Reducing Carbon Emissions: Seattle Takes the Lead

As the City Council begins the work on developing a carbon (climate) neutral Seattle, we can build on ten years of past efforts to reduce Seattle’s carbon footprint.  Seattle has a proud record of recognizing and addressing climate change.

In July 2001, when it became clear that the federal government would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, then-Councilmember Heidi Wills sponsored a resolution (adopted unanimously by the Council) committing the City to meet the Kyoto target of reducing emissions by 7% from 1990 levels by 2010.  We figured we might as well take on the Kyoto challenge, because even if the federal government ratified the agreement, it would probably tell cities that they had to do the work to implement it.

Then-Mayor Greg Nickels took major steps forward in addressing climate change, launching the US Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement.  More than 1000 US cities have now signed on to this national campaign.   The City Office of Sustainability and Environment released the Seattle Climate Action Plan in 2006, followed by two major initiatives, Seattle Climate Action Now, a public campaign, and the Seattle Climate Partnership, which engages businesses.  The Seattle Climate Action Plan broadened the City’s Kyoto commitment, including adopting a methodology for measuring carbon emissions and committing to publishing an accounting of Seattle’s emission on a regular basis.

In 2007, the Council adopted a next goal of reducing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases by 30% from year 1990 levels by 2024, and by 80% by 2050.  That year we also set a goal of all new City buildings being carbon neutral by 2030, and adopted a Zero Waste strategy that ultimately aims at carbon neutrality for the 42% of US carbon emissions associated with products.

In 2009 we further acknowledged the reality of climate change (and the failure of the world to address it) by beginning a strategic plan for adapting to the impact of unavoidable climate change in the coming years.

We met the Kyoto target in 2005, reducing our calculated emissions from 7.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to 6.7 million metric tons.  We next measured in 2008, and saw a slight increase, but still below the 7% target.  This is a pretty spectacular achievement, especially considering the 16% population growth and increased economic activity over that time period.

Most of the progress made to 2008 was incremental – increases in efficiency.  To move beyond this will require system change (as envisioned in the Zero Waste Strategy and the Local Food Action Initiative adopted by the Council in 2008).  Our task in moving to carbon neutrality will be to make big changes, while continuing incremental progress.  Ultimately it will require creating a compelling and realistic vision and a new framework of sustainability that will foster the growth of the green sector of our economy and integrate and enhance economic opportunity with a climate neutral city,

Next:  What do we count as carbon emissions?  And some surprising news about Seattle’s automobiles.