and an expensive place to live in too,” says Stampe, who remembers noticing that even basics like milk were twice as pricey when her family moved to Honolulu from Columbus, Ohio.

As a small island state, Hawai‘i is also getting hit harder—and faster—by the climate crisis. Already, rising sea levels are threatening critical infrastructure, like O‘ahu’s low-lying coastal highways. Storms are intensifying and becoming more frequent. And coastal coral reefs—worth billions economically on top of their irreplaceable cultural and environmental values—are bleaching rapidly as the ocean warms and acidifies.

A woman pushes her bicycle through flooding caused by Hurricane Lane in Hilo, Hawai‘i, in 2018.

Terray Sylvester/Reuters

“Given Hawai‘i’s vulnerability to climate change, it’s shocking—even to me, as someone who grew up in Hawai‘i—how reliant the state is on fossil fuels and what that reliance means for affordability,” Stampe says.

Paradise Paved Over

Anyone who lives on O‘ahu can tell that it wasn’t designed with pedestrians in mind, says Melissa Miyashiro, the managing director of strategy and policy at Blue Planet Foundation, a Honolulu-based clean energy advocacy group.

The vast majority of the island’s nearly one million residents get around by car, creating heavy traffic. Relatively few commuters take public transportation and many would-be cyclists and pedestrians are intimidated by bike lanes and sidewalks that just don’t feel safe.

“This car-centric design has really caught up with us over time as Honolulu has become more densely populated,” says Miyashiro. “We don’t have a lot of land to build out and redesign new communities. Instead, we’re having to rethink something that’s already built, which has been really challenging.”

The coast road up the northeast side of Kaua‘i, south of Princeville

Ed Freeman/Getty Images

To address this problem, a coalition of organizations concerned about climate—a group that includes NRDC, Blue Planet Foundation, Faith Action for Community Equity, Sierra Club of Hawai‘i, and Ulupono Initiative—homed in on an overabundance of parking lots. An outdated requirement that developers build a certain number of parking spaces alongside each new home and business has only reinforced the city’s car culture. Each new apartment complex or shopping center either brings more large garages, more acres of asphalt, or both. This eats into land better used for housing, pedestrian-safe sidewalks, protected bike lanes, or public transit corridors—as well as for trees and green space. “When you think about a land-constrained island, that’s definitely not something that’s in the interest of our communities,” Miyashiro says.

Reforming Honolulu’s parking ordinances should have substantial impacts on its housing affordability crisis too. Not only are many residents paying for more parking than they need, but each parking space makes the cost of living higher as all goods include the cost of that excess required parking. They also make the city’s remaining land more expensive.

This issue of affordability works in a self-perpetuating loop, Miyashiro explains. As the cost of living in Honolulu has gone up, residents have moved farther away from the urban center to less expensive neighboring towns—which lengthens car commutes and increases the need for parking.

Bill 2, passed in December 2020, does away with these outdated parking requirements—and it will help to free up space and cut tailpipe emissions in the process. The Climate Challenge also helped Honolulu plan and build its first bus-only lane in 30 years, along a busy route downtown, which will help speed up bus trips and encourage ridership.The Climate Challenge supported the creation of new protected bike lanes as well. Local advocates applaud these steps and are calling for more.

“We’re a small island, and we have good weather nearly all the time. It makes sense for people to bike and walk around more often,” says Matt Geyer, chair of Faith Action’s environmental justice task force. “We have no excuse not to lead on this issue.”

More Equitable Energy  

Boosting energy efficiency can also help cities curb pollution, lower power bills, and improve standards of living—and Honolulu’s new energy code does just that.

Passed last May, the code update, Bill 25, requires that new buildings run on less energy, potentially saving residents and landlords up to 50 percent on their utility bills. Hundreds of Honolulu residents testified to support its passing.

Updated for the first time since 2006, the energy codes were rewritten with Hawai‘i’s tropical climate in mind, encouraging simple means for staying cool—such as adding fans, window glazing, and shaded reflective walls, as well as compact design, big porches, and more efficient appliances.

“For generations, houses in Hawai‘i have been built to take advantage of the climate, to allow cooling breezes to flow through. They’ve been built for the rain and the sun,” Stampe says. “It’s smart and prescient to think about where you are and design accordingly, to learn from the past and incorporate that into new buildings as you look forward.”

The new energy code also addresses the growing demand for rooftop solar and electric vehicles by requiring most new homes and buildings to include wiring for both. Such clean energy infrastructure helps residents install solar whenever they’re ready and will support the estimated 22,000 electric vehicles Honolulu expects to welcome by 2030.

Urge President Biden to move to zero emissions for vehicles and power plants

“If you have to drive, but you can start using solar to charge your electric car, suddenly your transportation costs plummet,” Stampe says. “Given the high cost of gas in Hawai‘i, that’s huge.” But sticking to electricity powered by dirty fossil fuels would cut into those savings—a lot. Factoring in the high price of Hawai‘i’s imported electricity sources, a recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory named the state as the least cost-efficient for buying electric cars. Transitioning to solar power, however, would help Hawai‘i residents cut costs at home and on the road. 

The modernization of the codes, Miyashiro explains, can also play a role in Honolulu’s economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19. “One of the core foundations of our economy—tourism—was essentially shut down for most of last year. So we’re having a reckoning with how our economy is structured and the ambitious climate goals that we’ve set as a state and county,” she says. Hiring workers to make buildings and homes more energy efficient and solar compatible would make progress on both.

Armed with a Plan

In 2016, the city and county of Honolulu created the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency to both prepare the city for and help stave off the worst of the climate crisis. Now, the agency’s role is ramping up.

Thanks to Bill 65—which passed in December with support by the Climate Challenge—Honolulu must finalize its first climate action plan. The document was drafted with input from stakeholders across O‘ahu and the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization. The plan lays out strategies the city can take over the next five years to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.

Nicola Hedge, now the deputy director of Honolulu’s resilience office and previously the Climate Challenge’s local NRDC staffer, helped create the climate action plan. “Time and again, as the community was engaged throughout this process, we were reminded that we cannot sit back and wait for climate change to destroy more of our coastline,” says Hedge, who helped shepherd and pass the three critical climate bills, as well as the city’s new bus and bike lanes. “We have to invest now in solutions that reduce polluting emissions, put people back to work, lower energy bills, and create more livable communities.”

“Stakeholders kept us honest about what it takes to really reduce emissions and what the most effective ways are to do that in buildings and energy, transportation, and waste management—which are the biggest slices of our greenhouse gas inventory pie,” says Matthew Gonser, Honolulu’s new chief resilience officer.

Rising air and ocean temperatures, as well as shifting rainfall patterns and changing ocean chemistry, are all affecting the people and ecosystems of Hawai‘i. Here, a jetty at Waikiki Beach following Hurricane Lane.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Gonser also sees promise in the newly passed benchmarking requirement—a Climate Challenge–supported action—that says the city must report the energy and water consumption in most public buildings. With the city using that data to fix inefficiencies in things like outdated appliances and drafty windows, the new reporting program is projected to save Honolulu’s taxpayers as much as $7 million over the next decade.

While all three Climate Challenge–backed bills mark substantive steps forward, they could have been stronger—a mark of how much, despite mayoral leadership, status quo interests had the ear of Honolulu’s previous city council. But with vocal community residents, especially many active youth, the bills passed.

Now, the council has changed, there’s a new mayor, and, of course, a new federal administration in Washington. There may be new paths forward. And the local demand only continues to build. “We have a great opportunity to show innovation,” Gonser says. “We can show how you can link climate action with economic recovery and growth—and start to signal not only inspiration and hope, but also real prosperity.”

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