On the Path to Climate Neutrality
On Monday, February 22, the Seattle City Council announced that a carbon neutral Seattle was one of our 2010 priorities. We knew this was about as ambitious a goal as you could imagine. But we also knew that reality demands no less.
It’s exciting and challenging—and on the cutting edge for a City government. And we are committed to work on this while continuing to both deliver core services—public safety, parks, libraries, water, sewer, garbage, and electricity—and continuously improving the efficiency and affordability of those services.
Our carbon neutrality goal calls on city departments and elected leaders to develop a new framework of sustainability that will foster the growth of our green sector economy and integrate and enhance economic opportunity within a climate neutral city.
Why this is so important for Seattle—and our nation
Climate change is the preeminent moral challenge of our times. We are already experiencing the first impacts on our water, electricity, and drainage systems. Strong action on the national level continues to be stymied by the challenges of our political environment. Local elected officials have to rise to the occasion and respond to this threat. Even if Congress were to take some steps this session, carbon (climate) neutrality must be our ultimate target—and there are enormous economic, social, and environmental consequences that we face if we do not attain that.
The economic reasons to tackle this problem are evident. Water and food supplies are threatened by changes in weather patterns and our oceans. The potential damage and loss of life and property that would accompany rising ocean levels and extreme weather patterns have already led even the largest insurance companies in the world to prepare for the effects of climate change. The debate over whether or not to act is over.
Long ago we should have discarded the antiquated paradigm that pits economic prosperity against environmental quality and public health. Recent years have provided greater clarity about our ability to innovate the measures that are both possible and required for us to bring environmental stewardship and economic opportunities together, and that is critical to making real progress on climate change.
What exactly are we getting ourselves into?
Right now the Council is beginning the work on a multi-year implementation strategy for achieving carbon neutrality. This requires defining what carbon neutrality actually is (do we count embedded carbon from a toy made in China and purchased in Seattle?); developing a community involvement strategy (won’t get anywhere without public support and commitment!); integrating carbon neutrality into economic recovery (can we create a "climate economy"?); and developing short and long term plans for getting there.
Many city policies support the drive for a carbon neutral city. My Zero Waste Strategy, the Local Food Action Initiative, and the city’s work on clean energy and green buildings are some examples. To move beyond this will require wide scale systemic change, honing in on key elements of each emission source, developing ways to reduce or offset them, and creating a work plan to implement these efforts.
The future is here and now
Seattle has long been a leader in addressing climate change and mobilizing political will. Our actions have made a significant difference, but most of the progress made to date has been incremental and focused on increases in efficiency. The size and scope of the challenge requires more. As a national and global leader, Seattle has both the opportunity and the responsibility to create the example for what to do next. We have the political will, the courage to lead, and an innovative and capable private sector to help implement the needed changes.
Next: What has the City done about carbon? What should we count as carbon? What makes sense in the short term—and to get started for the long?
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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