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But What About Embedded Carbon?

Seattle is committed to becoming a carbon neutral city, but is discovering the difficulty in finding an end to the carbon trail.
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Richard Conlin is president of Seattle's City Council, which is overseeing the city's effort to become the first carbon neutral city in the United States. He blogs about what reaching that goal really means for YES! Magazine.

Duwamish Concrete Plant Photo by Citywalker

The Ash Grove cement plant is located near Harbor Island along the Duwamish River in Washington state. The Ash Grove Cement Company was the first U.S.-based cement company to join the World Business Council for Sustainable Development as an active participant in its Cement Sustainability Initiative.

Photo Lydia Heard

We cannot create an authentic carbon neutrality policy without dealing with the esoteric sounding issue of “embedded carbon." You can easily identify the carbon that results from driving a car or running a coal-fired power plant, but to really reduce your emissions, you have to dig deeper. Take the car as an example. Yes, you create emissions when you burn gasoline, but what about the carbon emissions from making the car? And in making the steel, plastic, energy, etc. that went into the manufacturing process? At some point, there’s an infinite regress here that can keep wheels spinning without getting anywhere, but there’s also a real issue that has to be teased out to truly reduce carbon, and not just work on the most obvious issues.

To give a (literally) concrete example: a business think-tank criticized Seattle for not including the emissions from concrete manufacturing in its emissions analysis. We have a concrete plant in the Duwamish, and concrete manufacturing generates a lot of carbon. Under our current accounting system, if that plant closed, we would count it as a reduction. But we might be using just as much concrete; we'd just be importing it from somewhere outside the City. That option is actually likely to be worse than making it here, because there would be transportation costs included—and it might come from a less efficient place than the Seattle plant. The purpose of the report was to discredit the City’s efforts, but they have clearly identified a real problem in this component of their analysis, and you can learn from your adversaries (sometimes more than from your friends!).

Packaging Photo by Diane Duane

A report done by the Product Policy Institute found that 44% of U.S. emissions come from products and packaging, with another 12% from food production.

Photo by Diane Duane

In defense of Seattle, it is very difficult to accurately assess embedded carbon. Fortunately, last year, the USEPA developed a report entitled “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices” (that’s a mouthful), which concluded that 37 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are the result of products and packaging (excluding the food system). The Product Policy Institute (PPI), a policy shop that promotes product stewardship, took this one step further by adding emissions from products produced abroad and consumed in the U.S., concluding that fully 44 percent of U.S. emissions come from products and packaging, with another 12 percent from food production. That reduces local passenger transport to 13 percent of the U.S. total, which is probably close to what it would be for Seattle if we count our product-related emissions appropriately.

Much of the product related emissions come from transport as well, but this analysis helps us to figure out how to take a system view, so that we effectively address transport in context. EPA and PPI call for "prevention-oriented mitigation strategies," such as green design, waste prevention, and recycling, as methods for cutting emissions from products. This kind of life-cycle analysis of products is the sort of sophisticated approach that we must include in our Carbon Neutral Seattle strategy.

It would still be an incredible task to identify this in accounting for local areas like Seattle, and it is likely that we are best off using a proxy number based on national studies. But the solutions are clearer: waste reduction, recycling, improved product design, and reduced packaging. All could be driven by local governments working together to create standards, incentives, and regulations.

As with most public policies, the more we try to be effective, the more sophisticated our work has to be. Really becoming carbon neutral requires a deeper level of analysis, an array of strategies, and a lot of cooperative work with other governments and the private sector.

Next:  Seattle’s Zero Waste Strategy – getting to carbon reduction the systems way.

Richard ConlinRichard Conlin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Richard is president of the Seattle City Council and a YES! Magazine board member.


  • Read more of Richard Conlin's blogs about Seattle's quest for climate neutrality.
  • Keep up with the Joneses: Learn how a typical family of four can get carbon-free in 10 years.
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