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Reducing Carbon Emissions: Seattle Has Taken the Lead

Looking back on 10 years of carbon reduction efforts in Seattle.

Seattle skyline, photo by USGS

Seattle has a proud record of recognizing and addressing climate change.

Seattle has a proud record of recognizing and addressing climate change. As the City Council breaks ground on plans for a carbon neutral Seattle, we can build on ten years of past efforts to reduce the city's carbon footprint.

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 seven percent 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.

Mayor Greg Nickels took major steps forward in addressing climate change, including launching the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. More than 1,000 U.S. 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 the business community. 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 emissions on a regular basis.

In 2007, the Council adopted a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from year 1990 levels by 2024, and by 80 percent by 2050. That year we also set a goal to make all new City buildings carbon neutral by 2030, and adopted a Zero Waste strategy that ultimately aims for carbon neutrality for the 42 percent of U.S. 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.

Charter for compassion, photo by tribCompassion Comes First
Seattle makes a 10-year commitment to become a more compassionate city.

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

Most of the progress made up to 2008 was incremental—increases in efficiency. To move beyond this will require systemic 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 framework of sustainability—one that will foster the growth of the city's green sector and enhance economic opportunity for all.

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


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.

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