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Can Households Help Create a Carbon Neutral City?

In Seattle’s quest for carbon neutrality, what role do personal actions play?

Seattle hopes to become the world's first climate-neutral city. It's no small task: The City must account for, and reduce, the carbon footprint of everything from transportation to trash for hundreds of thousands of people. City Council President and YES! Magazine board member Richard Conlin is blogging about the city's efforts.


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Much of the work on climate change has focused on making major policy or systems level changes that will have dramatic impacts on carbon emissions. Critical as it is to change emissions systems, create new technologies, develop energy efficient buildings, or provide better travel options and renewable energy systems, most such big ideas require pose major barriers to implementation. As the saying might go, ‘you can lead a community to a low carbon future, but you can’t make them stop emitting carbon.'

But there are lots of actions that people can take that do not require systems change, and may form the best foundation for making systems change happen. In 2009, a group of scientists developed a model for specific actions that people can take without major new technological or policy inventions. They published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled ‘Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce U.S. carbon emissions’.

The article suggests that a set of behavioral changes that could be taken right now would reduce US carbon emissions by some 7.4 percent—an amount, they note, “slightly larger than the total national emissions of France." These savings can be realized at a very low cost using current technology and without significant changes in lifestyle.

Find ways to empower people and communities, and change will become much more possible.

We can jumpstart our work on a multi-year strategy to achieve carbon neutrality by developing a household- and community-based campaign around these actions. Fortunately, Seattle has a tremendous resource in our community-based organizations that are committed to working on carbon neutrality, and the City can collaborate with these groups to achieve these kinds of victories. And nothing succeeds like success: as people grow more confident about their ability to make change, and as carbon neutrality becomes less of an abstraction and more or an achievable goal, people will become more willing to tackle the big changes and to advocate for local and national policies.

That’s a lesson that we have learned from the history of social change endeavors: find ways to empower people and communities, and change will become much more possible.

The article’s authors suggest 17 steps in five categories that individuals can take. Some of these can be greatly assisted by community or governmental action (such as weatherization and other home energy reduction steps). They include:

  1. Reducing the energy used in home heating, including attic weatherization, sealing drafts, installing high-efficiency windows, and replacing inefficient equipment as it wears out.
  2. Upgrading the efficiency of appliances, equipment, and motor vehicles at the end of their useful life.
  3. Maintenance, such as changing air filters in HVAC systems and properly maintaining vehicles.
  4. Adjustments in equipment operation, such as reducing temperatures on laundry facilities and hot water heaters.
  5. Changes in daily behaviors, such as eliminating standby electricity, carpooling, trip chaining, and line drying.

As pointed out above, the authors note that many of these actions can receive an important boost by governments, through information and incentives. However, they also suggest that adoption will require effective social marketing and networking.

Giving people real actions they can take and using community and social networking to make this a social norm is a vital part of moving towards carbon neutrality.

Seattle’s work on recycling and waste reduction has demonstrated that much of the positive results we have achieved have been the result of the combination of the effective use of pricing and program design with education and a major community campaign built around the core values of Seattle residents relating to environmental quality and conservation. With an effective and growing movement of many community organizations devoting attention to issues of climate change, we are well positioned to foster community and individual action around the kinds of relatively quick and painless steps cited in this article.

Based on the authors’ assessment of a reasonable rate of adoption for the measures they review, they conclude that we could reduce carbon emissions by more than 5 percent in five years, and reach the 7.4 percent target (about 20 percent of household emissions) in ten years. This could not only be a valuable contribution to combating climate change, but a great model for other industrialized countries, and an excellent way to get more people involved in advocating for and embracing the kinds of major changes that we will need to make over the coming decades.

Action to challenge climate change requires major public involvement. Giving people real actions that they can take and using community and social networking to make this a social norm is a vital part of moving towards carbon neutrality. One of our key tasks, then, is to build on the emerging networks in Seattle and help them extend and expand their community engagement activities.


Richard Conlin

Richard 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.

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