Monday, March 8, 2010

City of Seattle Announces Plans to Become America's First "Carbon-Neutral" City

The Seattle City Council has released a proposal to make the City of Seattle "carbon neutral" by 2030, according to a recent story in The Stranger. This proposal, first suggested by Alex Steffen (the president of the local think tank WorldChanging) has generated a great deal of controversy over whether this significant of a carbon reduction scheme is even feasible, how carbon neutrality will be defined, and how the carbon neutrality scheme would be administered.

Council members Richard Conlin and Mike O'Brien were the main sponsors of this proposal, announced as one of the City's top legislative priorities of 2010. The proposal materialized in print form on a public forum called Ideas for Seattle, a blog started by the mayoral campaign of Mike McGinn.

Despite the McGinn campaign's initial receptivity to the idea (the forum's 4th most popular), now that Mayor McGinn has been sworn into office his response to carbon neutrality has been more lukewarm.

“Let’s be very clear,” he said in The Stranger. “I support carbon neutrality as a goal. But we’ve been down this path of politicians setting ambitious goals and not following through before”—a reference to his predecessor Greg Nickels’ vow to reduce emissions below 1990 levels, in line with the Kyoto Protocols, by 2012.

McGinn continues,
“We have a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we’re building a bigger 520, we’re building an auto-only facility on our waterfront, we’re not funding the bike master plan. The question isn’t what the goals should be. The question should be, how do you get there? … If we want to spend a year or two setting up a new goal and creating a work plan to do it while we’re taking actions that accomplish the opposite, that’s not what I think we should be doing.”
Part of the problem in implementing any carbon neutrality scheme stems from criticism that the City will not be able to meet its goal of adhering to its Kyoto Protocol targets by 2012. The City, and former Mayor Greg Nickels in particular, has been the environmental vanguard of American cities in encouraging other municipalities to reduce their emissions through informal, voluntary agreements set through the US Mayors Conference on Climate Change. In this conference, over 1,000 US cities have agreed to cut their emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. Seattle successfully achieved this milestone in October 2007, although whether this emissions reduction can be maintained is being called into question.

According to a recent article in The Seattle Times, most gains from 1990 to 2005 came from cutting pollution associated with residential, commercial and industrial energy use, the study found. Seattle City Light is responsible for most of these emissions reductions (about 60%), through investments it made in carbon offsets for alternative energy projects and selling its stake in ownership of a coal-fired power plant in Centralia.

However, emission from the transportation sector increased 3% during this period, even as total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita decline 2%. Emissions from the transportation sector are expected to spike between 2007 and 2012, and this increase will put Seattle behind its (currently already achieved) Kyoto goal 700,000 tons of carbon annually, according to a City report. Clearly, achieving the City's Kyoto targets as well as carbon neutrality will take a large investment in alternative fuel vehicles, reduced VMTs by city drivers, and an expanded infrastructure car-pooling, car-sharing, walking, bicycling and public transit to make the latter a reality. Evergreen Fleets, whose certifications criteria Seattle could easily supersede within the next several years, was designed partly with carbon neutrality in mind through achieving the former.

There is also significant debate as to what a working definition of carbon neutrality would look like. Scientists have already established that in order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming, we must avoid reaching an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 350ppm. Some estimates show that we have already passed this threshold and are approaching 380ppm globally. This threshold is the scientific basis of the Kyoto Protocol's goal of reducing emissions 80% by 2050, informally called the "80 by 50 rule".

The Kyoto Protocol currently has been signed by mostly the world's most developed countries, of course with the notable exception of the United States. The dilemma is that even if the world's developed countries and the US meet the 80 by 50 goal, developing countries could still increase their emissions to levels more commensurate with their population sizes and put the world well over the important 350ppm threshold. If richer nations do not help rapidly growing poor nations reduce their emissions - and this is by no means a given - then the 80 by 50 goal will lose its effectiveness and make the entire Kyoto regime an international joke.

What this means is that we may have to define carbon neutrality in a way that squares the 350ppm threshold with our own disproportionate responsibility for global greenhouse gas emissions, as the United States produces the largest share of emissions of any country on earth. Taking this element of social equity into account would mean that we would need to take responsibility for emissions reductions that amount to greater than our total emissions. We would, in this sense, become carbon negative and not just carbon neutral. One Swedish study suggests that we would need to become substantially carbon negative through a combination of two processes: reducing our own emissions to nearly zero, already an extremely expensive proposition; and funding green infrastructure in developing countries to simultaneously reduce their emissions even as their populations grow tremendously. This could be put into practice through a global cap-and-trade system, although it would have to have much stronger enforcement mechanisms than Kyoto, which currently has no means of getting any of its members near the 80 by 50 goal.

In addition, there is an emerging debate about how to calculate the City's total carbon emissions under such a policy. Would all emissions created by City residents be the measure, even if the emissions take place outside of the City, such as through travel? Would the measure be limited to just activities within the City limits? How would the life cycle costs of production and consumption of commercial products be calculated for the City's progress? What about the emissions of a port that ships goods all over the world? There are no easy answers to these questions because no other city has been forced to make these decisions.

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